Desperate locals vote with their feet

Gift Phiri recently in Beitbridge

LESS than two weeks before Zimbabwe’s legislative election, Clever Tarindwa (24), a poor farm worker from Chipinge near the Mozambican border, voted with his feet to s

eek a new life in South Africa.

Driven into penury by five years of political turmoil that has brought Zimbabwe’s once prosperous economy to its knees, he jumped onto a bus heading for the border town of Beitbridge.There, he met the gumha-gumha, a group of extortionists who take people across the swirling waters of the Limpopo at night for R100.

Tarindwa, unlike some Zimbabweans who get swept away or eaten by crocodiles, made it to the other side. Within hours he was picked up by a South African National Defence Force (SANDF) patrol and handed over to the police in the nearby town of Musina for immediate deportation.“I left home because there is no work and no food,” he told the Zimbabwe Independent in the border town of Beitbridge last Wednesday. “I came here in search of a job.

Everyone says that life in South Africa is good. It used to be good in Zimbabwe, but that’s all gone now.”

According to a SANDF officer involved in border patrol operations, the gumha-gumha use cellphones to organise transport with mini-bus drivers on the South African side of the Limpopo River. In a series of short hops, the immigrants are transported to the border town of Musina, and from there they travel south to South Africa’s major cities looking for work.

“Only the very poor walk,” the officer said.

Sibongile Moyo (22), who was picked up after leaving her village near Bulawayo, told the same story.

“Work is hard to come by in Zimbabwe,” she said. “There is not enough food. It is expensive and we don’t have enough money to buy. The people are frightened. They get beaten.”

Tarindwa and Moyo are two of thousands of Zimbabweans fleeing President Robert Mugabe’s misrule.Everyday a police lorry leaves Musina with 30 to 40 “undocumented migrants” for the 12-kilometre trip back to the border, where they are dumped on the other side. Most are picked up while trying to hitch a lift on the main road to Johannesburg.

Others are caught while trying to make their way through local game or hunting grounds, or are turned in by people who fear the migrants might take their jobs and women.Hundreds of South African soldiers patrol the three razor-wire fences along the border with Zimbabwe that were erected during the apartheid era to keep out African National Congress guerillas.

“They wrap themselves in blankets and crawl under the fence,” Godfrey Mathabatha, a private on one of the border patrols, said. “When we catch them, their clothes are torn. They are tired and thirsty and often have gone for a week without something to eat.”

An old army base at Artonvilla on the banks of the Limpopo has been set aside by the South African government as a holding camp for migrants, should the situation in Zimbabwe reach “meltdown”. It can hold up to 1 000 people while they await deportation.

Colonel Tol Synman, the officer in charge of the regional SANDF, said: “We arrest up to 2 500 a month. But we have no idea how many get through.”

Some estimates put the figure as high as 500 a day.

“We are getting more and more undocumented migrants now because of the shortage of food in Zimbabwe,” Colonel Synman said.

“They cross the river even when the water is chest high. Our troops have reported some of them being swept away or eaten by crocodiles.”He said unless the illegal migrants were granted refugee status, “our job will remain to hold the line”.

In January, 2 600 people were arrested and handed over to the police, a figure lower than last year, the officer said. He noted that increased activity by the Zimbabwean police had impacted on the illegal crossings. The border jumpers are eventually deported to Zimbabwe.

The South African military, through an agreement with Zimbabwe, has the authority to intercept would-be illegal immigrants in what is technically Zimbabwean territory, the officer said. He pointed out that a man found wading in the Limpopo River would probably be arrested before he reached the South African bank.

Once inside South Africa, the concern of the authorities is the damage that illegal immigrants can cause to farms and properties. Farmers complain that snares are set and crops damaged as the border jumpers cross their fields.

If political violence in the run-up to Zimbabwe’s legislative election leads to a large influx of asylum seekers, “our first priority will be to look after our own people, the farmers”, the officer said. “If hungry Zimbabweans strip property on farms, there is going to be conflict with the farmers.”

A recent report by the Solidarity Peace Trust stated that Zimbabwe’s largest export was now its people.