Of elections, border chaos

BEITBRIDGE - The mobile network signal drops as you get to the border gate, a sign that you are entering foreign territory.

“Thank you for choosing MTN,” says an electronic voice message from the mobile phone network.

“If you wish to stay connected, select the roaming service of your choice. Have a nice journey to Zimbabwe.”

It’s a typical wintry morning at the South African side of the Beitbridge Border Post. There is a queue of about 30 people. Soon, three buses from Johannesburg enroute to Harare and Bulawayo arrive.

Suddenly the queue is snaking along the border fences.

The people are talking about everything from robbers in Johannesburg, nice cars cruising the carpet-like roads of the city and of course, the price of groceries they buy for resale back home.

After a while, some in the queue start complaining about the slow pace of business at the border. Eventually, the discussions take a political twist.

“Zimbabwe will be fine and we won’t need to go through this again,” said a man in the queue.

The discussion is briefly interrupted by a South African immigration officer who passes by to control the snaking queue.

Appetite for the political subject is growing among the crowd but many are speaking in hushed tones for fear of saying the “wrong” things in public.

“Things need to change in our country, we don’t enjoy all these hassles”, said a vocal woman in the queue who was among the most outspoken.

“We wish we could get everything at home especially jobs and we won’t need to live a life on the road.”

She has been journeying to South Africa for the last four years to buy goods for resale back home.

“I have a family of four boys and one girl and their father died. I am both the father and the mother of my children and have no option but to live on the road to make ends meet but if I get something better to do I will stop doing this,” she said as she was rubbing her palms to try ward off the biting chilly weather.

As the queue moves slowly towards the passport stamping desks, a pregnant woman walks up to ask for preferential treatment at the head of the queue. She gets a rude response from a South African immigration officer on duty.

“This is not a maternity ward, please go and join the queue,” barks the immigration officer in an authoritative and harsh tone.

The woman walks back. But after a while, this time accompanied by two other women, they try to plead her case for special treatment.

She is visibly in pain but the immigration officer would not have none of it. Suddenly the woman collapses, and the female immigration officer is jerked into action, scrambling to assist her.

“I don’t want people here, I am trying to deal with this mess and you are already causing some more mess,” she yells at the many Zimbabweans in the queue.

“I can close this border now if you don’t go back onto the queue.”

The collapsed woman is eventually taken to a border first aid room for treatment.

But her appalling treatment at the hands of South African immigration officers elicited an angry reaction from the crowd.

“We might be facing problems in our country but these people have no right to treat us like this,” said a visibly angry elderly man.

“This woman is pregnant and it was a simple thing of allowing her to stamp her passport and go.”

In the meantime, several touts who work in cahoots with the police and the immigration officers are shunting up and down, hand-holding those wishing to jump the queue for a fee, where they are easily served.

There are touts everywhere on the border and they ask for anything between R20 to R100 to jump the queue.

Inside the immigration hall, a woman who had overstayed in South Africa by two days, is slapped with a R1 500 fine.

The service inside the immigration hall is painstakingly slow. It’s taking the officers about five minutes to clear a single person and occasionally they talk on their phones and exchange pictures and other stuff while Zimbabweans wait patiently.

One man who could no longer stomach their behaviour expresses his displeasure. But he is answered in a way that one could not have imagined.

“Hey, hey, I am dealing with Zimbabweans; you want me to just let criminals pass through the border?” the immigration officer shoots back.

“You won’t tell me how to do my job, this is South Africa and we vet people, we don’t just stamp people’s passports like in Zimbabwe, here we catch criminals.” Most of the people in this morning queue have already endured three hours of waiting to cross the border into Zimbabwe.

“All this can end if we make things right at home,” another man in the queue interjects, joining into the hot conversation at the border.

“If we don’t participate in elections, then it means this suffering shall continue. These South Africans have their own way of holding their government accountable, we ought to play our part and go and vote to make things better.”

Everyone here recalls of the 2008 political violence that saw many of them fleeing to South Africa. They argue about who is right between President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

While they are all agreed that the country needs a stable government to guarantee a return to the good old days, for those travelling the opposite direction into South Africa, things were even worse.

They have to endure an unofficial screening exercise where some people are asked to prove that they had enough funds to look after themselves while in South Africa, a requirement that had been scrapped.

But now the South Africans are gradually introducing requirements of the past for Zimbabweans wishing to enter South Africa like proof of funds, a sign that they might just be starting to shut the door on Zimbabweans as elections draw closer.

In 2008 South Africa had to deal with an unprecedented humanitarian crisis as thousands of Zimbabweans crossed the Limpopo River fleeing economic and political meltdown back home.

Meanwhile, a group of Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) officials swoop on the travellers urging them to register to vote.

Reluctantly one of the female cross border travellers accepts a Zec brochure but before they walk off to the next guest, she drops it down and muses: “This won’t change anything in my life.” The wind sweeps the Zec brochure away.

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