How smugglers and traders have to hustle after Zim's ban on imports and cash crash

Opportunity knocks: South African soldiers (above) check documents while patrolling the porous South Africa-Zimbabwe border near Musina. The town, near the Beitbridge border post, was home to a brisk trade. (Oupa Nkosi)

Opportunity knocks: South African soldiers (above) check documents while patrolling the porous South Africa-Zimbabwe border near Musina. The town, near the Beitbridge border post, was home to a brisk trade. (Oupa Nkosi)

The problem is not so much the ice cream itself, but the support infrastructure inexorably linked with customer demands regarding ice cream. “When you bring [baked] beans you can have dents in those tins, they are fine,” says Evan. “Ice cream, you bring it and it is a little melted at the top, they say: ‘No, we don’t pay you for this’ and then you have to eat all the ice cream.

”The specific thermal tolerance of ice cream has become an area of close study for Evan and his crew in recent weeks. So far they have discovered that a tub of ice cream wrapped in a blanket will melt enough to form ice crystals over the same span of time during which a frozen chicken, similarly handled, will be just fine.

Experiments with ice-packing failed: too bulky and very obvious once the meltwater starts to leak. Attempts at making ice cream roll-proof, so as to transport it in barrels, have also failed.“Peanut butter you can put in a barrel, lots of those jars packed in,” says Evan.

“Ice cream in a box breaks; ice cream in tubs – the tubs crack.”And so, Evan reports, the price of ice cream has soared in the Zimbabwean border town of Beitbridge – because it is so hard to smuggle from South Africa. Ice cream falls right in the middle of the 12 entries of Statutory Instrument 64 of 2016, a mechanism the Zimbabwean government used in June to increase by half the list of goods to which various import restrictions and high tariffs apply. The legal effect of the notice – and its very legality – is still in dispute.

It has been 20 years since Zimbabwe last imposed import limits through that mechanism, and during that time the country’s own law changed significantly while it also subscribed to free-trade protocols from the likes of the Southern African Development Community.The practical effect was much clearer: informal import-export operators added ice cream to their own list as official cross-border trade took a sudden dip – leading to riots in Beitbridge, which in turn sparked the ongoing wave of protests and stayaways in Zimbabwe. Evan takes his chosen nom de guerre from “that pastor”, #ThisFlag activist Evan Mawarire, mostly because Mawarire is in the news but also because he claims kinship.

They are both fighting for their peo-ple, says smuggler Evan, both resisting an unjust regime. Except that one of them is getting the camphor cream and coffee creamer across the border. Evan and his various colleagues will not reveal for publication the exact mechanics of their trade, but they love boasting about how they pull the wool over the eyes of authorities – and they bridle at the suggestion that they are exaggerat-ing, to the point of providing hard evidence of their claims.

In sum, this paints the picture of an elaborate network. Some goods cross with the bicycle couriers who take the pedestrian bridge across the Limpopo River. Some goods are carried by the truck drivers mak-ing legitimate bulk deliveries in the many trucks that enter Zimbabwe heavily laden but invariably return empty. And some goods are walked across the border far away from any crossing manned by customs and immigration.“You want a spot without too many rocks,” confides Evan about the last. The river is dry in many places, but dry and sandy in fewer.

A heavily laden man does not want to twist an ankle in the dark, and trying to roll plastic barrels over rocks makes the whole enterprise seem a bad idea.That limits the number of ideal crossing points, making detection easier. But the point, Evan explains patiently, is not to not get caught. The point is to get caught seldom enough to contain the cost of bribes, in a system he and many others have come to believe is being engi-neered around bribes.Evan does not know what the new import tariff on ice cream is.

  Nor does anyone else. As published in the Zimbabwean Government Gazette on June 17, Statutory Instrument 64 does not provide a customs code for “bottled water, mayonnaise, salad cream, peanut butter” and a list of other items that runs through pizza bases to cheese. For small traders, though, formally published tariffs have long had no relationship with reality on the Zimbabwean side of the border.

“You pay what they think you have to pay,” says bicycle courier Mike. “They take what they can so you will still come back.”The effect is highly variable. The man with just under 400 eggs believes he will lose none to official and unofficial roadblocks, because on his trip in he brought a dozen boiled eggs and handed them out, prepaying for his imports, as it were.

The man with 120 loaves of bread in plastic crates attached to every possible part of his bicycle reckons he will need to hand over about six of those at various stops, though it depends entirely on the mood of those in charge.“You must cross before they get hungry,” he says, intimating that hungry police are angry police, and angry police are to be avoided at all costs.Police and military guards on the Zimbabwean side of the border react poorly to the allegations that they demand a “tribute”.

One group says they merely express their hunger to “those people who get paid for their work; they know we don’t get paid”, then discourses extensively on ubuntu. Another group declares a short-hand notebook a weapon of a propaganda war that must be confiscated, but releases it in exchange for a pen, explaining that a notebook is rendered harmless without a pen but a pen may still be wielded without paper.

The same approach by police underpinned sometimes violent protests in Harare last week. Transport operators say they would be hit up for bribes of $20 at every roadblock they passed – with enough roadblocks suddenly appearing, in the midst of Zimbabwe’s currency crisis, to wipe out a day’s takings. And this week Zimbabweans on shopping trips into South Africa said the fleecing of the ordinary by those with power goes up to the highest echelons.

“You want to know why there is trouble in Zimbabwe?” asks Grace, a diminutive, middle-aged mother of three who later declares herself ready to die at the hands of security forces if necessary. “The ministers own the shops. Everything there is too expensive; we don’t buy there. Then they forbid us to buy in South Africa.

”Grace’s initial proposed solution is one of faith: “God will help us.” When told that #ThisFlag pastor Mawarire had been arrested just hours before, her approach changes dramatically. “These people take from us and take from us,” she says. “Now we must take from them. We must take their houses and burn them. If they give us their bullets, we will take their bullets.”


Musina shops hit hard by cross-border woes

Mubarak Hussein estimates he is losing about R2 000 a day to the political upheaval. Not in lost revenues but in the hard loss of the overheads he is not covering.

“This whole week we have been crying because every day we lose more business,” he said on Tuesday, before Zimbabweans were called on to show their displeasure with their government with another two-day stayaway.

Hussein’s store is on the unfashionable end of the Musina China Wholesale Centre, a sprawling complex of shops that sell to the public, mostly those en route to the Beitbridge border post 12km away, and to Zimbabwe beyond.

He sells printers, R350 business suits, and knock-off perfumes “inspired by” famous brands. This time of year, though, he sells mostly blankets. But the blankets, piled 11-high on shipping pallets outside, have not been moving this July.

He can survive maybe two more months of slow to no trade, Hussein estimates, before he has to call it quits, fire his three assistants, tell his landlord the rent won’t be coming in and look for a new trading opportunity.

Musina is not entirely dependent on the individual buyers and small traders from Zimbabwe who flock across the border every day, but that flow of business has become a central pillar of the town’s prosperity. Somehow, even through currency crises, Zimbabweans have found the rands to trade and, as the country’s woes deepened, demand for soap and steel and princess dresses continued to rise.

Until recently, that is. For the first time since anyone can remember, the small trade spluttered, then ground to a halt. When it returned it was tentative, and it stayed that way.

“Everyone is afraid,” said Hussein: afraid to spend, rather hoarding what they have against bad days to come; afraid to risk the border crossing with goods of any value; afraid that sudden violence could wash over them back home.

For the erstwhile buyers, there is a strange satisfaction amid the fear.

“They always said we Zimbabweans are rubbish,” said a woman accompanying a young friend across the border on Wednesday. “Now that they don’t get our money, they are crying. It is right.” – Phillip de Wet

 
Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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