The tide of Zimbabweans arriving in South Africa, driven by extreme shortages of food and basic goods, has grown into a flood as strong as the nearby Limpopo River in the rainy season.
Zimbabwe used to be one of Africa’s most prosperous countries. Its slide into economic chaos under President Robert Mugabe’s regime has forced people to make heart-wrenching decisions—taking their children out of schools because they can’t pay the fees, or even leaving them behind while they try to find work in South Africa.
The government of South Africa rejects the view of some activists that hunger and social upheaval in Zimbabwe are so severe that most border jumpers should be classified as refugees. The migrants are sent back to the chaos and poverty they fled.
Some people profess pity for the Zimbabweans, but many farmers have run out of compassion. They go on regular patrols, rounding up Zimbabweans and handing them to the police, and some of the farmers say they are so angry that they sometimes feel like shooting the trespassers on their land.
Police have stopped releasing statistics on immigrant arrests. The latest police data available indicate that here in Limpopo province, police arrested 5,000 Zimbabwean border jumpers in January.
But the army alone has arrested almost 42,000 Zimbabweans this year, and expects the total to reach 100,000 by year’s end, compared with about 72,000 last year, according to figures provided at a military briefing to businessmen and farmers last month in this border town.
Zimbabweans speak of a disintegrating society, a place so desperate that mothers of young children leave them behind to make the terrifying journey south.
Cecilia Mapani, wizened and worn down at 25, left Zimbabwe in March because there was no way to feed her young brothers and her 7-year-old son, Tanaka.
“I was afraid, but I forced myself to come,” she said. “People say a lot of things about this Limpopo River. There are crocodiles in the river. The water was powerful and I don’t know how to swim.”
She joined a group of about 130 people, escorted by traffickers. They were told to hold hands when they waded into the river, which came almost to Mapani’s neck. They walked for five hours through the bush to get to the nearest town, Musina.
Mapani found work picking tomatoes on a local farm for $40 a month. Some would call it exploitation, but to her the meager wage offered survival and hope. Mapani is now in Johannesburg, penniless and unemployed.
Ask Mapani how it felt to leave her son behind, and she gazes ahead numbly, as though seeing nothing. She left him with his father, a miner; she hopes he’ll be all right.
Farmers complain that their game fences are cut daily, their water pipes are broken by thirsty Zimbabweans, pump and irrigation parts are repeatedly stolen, fires are lighted, game killed and farmworkers threatened and sometimes attacked.
When game escapes, it’s impossible to recover it, said Gert Klopper, 65, who has a farm near the Zimbabwean border and lost 25 wildebeest valued at about $9,000 to a neighbor: Wild game cannot be marked or branded.
As the farmers patrol a deserted dirt track, the red dust is marked with the footprints of those who passed the night before. Here and there are traces of a scuffle: some discarded trousers and an old bag, signs that someone was robbed of their few possessions. There are also the remains of several fires.
Occasionally, you pass several large rocks placed in a line to point the way. The border crossers also tie plastic bags or bottles to trees to mark the way or indicate pickup points.
Farmers also fear that the influx of Zimbabweans will scare away international game hunters. British hunter Richard Sloggett was surprised by the numbers of Zimbabweans rustling through bushes where he was supposed to be shooting.
“The problem is that these people [Zimbabweans] really have got nothing to lose. But that’s what makes them so dangerous.”
Two illegal Zimbabwean immigrants, both teens, scale the last of three fences to take their chances in South Africa.