Anxious Zimbabwean migrants, smugglers watch South Africa’s election

Many undocumented Zimbabweans worry there could be unfavourable changes to South Africa’s immigration policy after the May 29 polls.

People smuggle goods into Zimbabwe from South Africa
People smuggle goods into Zimbabwe from South Africa near the Beitbridge border post [File: Jerome Delay/AP]

Gwanda, Zimbabwe – A Toyota Hilux with South African plates parks on the roadside in Nkwana village in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland South province and honks its horn. An elderly woman makes her way to the car where the driver hands her parcels containing groceries, a blanket and a small envelope with an undisclosed amount of cash.

The driver, Thulani Ncube, 42, whose real name we are not using to protect his identity, is “oMalaicha”, an Ndebele word for the cross-border drivers who ferry goods between South Africa and Zimbabwe. Fortnightly, he makes deliveries to villagers in the border region – most of it smuggled.

“There are goods we declare, but some we smuggle them in and out,” Ncube told Al Jazeera. “With most of our clients in low-paying jobs in South Africa and in the villages in Zimbabwe, we don’t want to add extra charges included in declaration of goods, so bribes come into play at border controls.”

Zimbabweans have been fleeing across the border into South Africa for decades – most as a result of political crisis, harsh economic conditions and chronic underdevelopment at home.

There are more than a million Zimbabweans living in South Africa, according to the country’s census data and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which also notes that many have entered the country without proper documentation.

The situation has created business opportunities for Malaicha, who not only smuggle goods but also people wanting to enter South Africa illegally.

A truck loaded with goods to take across the Zimbabwe border
An oMalaicha, or cross-border driver, gets ready to take goods from Zimbabwe to South Africa [Courtesy of GroundUp]

Ncube, who has been oMalaicha for 11 years, said he charges “one beast” – one cattle, or the equivalent cost of $300-$400 – per person he takes across.

But now, with South Africa’s upcoming general election on May 29, a vote expected to be the most competitive one since the end of apartheid 30 years ago, Ncube is worried about what the outcome may mean for business.

What he is sure about, he said, is that even if the next government tightens South Africa’s immigration policy, he will not stop his work but move it further underground.

Connected across borders

In Gohole village, 161km (100 miles) from the Beitbridge border with South Africa, village head Courage Moyo, 64, stays glued to his television these days, closely watching election debates and developments in the neighbouring country.

Despite xenophobia and flare-ups of violent attacks against foreign nationals in South Africa, Zimbabweans still flock there to give themselves and their families back home a better life.

“I have lost seven cattle paying oMalaicha to transport my children to South Africa,” Moyo told Al Jazeera. “They had no documents, I could not afford the passports for them, so they had to cross illegally.

Courage Moyo
Courage Moyo, the headman of Gohole village [Calvin Manika/Al Jazeera]

“Every month I receive groceries and money from South Africa to sustain ourselves. I pray for them every day,” he said.

Now he is worried that any unfavourable outcome in South Africa’s immigration policy will affect Zimbabweans living there as well as the millions back home who depend on them for remittances and support.

Moyo is in a local WhatsApp group chat with other parents and neighbours who have children in South Africa. The 310 members, including relatives across the border, use the platform to analyse the elections.

Some of the members in South Africa are considering rethinking their immigration plans if a new party takes power, with some contemplating moving to Botswana.

But for many in Matabeleland South, the links to South Africa are the strongest. The border province even favours using the South African rand, which people prefer to the local currency or the US dollar, which is popular elsewhere in Zimbabwe.

“Our families are part of that country,” Moyo said about how interconnected people are. “Nowadays elections in SA are the topical issue.”

The immigration issue

In April, representatives from five of South Africa’s leading political parties took part in a televised town hall panel discussion on immigration that Moyo watched snippets of on the show Elections 360. Among the millions of immigrants in South Africa, Zimbabweans took centre stage as a case study.

Speaking on the panel, South Africa’s Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi said the governing African National Congress (ANC) would “overhaul the whole immigration system” to deal with the issue of irregular and illegal migration.

The ANC has proposed repealing existing legislation to introduce a unified citizen, refugee and migration law.

Last month, the government also gazetted a Final White Paper on Citizenship, Immigration and Refugee Protection. Among other things, it proposes a review and possible withdrawal from some international treaties, including the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, which compelled South Africa to accommodate migrants and refugees without much restriction.

Motsoaledi said at the time that when the treaties were acceded to in the 1990s, it was done “without the government having developed a clear policy on migration, including refugee protection”.

Now South Africa “does not have the resources” to meet all of the requirements of the 1951 Convention, the minister added.

South Africa Health Minister
Aaron Motsoaledi, South Africa’s home affairs minister [File: EPA]

On the Elections 360 panel, Motsoaledi said overhauling the immigration system would resolve job issues among locals, which Zimbabweans and other nationals have been accused of taking over, and help bring skilled labour into the country.

However, Adrian Roos, a member of the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), said the problem was not the laws but that they were not being implemented effectively.

Gayton Mackenzie from the right-wing Patriotic Alliance (PA) blamed Zimbabweans for taking jobs while 60 percent of young South Africans were unemployed.

“It’s very hard to go to any restaurant and find a South African working there. It’s very hard to go into the security industry and find a South African … Every house has got illegal foreigners working there,” he said, urging “mass deportation” of people.

Funzi Ngobeni, from the right-leaning political party ActionSA, pointed to the root of the issue, saying the ANC government was “propping up” the ZANU-PF government in Zimbabwe, which was the cause of people fleeing over the border, to begin with.

Mzwanele Manyi of the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), meanwhile, took a more positive stance on migration, saying a government under their rule would look at Africa as a whole, beyond “the Berlin Conference borders of the imperialists” — with one passport for Africa and all Africans welcome.

“I am happy that there are diverse voices on this issue, which makes us a bit hopeful and hope for the parties with friendly immigration policies to win,” Moyo told Al Jazeera about what he had heard.

ZEP permits

Not all Zimbabweans in South Africa are undocumented.

In 2009, South Africa provided special dispensation for Zimbabweans affected by the crisis next door. Over the years, that evolved into what is now called the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit (ZEP).

In 2021, the Department of Home Affairs decided to end the special dispensation, but Minister Motsoaledi has since faced a litany of litigation from civil society organisations challenging the decision to terminate it by 2023. After court orders and mounting pressure, the ministry extended the permits to November 2025.

ZEP holders are allowed to work, seek employment and conduct business. But they cannot apply for permanent residence and the new permits will not be renewable. A permit holder can also not change their status in the country and must register all their children born and staying in South Africa.

Outside of the courts, the hope for the approximately 178,000 ZEP holders is in the outcome of this election.

Delight Mpala
Delight Mpala has a Zimbabwe Exemption Permit [Calvin Manika/Al Jazeera]

Delight Mpala, 36, who initially crossed the border to South Africa without documents in 2012, was deported a year later. After three years at home, she obtained a passport and managed to go back. While in South Africa, she successfully got a ZEP. However, her fears remain high.

“Under the ANC government, we have managed to stay in the country. But it’s a fight, not the gesture of the governing party. We believe that they are parties which if South Africans vote for, it will be better for us. But if [it] goes the other way, then we are doomed and our families back home,” Mpala told Al Jazeera.

In a recent GroundUp survey on immigration – that members of Moyo’s community WhatsApp group in Gohole village also discussed – different political parties shared their views on the ZEP.

While the ANC did not answer the survey’s questions, the opposition DA said it would allow current ZEP holders to apply for alternative visas they qualified for, including permanent residency for some, but the provisions would not immediately include the right to work.

The right-leaning Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) said it supported Motsoaledi’s decision to bring the ZEP to a close. On the future of Zimbabweans in South Africa, it said: “They should ideally return to their homeland, unless they successfully apply for and obtain alternative visa categories that allow them to stay.”

ActionSA expressed concern about the extension of the ZEP, saying it was essentially opposed to the permit and its extension was “a mockery of our constitutional democracy”.

‘Border jumpers’

While South African politicians debate immigration, Zimbabwe’s government has tried to discourage emigration, by, for instance, placing prohibitive prices for the issuance of passports.

The cost of getting a passport in Zimbabwe is about $200 – with fees paid only in USD and no provision for local currency. Meanwhile the average Zimbabwean earns between $200–$250 per month, making the travel documents largely unaffordable.

Against this backdrop, irregular migration to South Africa continues.

Zimbabweans crossing the border into South Africa
Zimbabweans wait to cross into South Africa on the dry bed of the Limpopo River along the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa [File: Jerome Delay/AP]

Although Beitbridge is the only formal land border between the two countries, the border region is more than 200km (124 miles) long.

When crossing illegally, some Zimbabweans pass through the official border with the help of smugglers and bribes, while others choose the more precarious route by “border jumping” via the Limpopo River; many migrants have lost their lives this way.

In Nkwana village where Ncube works, there are five Malaicha serving the route, with more servicing other routes across the Matabeleland region.

Ncube said on average each smuggles one to two people across per month, while other migrants find their way themselves.

If, after the election, South Africa’s immigration policy gets more restrictive, he will smuggle people only via the Limpopo River, he said, despite it being unsustainable and more dangerous than his current business.

“Despite xenophobic attacks and the risks of deportation, young people are eager to relocate to South Africa,” he told Al Jazeera. “These are uneducated people in informal spaces who are not eligible for the ZEP and permanent residence permits.

“Many times, you see our young people roaming at no man’s land near the Beitbridge border post. They want to go,” said Ncube.

Source: Al Jazeera