It’s a 542-kilometer drive from Johannesburg to Beitbridge. As we arrive the sun is shining its warm golden light over the bridge connecting South Africa and Zimbabwe. There are no birds chirping over the Limpopo River. It seems like a peaceful morning, until you get closer.
There is pandemonium as hundreds of cars line up to be stripped and searched before proceeding into Zimbabwe. A journey to Harare is delayed by at least three hours. President Robert Mugabe’s government has banned the importation of basic goods from South Africa. All banned goods are confiscated.
Priscilla Ngwenya is a woman in the autumn of her life. She has brown wrinkly skin, dull brown eyes and a jutting jawline that makes her look tired of suffering. On this day, she says she has endured pain and penury working for her grandchildren at home in Zimbabwe. She is not about to let anyone else gain from her sweat, nor her liters of cooking oil that she is trying to import.
“I will not work for the police. I work too hard for you to take food I bought for my family for yourselves. If I can’t get this to my hungry grandchildren, then no one else will have it,” she says as she pours 20 liters of cooking oil onto the street that she carried 2,000 kilometers from her job as a domestic worker in Cape Town.
Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Industry and Commerce banned basic imports of goods, such as cooking oil, coffee creamers, hair extensions, body creams, building material, furniture, baked beans, cereals, peanut butter, jams and mayonnaise. It is all part of a “Buy Zimbabwe” campaign that government hopes will see factories built in its land.
With millions worth of goods going into Zimbabwe, South Africa is the largest importer to the country and the biggest trading partner.
“[The ban] is a desperate move by Zimbabwe, to try and preserve their currency and to stimulate internal trade, however [it is] not viable as no local company can provide the basic consumer goods that South Africa offers,” says Ian Cruickshanks, Chief Economist at the Institute of Race Relations.
“This government is very stupid. We buy from South Africa because it is cheaper and it’s the only way for us to survive. Buying anything made in Zimbabwe is very expensive. The rands I earn can’t support my family,” Ngwenya screams throwing the empty bucket on the ground at Beitbridge.
The ban on imports has irked many like Ngwenya. Next to her is a man breaking the plastic electrical conduits he isn’t allowed to take across the border.
Just days before, traders burned a warehouse, where the confiscated goods were held, and barricaded the roads with rocks and burning tyres, forcing the closure of the border, believed to be the first time in history.
“I buy goods in South Africa and sell them here in a small shop in Bulawayo. That’s the way I have been surviving and keeping my family afloat. I used to be a teacher but I couldn’t deal with the lack of payments by government and I decided to get into business,” says Prudence Dube.
Tuleka Ngci, of GoAfrica, who has been transporting goods from South Africa to Malawi since December, says business has been slow after traders blocked the Beitbridge border. Ngci transports goods such as groceries, fruit and vegetables from South Africa through the Zimbabwean border to Malawi every week.
“If we can’t pass through the border to buy goods then that means there’s no business for us. Customers blame us for what is happening in Zimbabwe and as a result we find ourselves in the middle of a crossfire we don’t even understand,” says Ngci.
“The restriction against imported goods is threatening the livelihood of people and when people are hungry they get angry. And in this case who knows who they’ll take out their anger on.”
According to Dube, many Zimbabweans turn to smuggling.
“My business is registered, I pay duty for the goods I buy, and I employ six people. If this ban is not lifted, I will have to go the smuggling route like most informal traders in the country. That will be a disadvantage to government. I don’t think they thought this through and looked at how we would be affected,” she says.
Smuggling goods in open sight seems easy enough to do. At the border, some authorities are not shy to take bribes. We carried a two-liter cooking oil bottle to test the system. The man doing the checks told us cooking oil could no longer be imported into the country before asking for a bribe to let us through.
“I have a lot of friends who never pay anything. The officials are also hungry so they just pocket whatever they can get from people,” says Dube.
Most small businesses smuggle goods with the help of transporters like Bongani Sibanda.
“Because of the economic situation in Zimbabwe, smuggling is an everyday thing and we see ourselves as business people providing a service. I carry groceries, and whatever else people send from South Africa to Zimbabwe, twice a week. As long as it is not drugs or any illegal goods I see myself as helping people,” he says.
Sibanda says the ban will affect his “business”. More bribes mean higher fees.
“It will also bring in more business to us because those who cross the border to stock up themselves may be afraid to smuggle things so they will commission us,” he says.
Sibanda worked at a shoe factory in Bulawayo for 15 years before being thrown out by the factory closure. He now makes around $2,500 a month, enough to send his daughter to university in South Africa.
Sibanda may be making a buck, but the Zimbabwean economy isn’t.
According to media, the Chief Executive Officer of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce, Christopher Mugaga, estimates Zimbabwe could be losing $1.5 billion every year through smuggling of goods. The figure is more than one third of the country’s $4 billion national budget. Local industries have closed shop as their products fail to compete with the cheap smuggled products, cutting 100,000 jobs over the last five years. The government is said to make $60 million per month from duties charged at Beitbridge.
At the Beitbridge border post, Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) Acting Commissioner General, Happias Kuzvinzwa, in a statement, has urged members of staff to desist from corruption.
“It is time to wipe away corruption! We must all know that we are accountable to the nation and seriously consider our duty as custodians of revenue laws in this country,” he says.
He says ZIMRA will intensify lifestyle audits to decrease numbers of goods smuggled into the country.
As we drive off, it seems trouble and smuggling at the border will not go away anytime soon.