Fleeing Mugabe: Crossing the Limpopo

Three to five million people have poured over 'Africa's Rio Grande', fleeing meltdown in Zimbabwe for the promised land. But the flood of humanity is bringing crisis to South Africa. By Daniel Howden on the Limpopo
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Following in the footsteps of Rudyard Kipling's Elephant's Child, "I am going to the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about by fever trees, to find out what the crocodile has for dinner." It is first light on the Limpopo and its banks are set about with fever trees, their golden-balled flowers opening to greet the day but there's no grey-green, greasy flow, not even a trickle. The river is dry.

A crowd of footprints break the earth where the bank meets the riverbed in the shadow of giant baobab tree. Before dawn, dozens of border jumpers were huddled here waiting for a signal from the far bank. A trampled cap has been left behind.

Their tracks strike out for the middle of the once-mighty river. Somewhere out there is Zimbabwe's border with South Africa. This trodden earth is now being called Africa's Rio Grande as thousands of impoverished Zimbabweans flee the meltdown of their country and seek illegal entry to the promised land. It is a frontier of renegade soldiers, human traffickers, embattled farmers, crocodiles and leopards.

Andrew is one of the few holding out. A white farmer, he now camps on what used to be his land, waiting to see if things will change. Pointing at the sandal prints in the riverbed he says: "If I were them, that's what I would do. On this side, their wages are worthless. Their only chance for survival is to get across the border to earn what they can in rands and smuggle it back."

On the far bank, there are three walls of fencing, erected in the apartheid era they are relics of an old battle that now form the frontline of a new crisis. Put up by the white government of the little-lamented P W Botha they were originally an electrified barrier to the guerrillas of the ANC.

Today's South African government is run by the ANC and needs the fences to stem the tide from the north that has been stoking internal discontent. A decade on from the birth of the rainbow nation, many ordinary South Africans are still waiting for their dividend. In this politically tense atmosphere, mass migration has sparked the first signs of black-on-black racism

Far from an impenetrable barrier, the power was turned off more than a decade ago, and the fences are shredded. President Thabo Mbeki is now under intense domestic pressure to close the border to illegals. Thousands of border police fight a daily battle in South Africa to drive back the Zimbabweans and those that get through to Johannesburg face often brutal migrant sweeps and unpleasant stays in the notorious Lindela holding camp.

The Limpopo, however, is their lifeline and they will keep coming.

Nobody knows how many Zimbabweans have headed south, estimates stretch anywhere from three million to five million. But this human traffic has now become a stampede.

The border post at Beitbridge is a crash course in the complexities of a country in freefall. The town, such as it is, grew up around a bridge built in 1920 by the German mining tycoon Alfred Beit. Developers have flanked the road with shining filling stations and supermarkets with asphalt car parks.

But this is a charade. There is no petrol or diesel at the pumps. The car parks are empty. At the supermarket, the prices change hourly. Economists expect Zimbabwe's inflation rate to pass 2,000 per cent this year. To put that startling number in context, the next worst rate in the world is Burma with 60 per cent. Since the turn of the century, this country's once sophisticated economy has shrunk by half. The result is 80 per cent unemployment, and 85 per cent of the population living in poverty.

It was not always so. When, in 1980, Robert Mugabe won the first free elections in independent Zimbabwe, he was feted by Western liberals as a beacon of hope for Africa and hailed by his people as a liberator. His early approach of soothing racial rivalries and respecting property rights encouraged many. But that was never the whole truth. Soon after taking power, he launched a brutal pogrom, the Gukuruhundi, against the minority Ndebele people, killing as many as 10,000. By 1995, when Nelson Mandela came to Beitbridge to open a new bridge and salute the liberator, Mr Mugabe's grip on power was starting to loosen. His strategy for holding on was to rip the country apart.

With a cynical eye on the restless veterans of the independence war he turned on the white population in 1998, accused them of being traitors and launched a chaotic and destructive series of farm invasions dressed as land reform. Zimbabwe plummeted from feast to famine. A country that fed its neighbours was forced to accept emergency food aid as agricultural output was decimated and foreign currency reserves collapsed. It did, however, allow Mugabe to shore up his power base. Thanks to carefully engineered elections and the political control of food aid he now stands largely unchallenged, the opposition in splinters.

Sitting slumped in a chair in his office, Pius Ncube looks tired. The Catholic Bishop of Bulawayo is one of Mugabe's last remaining public critics. His anger and eloquence have provided a rallying call amid the rivalries and splits of an opposition poisoned from within by agents of the secret police. "We're in a state of paralysis. What can we do? We have neither a leader nor a credible party. People are so afraid."

On the walls, a parade of black and white saints vie for space with secular heroes. A beaming Nelson Mandela sits two icons away from a portrait of Martin Luther King. "We need a Mandela, a Gandhi. Someone to stand up against Mugabe and kick this man out."

Ncube leans forward, eyes half closed and his voice quiet as a whisper. "We're on a silent march to I don't know where... Why must we be held to ransom by one silly man."

Zimbabwe's real economy, or what's left of it, is in the teeming slums and flea markets that surround the ghostly modern Beitbridge. Here everything is for sale. Filthy single-storey brothels service the lorry drivers. No one is testing for HIV - they don't need to; the infection rates are near total. Touts rush to open car windows offering petrol, paraffin, hard currency, all the things that can only be bought on the black market. Bundles of the monopoly money of hyper-inflation are passed shiftily from hand to hand.

Everyone knows they are being watched. Mugabe's spies are everywhere. The secret police of the Central Intelligence Organisation - plain clothes informants - they are on the look-out for smugglers, border hoppers, opposition members, anyone who could pose a threat or offer an income. They are also on the look-out for journalists. The Mugabe regime would rather the world looked elsewhere, so reporting without permission now carries a two-year prison sentence.

On the other side of Beitbridge, there is a new camp for the deported migrants. Wilson is standing behind a tall wire fence, leaning on an automatic rifle and wearing an outsized uniform. Despite working as the camp's guard he has time to talk.

"It's been a quiet day," he says, gesturing in the direction of hundreds of exhausted looking people standing in a queue that snakes twice round a white tent. The people are deportees, rounded up in Johannesburg and dumped en masse back across the border by South African police. "We usually get about 600 to 700 a day." They are queuing for a meal, paid for by the International Organisation for Migration. They will then take an arduous four-hour bus journey north to Bulawayo where many will begin the long march back to the border. "Most of them will go straight back across again," he says with a shrug.

As night closes in on the northern outskirts of the border town, the rusted pick-ups wait for fresh border jumpers. They are beginning to fan out along the 170-mile frontier and deliver their human cargo to the staging posts where they can start their dangerous trek again.

Hours from anywhere in the deep bush, torches shine angrily at the windscreen. The scratched barrel of an AK-47 pokes through the open window, holding on to it is a skinny looking soldier. A calm exchange follows. Questions are asked about the white man in the passenger seat but the soldier knows the driver so nothing ensues.

"Why do you think he's out here in the cold in the middle of the night?" The driver asks.

He answers himself: "He's freelancing. No one pays him to guard this track he's here to get bribes from the traffickers."

On the other side of the border the same rules apply. Mistreatment of migrants is commonplace according to Human Rights Watch and police see vulnerable migrants as a ready source of income. With no child soldiers or civil war, South Africans don't understand what Zimbabweans are running from.

Despite the brutal dictatorship in their northern neighbour only 114 Zimbabweans were granted refugee status last year. The others are shepherded into disease-ridden camps before being shunted back across.

Any day now, the rains will come and the greasy tide will wash away the tracks. Kipling never actually saw the Limpopo or its fever trees. But when the grey-green water starts to flow the desperate people will form human chains across the river holding hands to ford the strong current. Those that can't hold on will be washed away, offering a darker answer to the Elephant Child who asked: "What does the crocodile have for dinner?"