DESPITE strict protocols, South Africa’s borders are as porous as ever.
At the same time, cross-border traders in the informal sector have been left to resort to dangerous lengths to eke out a living from selling across the Beitbridge border between Zimbabwe and South Africa.
According to Dennis Juru, president of the International Cross Border Traders Association (ICTA), thousands of travellers flocked daily to the bridge since international travel restrictions were lifted. Entry into Zimbabwe was limited as the country was still under level 4 lockdown. Only private cars and commercial vehicles such as trucks were allowed through, while those arriving at the border in crowded taxis, buses and other mass-transit vehicles were turned away.
This was especially devastating for those who wanted to resume their informal trading operations, which relied on buying and selling merchandise and selling it across the borders. Zimbabweans who relied on this source of income resorted to other means to get into Zimbabwe, desperate to sell their South African products back home and vice versa.
“We appreciate that the president lifted the lockdown Level 1, but he never encouraged the neighbouring countries to open their borders,” said Juru, adding that this meant the lifting of travel restrictions in South Africa had done little to help thousands of destitute foreign nationals.
“This has been useless to many of us when the exits are closed to us. What is happening now is sometimes they [illegally] use commercial truck and repatriation buses to get out of South Africa.
“What they do is they also carry luggage to the border so that someone who is a runner between the border can carry that luggage to someone else across the border. Others are getting into the trucks. There is illegal entry both in and out of SA because the restrictions are too much.”
A 32-year-old Zimbabwean national, who recently travelled home for a funeral, said save for restricted access for South African cars to Zimbabwe, his experience at the border wasn’t much different to other times he had travelled home.
While he arrived planning to go the legal route, this was soon impossible for the thousands of people who were waiting in various vehicles to enter Zimbabwe or South Africa last Sunday evening.
“I and thousands of people at the border did not even get to that point,” he said, insinuating he had to bribe his way in and out last weekend, despite driving his own car and having the papers to both leave and enter the country.
A 49-year-old domestic worker from Lesotho, living in the Eastern Cape, said her and other migrant workers from the country were both scared and looking forward to trying for the first time in months to go home.
Though her permit to stay in South Africa had expired, she was willing to take the risk of being arrested for this at the border for a chance to go home. Illegally entering Lesotho often meant harsh penalties in that country, but the possibility that she’d have to fork out a bribe to get through the border gate was an annual one she would prepare for yet again.
“Sometimes it’s R600 or R1000. But I am told the Lesotho police are very strong this time, so I will have to take my chances even if my permit is expired because I have to go home and visit my children. I have not seen them since last December because I was stuck here.”