ON a very hot Saturday afternoon in Beitbridge, just drive for 30km west of Zimbabwe’s southern border town and stop at the now defunct River Ranch Mine.
The mine is located almost 300 to 500 metres from the bank of the Limpopo River that borders Zimbabwe and South Africa.
There one will find chirping birds, cattle, goats, sheep and donkeys grazing and that is expected. And if one walks further towards the river, they will come across thick bushes and be greeted by the sound of the roaring Limpopo River, as it flows all the way to the Indian Ocean.
Since the mine closed a few years ago, the only people expected to be seen in this part of the world are security guards on the mine premises, police on patrol and herd boys. However, one will be lucky to come across any police officer or security guards, instead it will be shocking at least to a stranger to see scores of people enjoying themselves and going about their business in an area devoid of legal settlements.
Along the way to the river there are criss-crossing footpaths and roads used by smugglers and illegal immigrants leaving or entering Zimbabwe. As if that is not enough, the smugglers have built shacks using tree leaves and shrubs some two metres from the river banks, as they expand their little paradise in the wilderness. And camouflaged by the cover of the river bank thickets, the vigilant young men will be guarding all access points to their illegal entry and exit points — their “border”, of course, away from the border.
The hiding crew will be there to raise alarm about imminent danger, be it from other gangs or security agents on patrol.
Smuggling has been a global problem at border areas since time immemorial and the culprits and syndicates have always been developing new tricks each day to outwit the system and remain in business. In Zimbabwe, however, it is understood that the country is losing 40 percent of targeted revenue due to intrusive leakages orchestrated by rackets operating from both Zimbabwe and South Africa. The two countries’ annual trade stands at 60 percent, with Zimbabwe importing most of its basic products from south of the Limpopo River.
This time around, the syndicates are using inflatable boats and in some cases plastic dust bins to transport either goods or illegal immigrants to either side of the border. When the Sunday News crew arrived at the River Ranch Mine crossing point recently, there was a vehicle waiting for contraband from the neighbouring country. The loot was expected to be brought in via Maswiri Farm on the other side of the river. The driver, in his mid-30s, who suspected the news crew to be security agents, sped-off towards Zwaphele area. Three donkey drawn scotch carts and a camouflage inflatable boat were hidden under thick bushes. The boats are sold for between R10 000 and R30 000 in South Africa depending of course on the size and the model.
Young adults including women and men in their swimming gear were found hiding in one of the makeshift shacks while buckets containing food and alcohol were also hidden near the boat.
“Who are you and what’s your business here at the river,?” asked one of the men, who identified himself only as Moses.
After several minutes of negotiating with Moses, he agreed to an interview. He said those with inflatable boats were making a killing now that Vhembe River is swollen. However, he refused to disclose how much they were realising from the boats per day.
“This is our life. We move goods and people to and from either country across the river around the clock. These boats are handy especially during the rainy season and now that the Limpopo River is in flood as you can see for yourself business gets brisk. For goods we charge varied prices and R400 for those illegally crossing the border. You will notice that we have everything that we need for survival here including food and beer, so we can afford to stay here for a long time,” said Moses.
According to Moses, the contrabands are destined to various parts of the country including Harare and Bulawayo. He said although the police and other security agents often raid the area, they have perfected a plan to co-exist. He added that in some cases they would pay “tribute” to those patrolling the area with either money or goods for their freedom.
“Most of the people you see here are good swimmers, but we had one drowning incident early this year. We cannot run away from fate, we have to work. In terms of communication we have vigilant people on both sides of the river who alert us about security patrols during our course of duty,” he said.
A female vendor who preferred anonymity said she sold isitshwala and beef or goat meat and beer to the smugglers and border jumpers. A standard meal of isitshwala and beef is sold for between R20 and R30, while prices of beer are pegged at R10 per pint. She said there were several other illegal crossing points dotted along the river where the same trade was thriving.
Other known points include, Tshikomitshini, Nottingham area, Shashe, Mai Maria, Dite, Panda Mine, Musetshe, Tshikwalakwala and Dite, among others.
“I set up this business after realising that those operating from here and their clients need food,” said the female vendor.
As word spread that the news crew was in the area, most of the smugglers deserted their points with their boats and other tools of trade. Smuggling along the country’s borders went into overdrive last year when the Government through Statutory Instrument No 64 of 2016 removed listed products from open general import license (OGIL).
Some of the goods which now require permits prior to importation include basic commodities, building material and furniture. Groceries, furniture, banned genetically modified foods, bron-cleer (cough syrup used by drug abusers) and beer top the list of the illicit goods finding their way into the country through illegal means.
Not to be outdone by those using boats on the river, a new crop of smugglers on bicycles has also emerged at Beitbridge Border Post. These find their way into the border through an opening behind the Duty Free shop after allegedly bribing security agents manning that area.
A few days ago a CCTV camera used by border authorities manning that area was stolen by unknown people during a power blackout. Over 70 bikers access the border daily transporting contrabands in or out of the country. Zimbabwe Revenue Authority’s board secretary and director of corporate services, Ms Florence Jambwa said smuggling was an illegal and underground activity, which was difficult to quantify due to its hidden nature.
“Smuggling destroys the economy and takes various forms, which include use of undesignated and illegal crossing points, false declarations, and concealment of contraband and or non-declaration of imported or exported goods. The Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) employs several strategies to curb smuggling. These measures include but are not limited to the following: patrols, roadblocks, joint operations between Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries, awareness campaigns and seizure of smuggled goods,” said Ms Jambwa.
She added that Zimra in collaboration with law enforcement agents carries out regular day and night surveillance and patrols along the border line to arrest the scourge of smuggling. Ms Jambwa said the joint roadblocks with the police were being mounted against deal with issues of goods being smuggled through undesignated and illegal entry points which end up on the country’s road network on their way to various destinations.
Matabeleland South police spokesperson, Inspector Philisani Ndebele said they had intensified patrols along the boundary line and other known crime hot spots.
“We have scaled up patrol in all crime hot spots and these have led to the arrest of many criminals. I cannot give you figures at the moment, but I can assure you that all our strategies are bearing fruit. Further, you will note that the Government has installed CCTV to beef up the security and aid crime prevention at Beitbridge border post,” he said.
Insp Ndebele said members of the public should report any criminal activities they witnessed in their areas to the police.
So far Government has committed a total of $600 000 to beef up security along the border with South Africa.
Part of the money is reported to have gone towards the purchase of lie detectors, mineral and metal detectors, patrol motor bikes, secret cameras and repairing the border perimeter fence which was vandalised by criminals.
However, more still needs to be done at Government level if the country is to effectively deal with intrusive leakages along its borders, otherwise curbing crime in that part of the world will remain a perennial mirage.