ZIMBABWEAN and South African organised smuggling and human trafficking syndicates are increasingly deploying fast but dangerous boats to ferry illegal immigrants across the crocodile-infested Limpopo River in illicit risky business activities, some of which have ended in tragedy, The NewsHawks can report.
The smuggling traffic tide and associated rackets are rising due to the festive season and unaffordable Covid-19 testing charges for certificates demanded before people can travel across borders.
Before travelling, Zimbabweans need US$50 (R750) to test for Covid-19. This unaffordable charge has forced people to forge certificates or use illegal crossing points now using inflatable boats owned by smuggling syndicates.
Zimbabwean police last week said they arrested 40 people trying to cross illegally into the country from South Africa, but most of the time law enforcements agents are overwhelmed by the waves of illegal immigrants – now commonly referred to as undocumented immigrants. Sometimes police are bribed.
“On 16/12/20, police in Beitbridge arrested a group of 40 ‘cross-borders’ who were trying to gain entry into the country from South Africa through undesignated points,” police said.
“Members of the public are warned against entering/exiting the country through illegal points.”
On Monday, a Zimbabwean woman and two children drowned when a boat they were riding in capsized on the flooded Limpopo River around the Malala Drift areas on the South African side.
A shell-shocked Zimbabwean boat operator Lovemore Mutasa, who was in charge of the ferry, narrated the tragedy to South Africa’s Newsroom Afrika, a 24-hour digital satellite television news channel broadcast across Africa on DStv.
Beitbridge – regarded as the busiest border town in sub-Saharan Africa –contributes 70% of Zimbabwe’s customs duty collected; 30% of the country’s revenue is from that.
Due to its hive of activity on the border of Africa’s most advanced economy, Beitbridge, like Musina across the river, has also become a smuggling, racketeering, bootlegging, contraband transit zone and illegal immigration capital.
It is also an area through human trafficking takes place.
Human trafficking involves movement of humans through use of deception, coercion, fraud, abuse of power or their vulnerability for payment or benefit to a person in control of the process.
Contraband through Beitbridge include goods and services; clothes, groceries, cigarettes; households items, electronics, furniture, equipment, computers and cars, among other things.
The goods are not only smuggled through the border, but also via the many illegal crossings points along the river.
Syndicates running the schemes involve Zimbabweans and South Africans operating along the river on both sides.
Some of the boat operators are unscrupulous Zimbabwean illegal dealers who make money through their precarious services.
White South African farmers along the river are also involved in the perilous adventures.
The boat operators charge between R300 and R500 to transport people across the river.
If the passengers are carrying considerable goods, they may end up paying between R500 and R1000, depending on the contraband.
A survey of the illegal immigration and crossing activities by The NewsHawks this week showed that some of the common areas for border jumping are around Makakavhule area in Beitbridge, about 20 kilometres west of the border town.
There are also other illegal crossing points like at Nottingham Estate, about 21km from the Bulawayo-Beitbridge highway west of the border town.
Nottingham Estate, on the banks of the Limpopo on the Zimbabwean side, is a diverse wildlife area that offers accommodation and a number of leisure activities to the public.
So as a result it also becomes an area where people go to survey how to illegally cross into South Africa or back to Zimbabwe.
Most border jumpers use the routes west of Beitbridge, even though in the eastern part of the town there are also many illegal crossing points.
On the South African side, some of the crossing areas are around Malala Drift, a farming area west of Sigande where the woman and her two children drowned on Monday.
Interviews at the crossing points showed that the use of boats has increased in recent weeks around the holidays as travellers move up and down across the river.
Villagers also help the smugglers and undocumented immigrants cross the river.
“One of the most common crossing points into South Africa from Zimbabwe is here in Makakavule, which is at least 20km west of Beitbridge. There is a place called Maroy, which is 10km from here; it is a popular crossing point,” a Makakavule villager Lugisani Ndou told The NewsHawks.
“People cross around Maroy; there are boats there and it’s safer. There many crossing points all the way from Shashe to the west of Beitbridge across to the east in Chikwalakwala areas. Even at the confluence of Limpopo and Shashe rivers in Shashe, people cross through those areas.”
Margaret Mbedzi, another local, said she has helped many people passing through the area to jump the border to South Africa.
“In the past it used to be only people from around in Beitbridge passing through going to South Africa. Now you have people from all over the country; from here in Matabeleland, from Masvingo, Manicaland and Mashonaland passing through here,” Mbedzi said.
“Sometimes you have foreigners who pass through; people from up north, some as far as Somalia, Sudan and DRC, those areas in the lakes region (Great Lakes); you know those countries with conflict and other problems worse than Zimbabwe.
“It’s not just people who pass through here. Smuggling and racketeering takes place around these areas, during the day and at night. The river is full of crocodiles and now it is flooded, but that doesn’t stop people crossing illegally in and out of South Africa and smuggling whatever they can carry.”
According to the International Organisation for Migration-Zimbabwe, the exodus from the country has intensified due to the economic crisis in recent years.
“Zimbabwe’s economic crisis precipitated an exodus of professionals and skilled workers emigrating in search of better economic opportunities. The flow of migrants from Zimbabwe into neighbouring countries in an irregular fashion continues unabated, and migratory flows from, to, and within Zimbabwe have presented a myriad of challenges to the country’s migration management capacity,” it says.
Beitbridge East MP Albert Ngulube said he was gravely worried about the new trend of using boats to cross the Limpopo River and the associated drownings.
“It’s very dangerous for our people to use those boats. To begin with, it’s illegal. Second, it is risky. Those ferries are not stable and reliable. People must stop crossing the border illegally and use designated points of entry and exit. Police must also intervene in these issues and patrol the river much more; they must seize those boats and arrest their owners to save lives.”
The number of Zimbabwean undocumented immigrants in South Africa is not known precisely, but guestimates informed by their significant presence in different places – many in areas like Hillbrow and Yeoville in Johannesburg and workplaces in the catering industry – always band about millions.
– Notes by Mudau and writing by the managing editor Dumisani Muleya.