Monday, 25 May 2020

SMUGGLERS EXPOSE BEITBRIDGE COMMUNITIES TO COVID-19


SMUGGLING syndicates have turned illegal crossing points dotted along the Limpopo River into permanent camping sites where huge consignments of goods worth millions of dollars are illegally brought in and out of the country daily, exposing communities living along the Zimbabwe-South Africa border to Covid-19.

The smugglers use hired inflatable boats to ferry the smuggled goods across the river to either side of the border for varying fees ranging from R150 to R500 depending on the weight of the load.

Several people, mostly regular cross border traders who make a living out of buying and selling goods sourced from South Africa, are the main culprits.

They are defying lockdown regulations by illegally crossing the border, raising concerns of the spread of the coronavirus in areas lying along the border. The smugglers do not even take extra precautions to curb the spread of Covid-19 such as wearing face masks and sanitising.

South Africa has the highest number of Covid-19 cases in Africa.

Vice President Kembo Mohadi, who leads the country’s taskforce to tackle the pandemic, recently said smugglers operating along Zimbabwe’s borders with South Africa and Mozambique pose a serious threat to efforts to contain the coronavirus.

He urged people to take Covid-19 seriously, saying if people are allowed through the porous border line, Zimbabwe was likely to suffer the consequences since the country is not equipped to fight the scourge.

Investigations by a Chronicle news crew at the weekend made startling revelations of how smuggling syndicates are carrying out their nefarious activities right under the nose of security agents. 

The news crew observed that the illegal crossing points are used as major conduits for smuggling goods in and out of the country such as cigarettes, beer, groceries and household property.

The smuggling syndicates are capitalising on the high demand for their “services” as desperate cross-border traders affected by the closure of Beitbridge Border Post to human traffic, resort to border jumping.

Beitbridge Border Post has since the national lockdown been closed to human traffic save for commercial cargo as part of Covid-19 lockdown regulations.

The illegal activities are carried out in broad day light, raising strong suspicion that soldiers and police could be part of the smuggling syndicates.

Our news crew visited selected undesignated crossing points at River Ranch and Panda Mine Gates 2 and 7 outside Beitbridge where a group of men and women are involved in assisting smugglers to illegally cross the Limpopo River into farms in the neighbouring country where they eventually board lifts to Musina.

Ms Letwin Ndou of Tshingwanyani Village in Beitbridge, said they bribe South African soldiers to illegally enter the neighbouring country and upon returning with groceries, they bribe Zimbabwean soldiers for passage.

“Zimbabwean soldiers and police are not a problem whenever illegally crossing the river and they only demand bribes when we return from South Africa. However, on the South African side, soldiers want money to allow us entry and usually we pay between R50 and R60,” she said.

Ms Ndou illegally crosses the border to Musina daily to buy groceries for resale back home.

Our news crew also caught up with another female smuggler at River Ranch illegal crossing point. Unaware that she was speaking to journalists, the woman revealed that she was waiting for a truck carrying her consignment of work suits worth R50 000.

Some local villagers are also capitalising on increased smuggling activities by selling lunch to starving smugglers.

Ms Surprise Mukwevho of Mapayi Village, frequents the Panda Mine illegal crossing point daily where she operates an illegal food vending site on the banks of the Limpopo River, targeting smugglers and people waiting to assist border jumpers.

“I am making a lot of money out of Covid-19 because lately this place has been a hive of activity since the closure of the border. A lot of people who want to smuggle their goods use these illegal crossing points and they are forced to spend hours waiting for their goods to be transported,” she said.

Posing as potential clients, our journalists approached one Mr Mpho Muleya of Makakavhule, who offered to assist them in illegally crossing the border to South Africa to buy cooking oil in Musina.

Mr Muleya escorted them to South Africa using a narrow walkway across the Limpopo River. On the South African side of the border, they were escorted to Muruti Farm where a gate was opened for them together with several other smugglers who had arrived earlier. 

Minutes later, a South African pirate taxi pulled to a halt and three female and two male smugglers boarded the car to Musina. The taxi fare from Muruti Farm to Musina is R150 for a single trip.

Inflatable boats are also used to transport smugglers to either side of the border for R50 per person.

An inflatable boat operator, who only identified himself as Melusi, said he has found rich pickings in transporting smuggled goods, realising about R4 000 on a good day.

“There is high demand for our services because a lot of people are crossing into South Africa through illegal crossing points and they hire our boats to ferry the smuggled goods and we charge R150 per load and my boat can carry up to 25 boxes of cooking oil or green bar soap,” he said.

Morris Mudau of Mapayi, who is involved in assisting border jumpers, claimed he was working with police and soldiers on both sides of the border.

“I have been involved in this business of escorting people to illegal crossing points and assisting them to cross the river for the past five years. I have never made a lot of money like now and to me coronavirus is a blessing in disguise,” he said. 

Asked whether he was not afraid of police and soldiers manning the border area, the seemingly unfazed Mudau replied: “My friend, we are in this game together. Once I get clients (smugglers and border jumpers),

I make it a point that I alert soldiers and police operating in my turf and after the job is done, I give them their share and we call it clearance fee.”

Like many other border jumping linchpins, Mudau says his “business” thrives on “connections” in both countries. He said on a good day, he takes home about R5 000.

Makakavhule senior village head, Ms Priscilla Matike, expressed concern over the smuggling activities in her area. She said due to glaring border control laxity, communities along the border are living in fear as they are now exposed to Covid-19.

“As a community we are extremely worried about these smuggling activities, which are posing a health threat, especially in light of Covid-19. We had a meeting with local health workers and they conducted awareness programmes on Covid-19, but sadly smuggling continues unabated despite the presence of police and soldiers patrolling the area,” she said.

“We now suspect that police and soldiers are working in cahoots with smuggling syndicates because these illegalities are happening under their watch.”

National police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said he was not aware that smugglers were working in cahoots with police patrolling the area.

He, however, said investigations would be conducted. Chronicle

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