A floodgate for illegal immigrants

Zimbabweans who want to sneak into South Africa illegally have to be resourceful, brave and cunning.

First, their journey takes them to the South African border. One option for crossing is to use syndicates operating from Beit Bridge, which use South African-registered vehicles to transport people from Bulawayo to Johannesburg for a fee ranging between R800 and R1 000, the Mail & Guardian learned on a trip to Limpopo this week.

‘Some bribe the police to come in or show them any documentation and they let them through,” says a fruit seller at the border.

A taxi operator, who drives taxis between the Zimbabwean and South African border, says he works from 6am in the morning till 8pm. He drives about 18 loads of people a day across the border and back, but takes them only as far as the Beit Bridge taxi rank.

‘Many Zimbabweans take buses straight from Zimbabwe to Johannesburg and other areas as it is easier that way. They stand less of a chance of getting into trouble with the law as they are vulnerable coming from Zimbabwe,” he says.

He estimates that 20 buses carrying no fewer than 70 people each enter South Africa from Zimbabwe every day.

But the majority of cash-strapped Zimbabweans are seeping in through the perforated border fence. Driving along the border, there are cut fences and crossing points everywhere.

Once the border has been crossed, it is not as easy as hopping on to a taxi to Johannesburg—which seems to be the imagined utopia that many immigrants aim for. Most taxis are afraid of the roadblocks dotting the highway along the first 40km south of the border, says Samuel Netsune, a Musina farmer on whose land many of the Zimbabweans sleep at night. Many of them hike the 40km to get past the first tollgate on the N1, then catch a taxi or a truck.

‘Trucks are better. They are much cheaper than taxis and don’t get stopped that often,” says Thomas Chingwere, a Zimbabwean waiting for a lift in front of the tollgate at the Bokmakierie garage. Popular routes to the tollgate include the railway line and the Eskom line,” says Netsune. His neighbours also tell stories of finding discarded photocopied maps of farm roads on their patrols.

‘The last roadblock is normally at Bokmakierie,” says Gert Klopper, whose farm borders Netsune’s. ‘After that, it is home free.”

Klopper participates in the farm patrols that round up illegal immigrants. Another patroller, Benji Sutherland, talks about finding illegal immigrants who had not eaten for 14 days. ‘They don’t even have the energy to run away, even if they wanted to.”

Sutherland says the farm patrols are far more effective than police operations. The farm patrols, structured along the same lines as the now defunct commando system, patrol farms with flashing green lights, looking for Zimbabwean immigrants, whom they perceive as a huge security risk.

A local paper in Louis Trichardt estimates that, on an average, more than 2 000 refugees a week are entering through the border. After the publicity of the last few weeks, Limpopo police are more reluctant to give new statistics about Zimbabweans crossing the border but, says police spokesperson Ronel Otto, in the first two weeks of July more than 6 000 illegal immigrants were arrested.

The South African Police Service says that, between January 5 and January 12, 753 illegal immigrants were arrested. But, this was during the wet season, when the river was flowing and crossing is more difficult.

Despite a warning from the provincial commissioner, Calvin Sengani, that the farmers are acting outside the law, Gideon Meiring, the chair of the Soutpansberg District Farmers’ Union, says the farmers will continue their patrols.

‘We are protecting our property,” he says. ‘And the flood of immigrants has dire implications for South Africa. This is the community policing that [Safety and Security Minister] Charles Nqakula has spoken about.”

Other landowners in the Musina area believe the publicity given to farm patrols has prompted increased police action against illegal immigrants.

‘It is definitely better now than a few weeks ago,” says a guest-farm owner. ‘But, ultimately, increased patrolling will not be the solution. The true solution can only come from within Zimbabwe.”

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