Zimbabwe: The story of human smuggling



At a glance, one would think a nation that is recognised as the diplomatic capital of the continent has it all.

One would be tempted to assume that life is a bed of roses in a country where flags of each African country fly every day.

The assumption would be, this is the place to be. Common as this perception might be, it is not the case for a lot of the country’s citizenry.

Poverty, unemployment and instability are some of the vices Ethiopians have to deal with on a daily basis.

For some in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and home of the African Union, one flag flying at the African Union ground is a beacon of hope — the South African flag.

But between that flag and that of Ethiopia are a number of other flags, just as there are many countries to be crossed if one is to get to South Africa, which to many epitomises freedom, financial independence and a new lease on life. Distance, though, is not a barrier.

This is the story of how migrants have crossed rivers, made allies with different players in Zimbabwe and South Africa, in the search of greener pastures — real or imagined.

The investigation, which starts in Harare, gains momentum at the heart of Africa’s diplomatic capital, Ethiopia early this month, at Mama’s kitchen, a restaurant located a stone’s throw away from Golden Tulip Hotel, a 5 star hotel where international leaders put up when attending important meetings.

As such, Mamas is a place where people from different cultures meet, as it offers both local and international meals.

It begins with a meal, shared with one who is not a stranger to being smuggled to South Africa via Zimbabwe.

He declines to be named since he is still based in South Africa but was only in Ethiopia for a special holiday.

There is tension as he is unsure of where and how the information he will provide will be used.

He grants a 15-minute interview on condition that there is no recording.

As for the tension, it is nothing that a glass of St George draught beer, one of Ethiopia’s lagers cannot take care of. After a few sips the conversation starts.

“Well, I am not the first one to go to South Africa. I have a brother. He is based in KwaZulu Natal. He is the one I followed,” he says.

“.. I will tell you how I crossed the first time in 2021 and we will end there.

“I left Ethiopia without a passport. I had been unemployed for some time and my brother in South Africa is the one who gave me money to embark on this trip. It was a hard trip from Ethiopia to Zambezi River. We used different forms of transport, both land and water. Let me get specific on how I crossed into Zimbabwe.

“I got to the Zambezi River in Zambia and I was introduced to a motor boat operator. They are not those you see on TV. It is just a boat with an engine fixed to it. They say it is for leisure but not the leisure you think of. The boats go to different places.

“So I was told Mushumbi Pools in Zimbabwe was cheaper. I paid and off we went. Before we went, someone came to speak to the man who was in charge of the boat. They had a conversation and money exchanged hands. Upon getting to Mushumbi, I was told that there was one bus that went to Harare from Kanyemba. This meant another journey to Kanyemba to get on the bus. We could get on that or wait for private vehicles that go straight to Beitbridge. I chose to go to Beitbridge, and that is where I met Regis, a man with a bushy beard and a warm smile. My English was not very good but it was good enough to understand him. He said he would take me to the border. I will finally be in South Africa.”

A famous Zimbabwean artist, Thomas Mapfumo metaphorically depicts Mbire, the district that hosts both Mushumbi Pools and Kanyemba as a place of no return.

In a famous song he sings, “Kuenda Mbire waenda chose, kuenda Mbire, kuenda Mbire handichakuona, kuenda Mbire.” (If you go to Mbire, you are gone for good, if you go to Mbire I will not see you again). However, for those who do not want to see an official ‘Welcome to Zimbabwe” sign on entering the country from the north, Mbire is a perfect entry point.

Mbire district offers a great way to inconspicuously make an entry as Thomas Mapfumo puts it. It becomes a perfect cover, a place where one is not seen.

So upon meeting Regis, our Ethiopian source was taken to a van alongside other people on a similar mission.

“Though the journey was long, what stuck out to me was the heavy presence of police officers along the way. Some of them were armed.

The driver would be stopped and sometimes the police would seem to be talking to us.

I did not understand what the conversations would be about but in one particular incident, the vehicle’s keys were taken and the officer stomped off.

The driver followed and someone came and told us to get off the van with our Identity cards. We got off and just stood there.

The driver followed the police officer who had taken our keys and then came back and ordered us to get back into the vehicle.

From there, though the stops continued, there was without much drama,” he said.

“… Upon arriving at the border, we disembarked and I do not recall where most of the people I was with went but someone came to take us and walk with us across the border. He asked for money. I gave him though I do not recall the actual amount but we were able to cross. By now some of the people I came with had disappeared and we were only six left.”

Border jumping is also occurring from within Zimbabwe and this has been the case for many years.

A 34-year-old Zimbabwean, Talent Martha Shumba rolled down the clock and shared her journey as a fresh faced teenager.

At the age of 17, after failing to make ends meet, she believes South Africa is the only option for her. With no passport and no idea of how life on the other side of the Limpopo River would be, she makes the brave decision to “jump the border”.

Years later, she recounts her experience while sitting comfortably in her new found home in South Africa.

“Hopefully what I say will not stop this, because people need this, Brian. One of the avenues that people use to skip the country is the Limpopo River. There are many crossing places along the river on the left side of the border. I used the river 17 years ago. I was 17. It was some time in December, a hot day and the river didn’t have a lot of water. From the border we travelled by car to some houses where we camped till the wee hours of the morning.  We were escorted by some guys to the river. Somewhere in the middle, the water was up to my neck. Well I am short, so yeah,” she says as she bursts into laughter.

“Once we got to the South African side, we walked through the forest, until we reached  the Kruger fence.  And we squeezed our way through. It was really tough. I was only 17, remember.

“When we crossed, an open truck belonging to the army was waiting for us. We were dropped at the Engen or Shell garage in Messina, I can’t really recall what it was called. We paid Fifty South African Rands per person. We dropped at around 5am. This was a perfect time because that is when night shift police exchange with day shift police. So absolutely nobody is paying attention. We then went to wait for the Shosholoza train to take us to our destination.”

Seventeen years later, there are parallels to the situation on the ground. The Limpopo River remains a major crossing point today.

In 2020, South African authorities announced plans to build a 40 kilometre fence along the Zimbabwean border, a move that was aimed at preventing undocumented migrants from skipping the border into its territory.

This, however, has not stopped the movement as numerous areas have remained open along the border, providing opportunities for border jumpers and smugglers to make their way across.

This is not the only way that people find their way into South Africa without following the proper processes. Some use the designated ports of exit and entry without proper documentation.

Another Zimbabwean who was interviewed had a different experience to share; “I use the border to cross. I use the small bridge at the border but I will be clutching about one hundred South African rand in my hand which I hand over to the South African police details by the gate. Timing is everything for this one. You need to approach when there is minimum human traffic and also when there are few police details. It is perfect when there is only one of them at the gate.”

A Beitbridge resident who chose to be identified as Ms Nsingo is a frequent traveller between Zimbabwe and South Africa said: “I have a passport so I have never been smuggled across the border. However, I can tell you for a fact that I have seen a lot of smuggling within the buses that I use. People who do not have passports pay between R1500 and R3500.

Most people get off the bus when we get to the border and then walk across. They get back on the bus on the South African side, by the garage where the buses stop for a brief recess.

I know that on the Zimbabwean side, the police and soldiers are involved. You hear the drivers and conductors telling them that they have people without papers. I don’t know how much they are paid though.

“Once they get back on the bus, every police officer from South Africa who stops the bus has to be bribed. In some cases, police officers get onto  the bus and demand to see passports. Those without will be told to disembark but the drivers pay and the journey continues. Nobody gets left behind.”

This reporter spoke to Regis who transported the Ethiopian migrant from Mbire to Beitbridge.

Regis revealed he has left the trade after getting into a lot of trouble with the law while smuggling some migrants.

“Although I cannot say much, what I can tell you is this is a very lucrative business where people from Ethiopia, Somalia and sometimes even Lebanon and Bangladesh are smuggled through Zimbabwe from Zambia and Malawi. My friend, some transporters have built houses from the proceeds. It is a big business. I can tell you that,” he says.

A visit to Harare’s biggest cross border bus terminus, Roadport, shows it is indeed possible to cross the border into South Africa without travelling documents.

The first engagement made there was with a gentleman who was soliciting South African bound passengers for one of the bus companies. The investigative journalist introduced himself as someone without a passport who wanted to cross the border in search of greener pastures.

He revealed R 3 500 paid upfront would be enough for him to make arrangements.

A driver for a different bus company was also interviewed and he requested for US$300 to be able to facilitate the process.

Contacted for a comment, the Deputy Provincial spokesperson for Mashonaland Central, Sergeant Major Samuel Chikasha said the police were not aware of  human smuggling through the province.

He says the police have a joint operation with the army and personnel from ZimParks which mans a boom gate at Mushumbi 24 hours a day to prevent human smuggling as well as smuggling of wildlife and minerals.

He also says there are constant border patrols to prevent such cases of smuggling.

“It is an official border post through Kanyemba. However, we do have porous areas but they are fully manned by Zimbabwe Republic Police, The Zimbabwe National army and ZimParks to prevent smuggling of animals,” he said.

The Acting Provincial spokesperson for Matabeleland South Province in the Zimbabwe Republic Police, Assistant Inspector Thandolwenkosi Moyo said police said efforts to stop border jumping were ongoing.

“The Police do not condone corruption. As such, we are mandated to arrest those who attempt to cross the border without documentation. Our duty is to ensure that those with proper documentation cross the border at the official crossing points.”

South African Police Services spokesperson, Brigadier Athlenda Mathe requested for questions via WhatsApp but did not respond to the questions by the time of publishing.

His Zimbabwean counterpart Paul Nyathi said he could only respond after the end of the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair despite being first contacted on  March 31.

This story is published with support from the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) Investigative Journalism Fund Programme.


Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Back to top button