Zimbabwe: How women are taking over cross-border smuggling

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Centre

At a small, unregulated border crossing between Zimbabwe and Botswana, 43-year-old Juliet Moheng* has become a regular presence, if not an oddity. 

Using a donkey-drawn cart, she operates as a scout and mule of sorts, helping people to bring groceries illegally into Zimbabwe. 

Border jumpers too are some of her “customers”, as undocumented entry into Zimbabwe’s neighbouring countries continues, despite the Covid-19 concerns of regional governments. 

“I have lived here all my life; I know the stretch of the border,” Moheng says, referring to the rural border that divides the two Southern African countries. 

Villagers on both sides of the border share kinship ties, their separation a product of colonial border demarcations.

For years, villagers here have been able to cross into Botswana without the need for passports for social gatherings, such as weddings and funerals; for Moheng, the advent of the Covid-19 has turned that route into a source of income.   

“I have not always done this, but when Covid-19 hit and borders closed, people still needed to bring in their groceries and other items into Zimbabwe, and that was when I saw an opportunity to earn a bit of money,” she says. 

Moheng says she is offering an “essential service” for Zimbabweans who, for years, have chosen neighbouring Botswana and South Africa for affordable groceries. 

According to the International Organisation for Migration, before Covid-19, about 5 500 people from Zimbabwe crossed into Botswana each day, but the number has since dropped to 500 a day. Now, the approaching festive season could provide even more business for people such as Moheng.

Like many others before her, Moheng is taking advantage of lax border controls that have become symbolic of Southern African countries, but her story highlights the extent to which some women are willing to risk their lives as they try to earn a living during Covid-19. 

The smuggling of goods into the country has always been a man’s “profession”, with gangs of young men becoming a permanent presence along the bushes at the Plumtree frontier, where they can be seen in broad daylight scheming about their next move. 

But Moheng says she is unfazed. “Some ‘clients’ trust me more because I am a woman. They know I will not disappear with their goods,” she says. 

Cross-border smugglers have reputations for brutality and violent robberies, with border-control agencies seemingly unable to stop border movement, which includes the smuggling of anything from vehicles and groceries to human-trafficking.

Even after regional countries pledged to invest more in border security, little seems to be happening, as shown by — the presence of women  previously thought to be vulnerable because of the hostile nature of the activity — in moving goods and people across porous borders. 

Making a ‘decent living’ 

Elsewhere across the country, about 418km away, the closure of the Beitbridge border post has also given 37-year-old Thobekile Nyoni* an unexpected boon. 

Nyoni, a native of the border town, is a “runner”, buying groceries for neighbours and other locals in Musina, the small border town on the South African side — for a fee. 

She takes advantage of the dry river that divides the two countries to make regular trips, together with scores of other shoppers and traffickers. For the past year, she has been making a “decent living” this way, she says.   

Depending on the goods she is required to bring into Zimbabwe, Nyoni charges anything from R100 to R500, earnings she admits could disappear once the borders open. 

“This is not the first time that people take advantage of the hardships of others to make a living. We have always lived like this,” she said about a country in which years of economic decline have bred risky survival skills for desperate residents. 

The illegal cross-border movement between Zimbabwe and South Africa is not for the faint-hearted, with daring smugglers reportedly building a make-shift wooden bridge, which security officials destroyed in September.

As part of efforts to respond to border crime, Zimbabwe’s home affairs ministry announced it was investing in drones to monitor illegal border activity that is costing the country millions in lost revenue.

If the plan succeeds despite the government failing for years to plug its porous borders, citing lack of funds, people such as Nyoni may well find themselves behind bars or without any source of income, albeit illegal.

Beitbridge’s unlawful border crossings are notorious for touts known as amagumagumayoung men who rob and maim desperate Zimbabweans seeking to enter South Africa without passports yet Nyoni navigates the same pathways without fear.

“I only work during the day. I know the dangers that lie in the dark with these young men,” she says, bringing to focus how border hardships are pushing some women to dangerous lengths to earn a living.

It is still not known when borders will open: new Covid-19 variants continue to be detected, adding more anxiety to informal, cross-border traders.  

“With prolonged border closures and travel restrictions, a proliferation of cross-border smugglers [has emerged] within the region,” says Jacob Makambwe of the Southern Africa Cross-border Traders Association.

One way to curb the illegal operations of cross-border traders, Makambwe says, is for regional governments to “provide incentives, such as bulk procurement, for female cross-border traders to order goods in neighbouring countries without need for physical travel”.

In the meantime, however, Moheng, Nyoni and many others will work with what they have and make the best of an unknown future.  

*Names changed to protect identities 

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Marko Phiri
Marko Phiri
Marko Phiri is a freelance journalist

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