Smuggling across the dry Limpopo riverbed has never been this high. Queues of vehicles loading goods illicitly brought into the country have turned dirty village road networks into busy streets.
Informal border posts along Zimbabwe’s porous borderline with South Africa are witnessing booming business.
Authorities from the neighbouring country, who in the past intercepted Zimbabwe-bound smugglers, appear frustrated and have seemingly developed a blind eye to the vice. If it’s worth a few dollars and your previous efforts to guard have not rewarded, why keep your eyes open after all?
Smugglers are known to pay well.
Motor vehicles and donkey-drawn carts are being pushed and punished to the last as villagers and known smugglers rush to make as many trips as possible to maximise on ill-gotten profits.
Enspanned donkeys on Monday night helped out a Toyota Land Cruiser vehicle, whose four-wheel drive mechanics made the animals’ work light as it crossed through one of the newly-created entry points.
The human labour component providing the vital and daring physical link, carrying smuggled goods across the river, has increased and youths in that business are making a killing.
This is the tragedy of the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra)’s decision to unleash its loss control section at Beitbridge targeting cross-border transporters, commonly known as omalayitsha.
The cross-border transporters have fled the official port of entry and very few vehicles trickle in, with most of them empty, knowing they would pick their loads a few kilometres down the road.
Zimra corporate affairs secretary Ropafadzo Majaja and spokesperson Taungana Ndoro had, at the time of going to print last night, both not responded to questions emailed to them.
Ndoro, who said he was attending to labour hearings last week, referred all questions to Majaja, whose promises to reply continue unfulfilled.
Omalayitsha, in their response to restrictions that saw them spend at times three days at the border and having millions of dollars of banned goods being seized by the taxman, resorted to the riverbed ’port’.
“On both sides of Beitbridge town, smuggling activities are on the rise. Never before have we seen such traffic. Village roads have become busy streets and all of a sudden, villagers are in money,” a woman from Makakavhule, just a stone’s throw from the mighty but seasonal Limpopo River, said.
Another villager from the eastern side of the border area, near South Africa’s gate number 10, known for an easy way for cars crossing the Limpopo River, said a beige Toyota Land Cruiser vehicle was smuggled in at around dawn on Monday.
Later, the same car was seen around the Tongwe Secondary School road, which joins the Bulawayo Highway in Beitbridge West.
Vehicle smugglers, who had temporarily retreated to their rabbit holes have resurfaced and use this route and another to beat a 24-hour security roadblock at Bubi, 80km north of the border town.
In winter, the Beitbridge section of the 1 750km Limpopo River, also known as Vhembe, its African name or the Crocodile River due to the existence of millions of those fanged reptiles, is just a meandering stretch of sand, easily navigable on foot.
“It’s easy to walk across and porters charge between R5 and R7 per single load errant. Each person can make numerous errands a day and earn as much as R700 or more,” the villager said.
Trucks with capacities to transport thirty-tonne loads like cooking oil, laundry soap bars, and potatoes — you name it — can be loaded from part consignments at the river.
Scores of Beitbridge residents have deployed their small trucks to the river, where they cash in on the smuggled goods.
Goods are taken from the river to safe “warehouses”, further inland from where the haulage trucks can be loaded.
The few soldiers and policemen guarding the borderline are overwhelmed and underpaid, making easier the choice to line their own pockets allowing in goods.
Zimra is understaffed and patrols by their officials are few and far apart, with the terrain making the task even more difficult.
Over 200 informal crossing points are known to exist on the 325km-long border line.
Having men stand shoulder to shoulder guarding the border line could require about 325 000 men standing side by side at 1 000 men per kilometre.
This would stretch the entire Zimbabwe National Army, Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services, and the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), whose combined personnel is less than 200 000.
Zimbabwe, at the moment, has no capacity to erect a security fence on its leaky boundary with South Africa.
Police officer commanding Beitbridge District, Chief Superintendent Francis Phiri, said they had not received reports of smuggling.
“We will go on the ground now to check, but we have no reports of that nature,” he said.
Omalayitsha’s actions are a result of weeks of an impasse between them and border authorities, which two weeks ago resulted in soldiers deployed to the border post, firing warning shots to disperse crowds.
The crowds were protesting against repeated searching, numerous demands for bribes and seizure of goods.
“A lot of omalayitsha made U-turns and went back to South Africa, fearing that their goods would be seized, at the same time avoiding paying duty,” a Zimra officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
“They withdrew from the queue and drove back to South Africa, saying they were not prepared to have their goods seized,” he said.
Importation of goods, which are available in the country, has been banned.
“Building material, onions, potatoes and other types of furniture are not allowed and we have been seizing these. We have also seized roofing material, including iron sheets,” he said.
“The government must come up with a decision on whether to charge affordable duty or lose everything. People risk their lives to smuggle, but are willing to pay duty if it is within reach,” another Zimra staffer said.
With a few Zimbabwean industries operational following years of economic meltdown, most people eke out a living through importing goods for resale, even from as far as China.
The same people have to contend with high duty regimes, which most people feel are meant to protect local industries that, however, are charging an arm and a leg for locally produced goods.
“We hope the new dispensation will look at this. Over the years, people who have access to import licences bring goods in bulk for resale at exorbitant prices,” the Zimra official said.
Zimbabwe is known to charge some of the highest import duties in the region, which officials feel would encourage less imports and promote the buying of locally manufactured goods.
The government has, however, been unable to effect price controls, resulting in people opting for cheaper imports.
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