Crossing the border to bring the groceries home

A truck full of goods for Zimbabwe. As a new business a Zimbabwean bulk trader now takes women over the border to do their personal shopping.
(Elles van Gelder/IRIN)

Bulk traders have been flocking to South Africa for months to buy groceries for resale in Zimbabwe, but now a rapidly growing number of individual shoppers are arriving to stock up on essentials in Musina, about 13km from the border, in South Africa's Limpopo Province.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe launched "Operation Reduce Prices" in late June in an attempt to cap escalating prices as businesses tried to cushion themselves against the world's highest inflation rate by forcing retailers to slash their prices by 50 percent.

This has resulted in empty shop shelves and widespread shortages of basic commodities, and the International Monetary Fund has warned that Zimbabwe's year-on-year inflation rate could reach over 100,000 percent by the end of 2007.

The biggest supermarket in Musina, Spar, has seen an increase in turnover of between 50 percent and 70 percent in July, manager Pieter Koekemoer told IRIN.

Mo, 30, said he had come to Musina to buy groceries for his family and friends in Zimbabwe. He wrote their names on the plastic bags as he packed them into his pick-up truck, saying that the cost of fuel, import duty and a South African visitor's visa were a small price to pay.

Bulk traders

Some bulk traders use a medium-size delivery vehicle and often supply formal shops, but now no longer want to supply them because price controls make it unprofitable. With more individual shoppers also crossing the border to buy food for themselves, bulk business is declining.

"The bulk trade at my shop has gone down 40 percent in the past two weeks," said Jason Rana; 95 percent of his clientele are Zimbabwean traders buying large quantities.

Bulk trade is expected to slow even further after a new regulation comes into effect on 1 August. According to the Zimbabwean embassy in South Africa, there will not be a complete ban on cross-border trade, but a permit for importing bulk foodstuffs for resale will have to be obtained from Zimbabwe's Ministry of Industry, and will not be as easy to get as a visitor's permit.

Waiting for jobs

Besides the shoppers and traders, thousands of Zimbabweans who have crossed the border illegally wait around Musina in the hope of finding a job to pay their fare to bigger South African cities further south.


Photo: Elles van Gelder/IRIN
Waiting for work, Peter (20) and Kudzai (18) jumped the border into South Africa from Zimbabwe


According to Bertus Schutte, who manages the labour force on Maswiri Farm, about 20km north of Musina, more and more Zimbabweans come looking for work every day. He said they left as soon as they could, and about fifty labourers went to cities like Johannesburg and Pretoria each week.

Peter, 20, and Kudzai, 18, from a village in Masvingo Province in southern Zimbabwe, crossed into South Africa illegally near the Beitbridge border post two weeks ago and have since been waiting for jobs at Maswiri.

They plan to seek work in Johannesburg, where friends of theirs already have jobs in construction. It is estimated that there are close to three million Zimbabweans in South Africa, mostly illegally.

Neither Peter nor Kudzai has a passport, and they do not see the point of going to one of the refugee reception offices run by South Africa's Home Affairs Department, which deals with immigration, to ask for asylum.

"They know they will be sent back immediately, because the authorities see all of them as economic refugees. So, coming in illegally or on a visitor's permit and staying, is the only option," Jacob Matakanye of the Musina Legal Advice Office, an organisation that helps immigrants in the region, told IRIN.

No tsunami

There are no official figures on the rate of influx of illegal Zimbabweans into South Africa, but in the past few weeks local media and the South African opposition party, Democratic Alliance, have been reporting a rising tide of Zimbabwean immigrants.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), which runs a reception and support centre in Beitbridge providing assistance to migrants returning from South Africa, reported that 16,500 Zimbabweans were sent home in June, and the figures for July were expected to be the same.

"There is no sudden 'tsunami' of people being deported," said Nick van der Vijver of IOM. "These figures ... represent the number of Zimbabweans deported, and say nothing about the number of people leaving Zimbabwe."


Photo: Elles van Gelder/IRIN
30-year-old Diana from Zimbabwe waits at the Beit Bridge border for a truck to take her to Durban where she will sell crafts to earn some money for her children

He said the story of a wave of Zimbabweans coming [to South Africa] in the last few weeks seemed an exaggeration, considering the number of deportees had remained relatively stable.

Gabriel Shumba, of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (ZEF), estimated that 5,000 people legally crossed the border every day, 3,000 of whom remained in South Africa. Illegally, he guessed, about 7,000 were crossing the border daily.

Shumba expected these numbers to increase as Zimbabwe's parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for March 2008, drew nearer. "Violence has always been stepped up before elections," he said. "Besides, hunger will also drive many people to South Africa."

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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

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