Skip to comments.Zimbabwe -- Life of the habitual border jumper
Posted on 02/05/2003 4:10:18 AM PST by Clive
Of all the extreme coping mechanisms that wretched Zimbabweans are resorting to in their perennial battle against hunger, Norman Sithole's is probably the most extraordinary.
He has never owned a passport in his life. Yet every other day he illegally jumps the border from Beit Bridge on the Zimbabwe side to Musina in South Africa, taking an open route that guarantees he will be arrested by troops from the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and the South African Police Service. He says he does this with one aim - to spend a night at the police station in Musina and get his supper free.
Sithole has been maintaining this "lifestyle" for the past four months. He speaks highly of South African prison food where he gets meat, porridge and bread, unknown in Zimbabwe jails and increasingly scarce even beyond the bars.
He has run out of options for survival in his homeland. "I have no work. I can't afford anything. You may not believe it but the truth is that since moving to Beit Bridge I have only managed to eat decently from this police station," he says.
The 60-odd other Zimbabweans who sit with Sithole in the jail at Musina Police Station awaiting deportation last Friday wore faces of permanent misery as they relate stories about their plight back home that forced them to flee their land.
Many with children to feed in Zimbabwe, say that despite being caught and facing deportation, they would not give up on their efforts to settle in SA to find jobs.
This, despite the many risks in jumping the border, including crocodiles in the Limpopo and the three huge razor-wire fences - including one electric but non-lethal, running the 250km length of the border on the South African side of the river.
The captured immigrants cynically refer to the police trucks parked outside their jail ready to deport them, as the "Air Zimbabwe fleet". "They move so fast in getting us back to Zimbabwe, but as soon as we are dropped there, we are already planning our next moves to come back," says Marco Sigauke, who has been arrested and deported 12 times but is not giving up.
Sigauke (29), a qualified elevator technician, says he gave up his job at home because hyper-inflation of around 200% in Zimbabwe had rendered his income completely worthless. "After paying rent, I was left with no money to buy food. I could not even afford underwear. After I lost my wife last year to another guy who could buy her food, I decided I had no future in Zimbabwe and have been trying to get work here," he says vowing to keeping returning until he gets to Johannesburg to find work.
Robert Moyana (38) had walked more than 1,200km for four weeks from Eastern Zimbabwe to Beit Bridge to attempt his illegal entry into South Africa in search of work. He too had become frustrated with his pay as a general labourer, which was not enough to buy basic foodstuffs to feed his wife and four children. He dreamt of finding a job here and sending money home to feed his family. He was arrested on his first attempt.
Tony Mude (19) says he was among the youths who trained to participate in President Robert Mugabe's violent campaign for re-election in March last year. He was based in Zvishavane and says he was put off by the brutalities he witnessed at a camp he operated from in the small mining town in the Midlands province.
"We rounded up young girls whose parents supported the opposition and raped them at night. Some girls were kept as sex slaves for the youth leaders. We were given dagga to gather enough courage to beat up opponents. I could not stand it," says Mude, who later ran away from the camp and is equally determined to start a new life in South Africa.
Rosemary Mavese clutched to her two children in the jail as she related the story of her endless misery. Lack of food at home had forced her to illegally cross the border. She did not think the situation in Zimbabwe was sustainable for much longer. "It will explode soon and I did not want to be caught with my children in the crossfire," she says.
The huge numbers arrested during our three day stay in Musina did not mean the South African army and police are stamping out the problem. Many more are breaching the security cordon and are flooding into the country undetected.
Home Affairs and Defence officials have no idea about the exact figures of those successfully entering the country. Superintendent Clifford Steyn, the station manager of Musina Police Station, says the numbers of illegals crossing into South Africa had doubled last month, over December 2002. He refused to give specific figures for professional reasons. "It's a major problem. It's immense. The influx increases by the month."
Asked whether he was gearing up for a greater influx over the next few months as Zimbabwe's woes worsen in view of the latest drought and President Robert Mugabe's sustained mismanagement, Steyn says: "How can we gear up? It's crisis management. We take it as it comes."
Captain Tol Snyman, the officer in charge of army operations in Musina, says 98% of people illegally crossing this border into South Africa are Zimbabweans. The rest are from other SADC and Central African countries like DRC and Burundi."It's a vicious circle. We arrest and deport them but they come back," he says. In 2000, the army alone arrested 26,742 illegals. The figure fell to 19,932 in 2001 and plunged to 18,033 in 2002 but Snyman said that the decline does not mean fewer illegal immigrants are coming into South Africa.
"The decline is because fewer troops are now deployed to fight illegal immigration, mainly because of budgetary constraints," he says. "If we get more troops, we will arrest even more," he says. Other commitments like the deployment of the South African army in Burundi have diverted resources from Snyman's unit.
Because it is not always possible to repatriate the arrested illegal immigrants on the same day of the arrest, many are kept overnight and fed while in police custody. So it is possible that some, like Sithole, just come in for food, he says. "Some are arrested so many times that they end up dampening the morale of troops. You can imagine the frustration when you arrest and deport the same person over and over again," says Snyman.
He has heard that quite a few border jumpers have been eaten by crocodiles as they try to cross the Limpopo particularly when the river is high but has no confirmed figures. In January 2003, a total of 1,381 illegals were arrested by the army alone.
Superintendent Steyn says the police cannot deny food to the habitual border jumpers like Sithole as a way of punishing them and forcing them to stay in Zimbabwe. "I can't do that. It's immoral. You can't fight them by starving them. You should see some of them when they come here. They are terribly dehydrated and weak," he says. He too feels the police definitely need more manpower to deal with the influx of immigrants but says that it would not stop the problem.
The real solution is political and therefore "out of my realm". "If a man is hungry, nothing will stop him from trying to get food," he explains.
Both Steyn and Snyman say the influx of the illegals had resulted in a marked upsurge of crime levels around towns in the Limpopo Province, particularly theft, house-breaking and common robbery.
Snyman says the illegals were making a large impact on South Africa in other ways. They were key spreaders of diseases like yellow fever and malaria.
The costs of patrolling the border and repatriating were also high. Apart from the costs of feeding the illegals, more than R200-million is spent annually on repatriation costs alone. It costs R225,000 a month to maintain the fences equipped with filter points to help trace where illegal immigrants have crossed.
A private corporate security management company was quoted last week as saying SA now has 8-million illegal immigrants of whom half are Zimbabweans. Steyn says some of the illegal immigrants provided cheap labour for South African firms.
The illegals interviewed accused some white farmers in Limpopo of taking advantage of their plight to milk them. "Some of the farmers give us jobs and work us like slaves. When pay day comes, they call in the police saying we are illegal immigrants and we are arrested and chased away without pay," says Lovemore Chiswere (27), who described life on the mostly white-owned commercial farms in the province as being akin to life in a concentration camp.
But the Ministry of Home Affairs had now regularised the status of about 20,000 illegals on the farms and they can now work in the country legally. This should give them the security to resist exploitation.
Must restrain urge to giggle......
The Zimbabweans retain their sense of humor; one of the things I loved about them.
Yes, you're right about the Volkerwanderung.
Why don't aid groups approach the South Africans to set up feeding stations there?
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