Many women from Zimbabwe come to South Africa looking for work on farms near the border. They arrive in South Africa illegally by crossing the Limpopo River which flows along the border between the two countries. Some cross the river near the border post at Beit Bridge, heading to border-town Musina, which is seen as a gateway to the rest of country.
On the river, the Maguma-guma gangs rule the roost. These criminal operations take advantage of migrants, saying they will help with safe passage but instead rob, rape or kill, leaving survivors to arrive in South Africa even more vulnerable than when they started their journey, sometimes arriving without passports, money or clothes.
Once in South Africa, some women find themselves stuck M&G sick or penniless M&G unable to move on to find a job or pay their way back to Zimbabwe. Others head straight for the nearby farms where generations of Zimbabweans have worked and get hired. Some stay as resident permanent workers, while others commute as seasonal workers, some even crossing the river daily to go home to Zimbabwe at the end of each day.
"I came here from Zimbabwe to get a job, because in Zimbabwe there is no job," says Patricia Scumba, as she sits on the bunk bed where she sleeps in an old Catholic church-turned women's shelter in Musina. "So I can see that getting a job to support my children is better than sitting, so that's why I came here."
However, the single, 43-year-old mother of three is stuck in limbo. When she came to South Africa, instead of finding a job, she found out that she was HIV positive. Having left her ID documents in Zimbabwe, she says she was told she can't start treatment in South Africa.
"I crossed the river … I didn't find a job. My body started [becoming] weak, weak, so I go to the hospital. Then I tested HIV positive," she says. "I leave my papers in Zimbabwe, so they told me to go to Zimbabwe and get treatment there."
Scumba hasn't been able to find work to make money to pay for the journey home. She says she would like to go back to Zimbabwe by road, as she has bought some food and clothes she would like to take home safely for her children.
Robbers in the river
"I want to go home … This time I don't want to cross the river," she says. "If I go crossing the river, Maguma-guma can take my things."
A few kilometres west, in rural Musina, Zimbabwean Beatrice Ncube, 35, is employed at Maroi Boerdery Farms.
"I came here in 2008, June. When I crossed the river, I faced the problems like there were robbers in the river. They were frightening us when we came there. Before we came at the fence, there were some people who were hiding in the trees who tried to rob us, but we ran away. So when I came here, I was good luck. I was not taken to the police station. I came here at the farm. I looked for others to help me, and I get employed."
Madeleine Hurst, together with her husband, runs Maroi Boerdery Farms, the large commercial fruit and vegetable farm where Ncube works. Hurst says that about 90% of the farm's workers are migrants from Zimbabwe. They are authorised to work here under the farm's corporate permit, explains Hurst, who is also the farm's financial administrator.
By law, the farm has to try to recruit South African workers first. But very few wanted the job, she explains. Depending on the year and season, the farm employs about 250 to 370 permanent workers and about another 100 seasonal workers.
"Most South African people do not want to work on farms, especially in this area," she says. "After we applied for our corporate permit, we had to advertise in various newspapers that we've got a position available, you know as a farmworker, as a picker, during picking season, or packing season, and we had two responses to that, that was all.
"So then the department of labour actually gave us a list of names of people who were looking for work at this stage, and we had to contact them, and of everyone that we contacted, I think we got about 42 applicants that came in and started, and from that about 10 left already after two months, so we have about 35 South African workers that started last year, October."
Not much security
A seasonal worker would be coming for two to three months, once or twice a year, for picking and packing season, explains Hurst. "It's basically regular people that come back every year," she says. The farm tries to use family members of existing employees from Zimbabwe, she adds.
Generally, Maroi is the only employer of migrant workers who work on the farm, she says. Many of the seasonal workers are women who come over for the season, but look after children and cattle for the rest of the year. This is the only work they have for the year.
These migrant workers don't have much security in terms of access to public services, so being a farmer comes with the responsibility to provide for various needs, says Hurst. "We joke some days. We would say, as a farmer, you are basically a pastor, you're a social worker, you're a health worker, so you are basically the first point of contact for all of the people that work for you, whether it's [an] economic, social or a health problem."
Although Hurst says she doesn't think that the foreign migrant workers are likely to be able to claim from the South African unemployment fund, the government says they are eligible for it, and must contribute.
"They have to pay UIF, it's 1% of the salary, and then we also provide 1%. So that is what we pay over to the department of labour every month."
She adds: "I, however, personally can't see that it works because if they work and the corporate permit expires, they are actually here illegally.
"I can't see that the department of labour is going to pay them out. So it is a concern to us.
"By law we have to do it, but I don't know how it's going to work, and I actually feel that it's not fair towards the foreign workers here."
The farm has put its own small insurance and saving scheme in place.
"What we do at the farm is deduct a small percentage for burial society, and we also deduct savings. So with permission from the workers, we deduct a certain amount for the burial society. So if any worker dies, it would … cover their full burial cost," says Hurst.
"The minimum wage moved now, but at the moment we are offering, it's R1697 per month, and that would be then the only deductions," she says. "The deduction for the saving is about R93.50 and the burial deduction is R25 per month," she adds.
So the accumulated savings at the end of a year would be roughly R1 200. This is because, according to Hurst, they are only allowed to deduct a certain percentage of someone's salary and it also depends on how much the individual workers wants to contribute.
She says that some people prefer that she pays out their savings at the end of each year, but they can keep it on the scheme where it will accumulate interest and they can withdraw it at a later time. "We've had people that come after five or six years and ask for it to be paid out."
Hurst says that beyond trying to assist with basic needs such as housing, food and transport to the clinic, and more, there are also the serious challenges of dealing with women who have been abused, either by their partners or by strangers when crossing the river.
"There is also loads of Maguma-guma bands over here. And I'm not talking specifically now only to workers on our farm, but overall. Any migrant woman coming over whether it's trafficked women, or children, it's quite dangerous for them. Most of them get sexually assaulted, raped on crossing the river, so it is a dire situation. And the army at this stage is not enough, alongside a fence to make a difference.
"There is no protection for these women and children crossing over. And men as well … Raped, beaten, all their belongings stolen, coming into a foreign country with nothing [at] all. So it is a dire situation," she says.