Thursday 16 May 2024


A Toyota Hilux with South African plates parks on the roadside in Nkwana village in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland South province and honks its horn. An elderly woman makes her way to the car where the driver hands her parcels containing groceries, a blanket and a small envelope with an undisclosed amount of cash.

The driver, Thulani Ncube, 42, whose real name we are not using to protect his identity, is “oMalaicha”, an Ndebele word for the cross-border drivers who ferry goods between South Africa and Zimbabwe. Fortnightly, he makes deliveries to villagers in the border region – most of it smuggled.

“There are goods we declare, but some we smuggle them in and out,” Ncube told Al Jazeera. “With most of our clients in low-paying jobs in South Africa and in the villages in Zimbabwe, we don’t want to add extra charges included in declaration of goods, so bribes come into play at border controls.”

Zimbabweans have been fleeing across the border into South Africa for decades – most as a result of political crisis, harsh economic conditions and chronic underdevelopment at home.

There are more than a million Zimbabweans living in South Africa, according to the country’s census data and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which also notes that many have entered the country without proper documentation.

The situation has created business opportunities for Malaicha, who not only smuggle goods but also people wanting to enter South Africa illegally.

Ncube, who has been oMalaicha for 11 years, said he charges “one beast” – one cattle, or the equivalent cost of $300-$400 – per person he takes across.

But now, with South Africa’s upcoming general election on May 29, a vote expected to be the most competitive one since the end of apartheid 30 years ago, Ncube is worried about what the outcome may mean for business.

What he is sure about, he said, is that even if the next government tightens South Africa’s immigration policy, he will not stop his work but move it further underground.

In Gohole village, 161km (100 miles) from the Beitbridge border with South Africa, village head Courage Moyo, 64, stays glued to his television these days, closely watching election debates and developments in the neighbouring country.

Despite xenophobia and flare-ups of violent attacks against foreign nationals in South Africa, Zimbabweans still flock there to give themselves and their families back home a better life.

“I have lost seven cattle paying oMalaicha to transport my children to South Africa,” Moyo told Al Jazeera. “They had no documents, I could not afford the passports for them, so they had to cross illegally.

“Every month I receive groceries and money from South Africa to sustain ourselves. I pray for them every day,” he said.

Now he is worried that any unfavourable outcome in South Africa’s immigration policy will affect Zimbabweans living there as well as the millions back home who depend on them for remittances and support.

Moyo is in a local WhatsApp group chat with other parents and neighbours who have children in South Africa. The 310 members, including relatives across the border, use the platform to analyse the elections.

Some of the members in South Africa are considering rethinking their immigration plans if a new party takes power, with some contemplating moving to Botswana.

But for many in Matabeleland South, the links to South Africa are the strongest. The border province even favours using the South African rand, which people prefer to the local currency or the US dollar, which is popular elsewhere in Zimbabwe.

“Our families are part of that country,” Moyo said about how interconnected people are. “Nowadays elections in SA are the topical issue.” AL Jazeera


Post a Comment