FOR all its scenic views and splendour, the Limpopo River basin between Zimbabwe and South Africa is a place where even angels should fear to tread, yet desperate Zimbabweans, including women and children, daily risk the hazardous crossing of the crocodile-infested river in search of a better life across the border, away from President Robert Mugabe’s insufferable rule.
Twenty-six year-old Fortune Nyikadzino is one such. His life almost recently came to a premature and horrific end in Verulam, Durban, at the hands of machete-wielding gangs who threatened to destroy his shack if he did not leave the country immediately as a wave of xenophobia swept through South Africa.
But less than an hour after stepping out into the harsh sun in searing hot Beitbridge aboard one of five buses for repatriated Zimbabweans, Nyikadzino told the Zimbabwe Independent that he was merely coming to cool his heels in his home town of Chitungwiza, dormitory town of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, before re-tracing his steps back to the fabled “land of gold”.
“I left in 2013 and I’ve come back with nothing because you could not retrieve anything during the attacks. I had not been paid, but once this thing (xenophobia) is over, I will go back because life is hard here in Zimbabwe. Look, most people are not employed here and they are just vendors. And I had not been paid since the month was not over,” Nyikadzino said.
Nyikadzino and many others said their stay would only be temporary as there were no prospects of finding employment in a country they abandoned just a few years back due to ever-increasing joblessness and resultant soaring unemployment and poverty.
Against such a background it is incomprehensible why 63% of Zimbabweans — according to think-tanks Afrobarometer and Mass Public Opinion Institute of Zimbabwe (MPOI) — say they trust Mugabe when millions have fled the country due to his misrule and sought asylum in foreign nations. Not to mention the current economic crisis the solution to which his government appears totally clueless.
The two research institutions carried out a survey late last year which they say revealed that 63% of Zimbabweans “trust” Mugabe.
Other state-related institutions that also enjoy purportedly such “trust” among Zimbabweans are the police (50%), army (64%) and traditional leaders (64%), all regularly accused of being extensions of the ruling Zanu PF party. Even the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec), which has repeatedly presided over elections tainted by rigging claims amid allegations it is staffed with state apparatchiks, recorded a 46% level of trust.
Two weeks ago South African Communications minister Faith Muthambi told the Independent as many as 20 000 Zimbabweans pass through immigration on a daily basis and thousands in the process cross into South Africa illegally.
The paths that lead to the Limpopo River are hazardous in themselves. Viewing the river from atop the Alfred Beit Bridge, the Independent crew which visited the border town of Beitbridge just over a fortnight ago was treated to a scary spectacle of seven crocodiles basking in the hot sun on the river bank. There were lots more of these reptiles lurking in the waters and lying in wait for prey.
The crew was dissuaded from sight-seeing expeditions at the Dulibadzimo gorge on the river which in the 1990s was an innocent playground for local children who would sing the latest songs by Peta Tenant, Brenda Fassie and other popular South African musicians of those days while gleefully picking up lumps of salty soil crusts crystallising near the river.
Flash-forward to 2015 and the place has become a haven for border jumpers as well as notorious amagumaguma — a derisive term for men and women who make it their business to assist border jumpers to illegally cross into South Africa for a living. Tales abound of people turning up stark naked on the South African side, after being forced to surrender their clothes and other valuables to the gangs who would sooner rob the very people they are supposed to assist to cross over. Some have even been killed.
And as soon as one overcomes the challenges of amagumaguma, crocodiles and hippos in the river, a fresh risk presents itself in the form of lions, buffalo and other dangerous animals that could be encountered in the adjacent Kruger National Park.
South African security forces also lie in wait, ready to pounce and the bad news for border jumpers is that South Africa has just increased its contingents of soldiers to patrol the border in the aftermath of last month’s xenophobic attacks in that country which claimed at least seven lives. But all this has not stopped Zimbabweans of all ages, from both rural and urban areas, from seeking a fresh start away from the “trusted” Mugabe.
Social commentator and academic Mmeli Dube says it is difficult to tell how Afrobarometer could have arrived at its conclusion that Mugabe is trusted given the context of the pervasive fear under which most Zimbabweans live and such researches are conducted.
“We know the kind of fear that accompanies these surveys,” said Dube who is also director of Bulawayo Agenda, a non-governmental organisation that also frequently carries out surveys to test opinions on various socio-political, cultural and economic issues. You try to explain to people that you are only a researcher but they still fear you and find it difficult to trust you given the perceived omnipresence of intelligence officers who also often masquerade as researchers.
“In all honesty, it is difficult to see how Afrobarometer would have earned the people’s trust to carry out this survey, especially in the rural areas where openly supporting the opposition is often dangerous.”
Dube also said the results of the survey are in stark contrast to the reality on the ground and “it is difficult to imagine people would trust the same Mugabe who is responsible for thousands migrating across the borders because of his economic mismanagement. It is also difficult to imagine them trusting the same Mugabe who runs a corrupt government that has ruined the economy, leading to company closures, retrenchments, job losses and poverty.”.
In any event, the question asked during the survey was vague as it is not clear what the respondents were supposed to trust — or distrust Mugabe for.
Trust him to cling to power? Trust him to steer the economy out of its current crisis or trust him to complete his term of office?
“Anyone can speculate as to what trust in this context means. It could mean that people trust Mugabe to remain steadfast on a position even if he is wrong or trust him to continue fighting the West incessantly or blaming others for his own failures,” Dube added.
And as Dube says, the situation on the ground contrasts starkly with Afrobarometer’s distorted findings.
Whether people trust Mugabe or not, the stark reality remains that unemployment is above 85% and despite Zanu PF’s electoral promises of over two million new jobs, company closures and retrenchments have quickened since he secured another term courtesy of 2013 elections marred by rigging claims.
Fear and intimidation persist in the country and the disappearance of journalist-turned political activist Itai Dzamara in March is a stark reminder of the dangers that await those that seek to directly challenge Mugabe’s long grip on power.