Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Zimbabweans Flood Across Limpopo

An IWPR contributor gets caught up in the exodus of would-be refugees, many of whom are detained in harsh conditions in South Africa and then sent home.
By Zakeus Chibaya
Timothy Mashinda, a frail Zimbabwean clad in tattered, dust-impregnated clothes, looked dejected and hungry as he was led by South African soldiers from an army truck into a detention centre for illegal immigrants.

Mashinda had earlier been arrested by the military at a farm on the banks of the Limpopo River, which forms South Africa's northern border with Zimbabwe. The farm, known as Chivaramakura -“tough land” in the Shona language - hires many of the hordes of Zimbabweans fleeing increasing hardship back home. They work for low daily wages of 45-50 Rand, about five US dollars, harvesting tomatoes, oranges and potatoes.

Mashinda had been at Chivaramakura for three weeks and had not yet been paid when soldiers, police and officials from South Africa's home affairs ministry swooped in search of foreigners without proper documents.

All along the border, police arrest Zimbabwean migrants who fail to verify their identity or legal status, often assaulting them and extorting money, according to a new report by the international rights watchdog group Human Rights Watch.

Many people drown or are taken by crocodiles, as they attempt to cross the Limpopo under cover of darkness; some are crushed to death by elephants. The river was memorably described by Rudyard Kipling as the "great, grey-green, greasy” Limpopo but in 2006 it is a wild zone of people-smugglers, corrupt security forces and a never-ending flow of illicit human traffic across the water.

The report, "Unprotected Migrants: Zimbabweans in South Africa's Limpopo Province", said Zimbabweans continue to stream into South Africa to escape their own country's deteriorating economic and political conditions. It said the vulnerability of the estimated 1.2 to three million Zimbabweans now living in South Africa is made worse by their frequent lack of legal status, effectively making them refugees.

I met Mashinda after I too was clapped into the open-air detention centre at the South African border town of Musina, after trying in vain to persuade police that my documents were in order on returning from Zimbabwe. Mashinda said that in the two days since his arrest he had been given no food, and he felt desperately cold and hungry.

South African president Thabo Mbeki pursues a policy of “quiet diplomacy” towards President Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwean government. This policy is so silent that many critics wonder what it actually consists of.

Hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants from Zimbabwe looking for jobs are harassed and ill-treated by South Africa authorities trying to stem the human flood across the Limpopo.

During my time as an inmate in the Musina detention centre, I discovered that the policy is to provide neither bedding nor food to inmates. Instead, the detainees have to scrounge desperately for scraps of food and blankets.

I spent more than two days in detention trying to persuade officials that my documents were in order. To my surprise, I met five close relatives and two classmates who also had been arrested after fleeing Zimbabwe.

For some reason, I was regarded as a VIP and was the only person given food by police cooks. One Zimbabwean detained for a fifth time as he tried to enter South Africa offered me money for my bread, but I decided to share my food among as many of my hungry fellow-countrymen as possible. Some were able to bribe policemen with small sums of money or cigarettes to bring them small plates of “sadza” or maize porridge from outside.

As illegal immigrants, we were kept in an open-air compound, surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire. From what I heard, the compound is officially meant to accommodate 50 people, but it is always overcrowded, particularly on Thursdays following the arrival of the weekly train bringing Zimbabweans in from the giant Lindela Repatriation Camp, near Johannesburg, 500 kilometres to the south.

The compound had no latrines or running water. During the day, we were escorted on request to an outside toilet, but at night we defecated and urinated around the edges of the compound. We were unable to wash, and to drink; we scooped water from a single cooking pot.

The risk of detention and expulsion do not deter Zimbabweans from heading for South Africa in huge numbers, as they attempt to earn an income to feed and clothe the relatives they leave back home.

Once they are expelled, most avoid contact with officials of the Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration, IOM, working from offices in Beitbridge, the small Zimbabwean border town on the north bank of the Limpopo, who offer food, counselling and transport in attempts to get the deportees to settle permanently in their own country.

“The whole [IOM] programme is operated by the Central Intelligence Organisation and Border Gezi youth militias who are persecuting us in the country. I will not accept their offer unless they work on finding the solution to the crisis in Zimbabwe,” one Musina detainee, Admore Chihitani, told me.

The Central Intelligence Organisation is President Mugabe's much-feared, ubiquitous intelligence service which enforces governmental decrees, often violently and extra-legally. The Border Gezi youth militias, also known as the Green Bombers because of their olive-green uniforms, are used by Mugabe to enforce rule by his ZANU PF government and to intimidate and assault opposition supporters.

Most of the deported Zimbabweans opt to try repeatedly until they make it into South Africa.

Tichaona Shava, who told me he had been arrested and deported five times in just over two weeks, said, “I will always try my luck to go back to South Africa even if they arrest me. I can’t survive in Zimbabwe because of the economic conditions.”

Samson Matobo, from the southern town of Masvingo, said he lost both his house and job in Mugabe's continuing Operation Murambatsvina (Drive Out the Rubbish), in which soldiers, police and ruling party militias used violence to destroy the homes and small businesses of hundreds of thousands of poor people living on the outer edges of Zimbabwe's towns.

"My wife and I were left homeless by Murambatsvina, so I decided to come to South Africa to look for a job to fend for my family and parents," he told me. "Mugabe has reduced us to beggars and it is difficult to think of returning to Zimbabwe to face another worse starvation."

Food fights are common among the Zimbabwean detainees as they scramble for left-over scraps from nearby prison cells housing South African criminal suspects.

With my fellow inmates, I spent most of the daylight hours either asleep on the ground or basking in the sun. At night, we all huddled together against the cold. Through the hours of darkness we sang church hymns and choruses - and our voices were swelled by those of South African women in the prison cells. For variety, some of the detainees broke into anti-Mugabe songs that are illegal back home.

I watched South African policemen rob my countrymen of what little money they had. A group of Zimbabweans from Lindela gave 100 Rand (ten dollars) to police officers to buy bread. But instead of doing so, the police immediately locked the group in a prison van.

"Police often mistreat undocumented workers when they arrest them," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "While awaiting deportation at police stations, undocumented migrants are given inadequate shelter and food, and some are detained beyond the 30-day legal limit."

Civil society organisations in South Africa said they are very concerned about conditions at the detention centres. Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, director of the Refugee Rights Project at South Africa's Lawyers for Human Rights, said there had been talk for years about using army barracks so that Zimbabwean detainees would at least have a roof over their heads, but nothing has ever been done.

The flow of Zimbabweans coming to South Africa illegally has increased steadily this year. There are an estimated million Zimbabweans working on South African farms, mostly in Limpopo Province.

I was eventually permitted to phone South Africa's Department of Home Affairs in Pretoria, so that officials there could confirm to the Musina police that my political asylum documents were in order. The police reluctantly released me, ordered me into the back of a truck and dropped me on a pavement in central Musina, from where I hitchhiked to Johannesburg.

Before I obtained my freedom, I watched Mashinda and other illegal immigrants being loaded onto open trucks in preparation for deportation. According to official figures, an average of 265 of my countrymen are returned to Zimbabwe each day. But Mashinda said he and most of the others would attempt to cross back over the Limpopo within a couple of nights.

IWPR contributor Zakeus Chibaya is a Zimbabwean journalist living in Johannesburg.

More IWPR's Global Voices

FakeWatch Africa
Website to provide multimedia training and resources for fact-checking and investigations.
FakeWatch Africa
Africa's Fake News Epidemic and Covid-19: What Impact on Democracy?