Zimbabweans returning illegally to South Africa in search of work after visiting family and friends for the Christmas holidays are having a harder time than usual getting back into the country, whereas previously a backhander to immigration officials might have sufficed.
It is estimated that as many as three million Zimbabweans live legally and illegally in South Africa to escape their country's economic meltdown, which has seen inflation levels reach 1,280 percent and unemployment levels touch 80 percent. The massive influx of Zimbabweans has stoked xenophobia among South Africans, who blame Zimbabweans for crime, and "stealing jobs" from locals, although there is no official data to support these claims.
Khulekani Ndlovu, 24, breadwinner of a family of seven, who has worked in South Africa for the past six years, said Beitbridge, the main border crossing between South Africa and Zimbabwe, had always been "a nightmare" because immigration officers on both the Zimbabwean and the South African side accused him of faking his South African identity card and passport, but a bribe always secured his passage.
This time Ndlovu has joined dozens of other Zimbabweans stranded in Beitbridge after their travel documents were seized by South African authorities when they attempted to cross back into South Africa.
"Immigration authorities would not take any bribe this time around. I tried them with R500 (US$70) but they threatened to throw me in jail for attempted bribery. They seized my passport and now I cannot enter South Africa legally.
"Yet I have a job ... which has paid me enough to provide for my family for the six years that I have worked in Jozi [Johannesburg]. I should have started work on the third of this month [January] but here I am, still stranded in Beitbridge. I now fear I may lose my job," said Ndlovu, who works in a restaurant in the inner-city suburb of Braamfontein.
Like many others denied re-entry into South Africa, the region's economic powerhouse, Ndlovu is determined to return. The only alternative is to cross the Limpopo River, a natural border between the two countries, but recent rains have made the water level dangerously high.
Another Zimbabwean looking for a way to get back into South Africa is Langa Dube. "As soon as the river subsides we will cross over, because staying in Zimbabwe is obviously not an option," he said. "Things are not that rosy in South Africa but at least we manage to keep our families going with our little earnings. Zimbabwe has no jobs; the economy is poorly performing; goods are either not there in shops or expensive and life in general is just difficult."
Bongani Maphosa told IRIN the prevailing economic conditions back home would keep driving people out of Zimbabwe, especially the youth. "With or without passports, these people will always find a way here [South Africa]." He migrated to South Africa two decades ago and is now a permanent resident.
"Zimbabwe is like a fire at the moment, and simple logic has it that when you are in such a situation and you have the vigour, you just jump out, and that is exactly what many Zimbabweans are doing. Not that they love crossing flooded rivers and getting harassed by South African police officers every day, but it's the poor economy and unemployment back home that's pushing them," he commented.
"Otherwise, given a chance, some of them would love to stay and work in their country. But their families depend largely on them for remittances, which somehow enable them to cope in the face of food shortages and high prices," said Maphosa.
To avoid arrest and deportation, illegal immigrants to South Africa have bribed home affairs officials in order to obtain false identity documents allowing them to pose as South African nationals. President Thabo Mbeki has admitted that there was "widespread corruption" in the home affairs department, and said a new management system with additional staff would be put in place to try to normalise the department's operations.
South African Immigration officials told the local media that since late December 2006 they had seized more than 200 South African passports held by Zimbabweans.
According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), South Africa deported 80,000 illegal Zimbabwean immigrants between May and December of 2006, 950 of who were unaccompanied minors. The statistics were recorded at the Beitbridge IOM Reception and Support Centre, established last year to assist deportees.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions