The Daily Maverick hauls out its trusty crystal ball, that old Ouija board, and a well-used pack of tarot cards, once more time, to consider what might happen if South Africa suddenly had to confront a great flood of refugees similar to those waves of thousands upon thousands of desperate people attempting to enter Western Europe from Syria and North Africa. J BROOKS SPECTOR filed this report from the future.
It started slowly, almost imperceptibly, as the number of people illicitly crossing the Limpopo River several kilometres away from the border crossing post at Beitbridge began to grow by a few dozen more per day beyond the number of those who usually slipped across the border. Traffic at the border control post was itself clogged with more passenger buses than usual. However, at least initially, most officials just marked that uptick down to a sudden rush of shoppers and traders stocking up for the holidays as well as many well-publicised sales – as visitors were looking for hard-to-find objects in Zimbabwe in some of Polokwane’s bigger stores.
Nevertheless, it has frequently been remarked upon anecdotally that dogs, some species of birds, as well as a number of other animals seem to be able to sense an impending earthquake before it actually happens. Just perhaps, then, these people moving southward were the first harbingers of the storm that was about to break upon the land.
Meanwhile, the attention of those big international agencies concerned with migration issues was still focused intently on dealing with the ceaseless flood of people fleeing Syria and North Africa – two major crises had already overstretched their resources and personnel. As a result, these agencies took no special notice at first of the increasing number of people moving into South Africa from the north.
At this time, all those nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and international bodies that dealt with refugees already had their hands rather full as the fighting in Syria had become even more intense. As Russian ground support fighter jets had begun to hit targets in many population centres, a growing number of desperate people kept fleeing into Turkey by land or to Greece’s Aegean Islands by boat, before they made their push towards Western Europe and sanctuary. To many observers, unbelievably, it now seemed as if the entire population of that unhappy country was now on the move, trying to get away from the death and destruction of the chaotic nature of combat there. While the numbers were relatively fewer coming across the Mediterranean from Africa, there was, similarly, no let up in the flow of people as Libya remained splintered by a half dozen warring factions, and as the drought further south continued to drive many more migrants from other nations on into Libya where they could aim for a chance to sail to the southern parts of Italy and a better life.
But then, quite suddenly, with virtually no warning, since he had just given a rousing, two-hour-long speech at an agricultural fair, Zimbabwe’s nonagenarian president, Robert Mugabe, passed away quietly in his sleep. Once the news of his death was broadcast on the state broadcasting network, and well before the official mourning period had ended, the factions jockeying for control in the wake of the president’s passing came out from the shadows, and well-armed groups of men began to secure control of key points throughout the nation. But they were not all on the same side.
The first clashes between factions broke out in the south-east part of the nation. In that part of Zimbabwe, especially, large numbers of people still remembered the mass killings that had occurred in 1983. As a result, many of those people quickly packed up their most essential belongings so they could carry whatever they could on buses, taxis and private vehicles and trucks moving south.
Then, as it became increasingly clear to Zimbabweans throughout the land that a power struggle to capture the state was now firmly in play, and as violent flare-ups began to take place between different factions in most of the major population centres of the country, people did what they have always done from time immemorial – they fled as best they could, as fast as they could. Suddenly, the entire zone north of the South African border crossing was awash with people, on foot, in motorised vehicles, and even on heavily laden bicycles. It was now a nation on the move and away from danger. Two explosions in Harare, one next to police headquarters and the other inside the entry foyer of the main offices of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, encouraged panic – and ever more people began to feel it was time to move.
One reporter for Agence France Presse, together with an Associated Press (AP) Television News cameraman – both of whom had just arrived in the country a few minutes earlier on the last plane to land before the airport had been closed to further traffic – found themselves the only two media witnesses to a caravan of black SUVs driving right onto the tarmac, only coming to a halt when they drew next to a mobile stairway that had been rolled up to the door of an unmarked executive jet with its engines already whining.
In fascination, they watched as a presidential widow – accoutred in a gold and black silk suit and matching head-scarf and wearing five strings of perfectly matched, large pearls – and in the company of several friends, quickly boarded the aircraft. Then burly security personnel carried five large metallic utility containers into the cabin of the aircraft, even as the passengers’ copious luggage was packed into the jet’s cargo hold. Then, without ceremony, the SUVs sped away and the plane taxied down the runway and quickly ascended skyward. Weeks later it was finally determined that the plane had first stopped in Mauritius for a refuelling stopover and then completed the final leg of its journey to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.
The quick-thinking AP cameraman did manage to get three minutes’ worth of video footage, capturing Grace Mugabe’s departure from Zimbabwe. Those images became a perfect counterfoil to the increasingly chaotic scenes at the border, used by international television broadcasts for many days to come.
Meanwhile, in the embassies of eight major nations represented in the country – China, the US, UK, Russia, France, Germany, India, and South Africa – their respective emergency action networks and then their emergency evacuation committees were all called into life. A small fleet of chartered commercial aircraft were then flown into the country, landing at one of the smaller airports, in order to provide for an orderly but urgent evacuation of all diplomatic families and all non-essential official personnel, as well as participating business figures and their families, along with other foreigners living in the country such as teachers, university lecturers and contract medical staff.
Only about 3,000 or so people eventually boarded the planes in this fleet, but the video images of the long lines of vehicles headed towards the airport were quickly broadcast around the world – and shared by Zimbabweans on social media. These images contributed even more to a global awareness that things really were falling apart. Interviews with tearful family members leaving their office and household staff behind to uncertain fates and who knew that their pets and personal belongings would probably never be seen again were a staple of news reports on the BBC, Sky/Fox News, CNN, and the French, German and even Russian and Chinese television broadcasts. For a while, this home-town human interest even trumped the much more harrowing saga of the growing multitude of would-be refugees heading to the border or already there, because of the human scale of a small child crying for a left-behind pet or the lecturer deeply dejected over the sad end of a significant chapter in a rewarding career.
Soon enough, someone sabotaged the main electrical lines leading into the capital. The result plunged Harare into a week of darkness at night and chaos by day as a hungry, increasingly anxious population entered shops in search of basic food commodities. Military vehicles patrolled the downtown streets of Harare, as well as Highlands Township, but there were just not enough trained military personnel to keep the deteriorating situation under control, especially after radio broadcasts from several competing stations (controlled by different factions jockeying for power) told very different stories about the situation in the country, and as there were conflicting proclamations setting out curfews and no-go zones throughout the city.
By this time, the numbers on the move towards the border had approached 300,000 people, according to the best estimates. These people quickly overwhelmed the possibilities of finding food, shelter or water while they were on the march to reach the northern side of the border. Then, just as with that startling moment when the East German Volkspolizie on their side of the Brandenburg Gate on 9 November 1989 finally threw open the gates and let the gathered throng of East Germans freely enter the Western Sector – Zimbabwean border police finally gave up in the face of the growing throng and simply opened their border control barriers.
Stunned by the sudden rush by many thousands of frightened Zimbabweans, the South African police were caught off guard. Soon enough, they were powerless to halt the flood of people into South Africa. It became a river of people growing minute by minute as they fanned out across the landscape in search of food, shelter and security. Some people still had money to board taxis and buses onward to the cities in the south where they had friends and relatives, but most paused close to the border, just grateful to be away from the violence – or the fear of the greater anarchy that might yet come to their country.
Within a week, there were probably well over a quarter of a million people inside the South African border, just waiting for something to happen, as more arrived each and every day. Food and water were increasingly scarce and rapidly becoming even more so – and there was little shelter from the sun (or the rain). Inevitably, too, sanitary facilities were still rudimentary for this vast collection of people. When the first deaths from cholera came in the second week of the beginnings of this swelling encampment, alarm bells began to ring throughout the government bureaucracy, even if no one was certain who was in charge of dealing with these numbers, or what measures they would have to take.
By now, the international and South African media were also at the border in force, capturing the sights, sounds and smells for international audiences, just as they had off the coast of Sicily, on the many Greek islands in the Aegean Sea and on the Syrian border with Turkey. With this explosion of refugees from Zimbabwe, the world now had a third great international migration crisis to view during evening news broadcasts, read about on the front pages of newspapers worldwide, and to witness in the unremitting reporting on the internet and social media of this newest humanitarian calamity.
At least at first, the South African government seemed frozen from indecision about what, precisely, it must do to deal with the crisis. Who, precisely, should be in charge of dealing with this sudden wave of migrants, and how could it be stopped from growing any larger? Beyond the refugees flooding into South Africa, there was also the continuing chaos inside Zimbabwe. In its reporting back home, the South African Embassy (like most other embassies) seemed unable to advise who was, in fact, in charge of that nation’s mechanisms of government, let alone how its influence could be brought to bear on Zimbabwe’s circumstances. Not surprisingly, too, reporting from Harare in the South African domestic and international media was equally confusing.
South African government officials in the Union Buildings and from the Departments of Defence, Police, Home Affairs, Health and Social Welfare were scrambling to react to this sudden crisis, but that wasn’t the whole of it. In South Africa’s parliament, members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and African National Congress (ANC) nearly came to physical blows over why (and how) their government had allowed this to happen – both the collapse of civil order in Zimbabwe as well as the sudden flood of desperate people into South Africa. Meanwhile, Democratic Alliance speakers insisted the government had to take responsibility for the urgent needs of the growing throng near the border regardless of who had caused it, while the Freedom Front Plus hinted darkly that – within the week – mobs would be looting farms or much worse in the northern part of the country in their growing desperation.
In response, even as the government announced yet another of its inter-ministerial coordinating committees that was directed to tackle the problem, there were news reports of hungry refugees breaking into supermarkets in Polokwane, and local citizens fighting with the looters to hold them off, or divide the spoils – that was never clear. While numerous foreign-owned shops were torched, and dozens were injured in these melees, fortunately only a handful of deaths were recorded.
Nevertheless, local police units had clearly lost control of the situation. And so, the breakdown of civil order was sufficient for foreign diplomats in Pretoria to weigh in with a joint demarche to the South African government, representing some two dozen foreign missions, urging urgent South African government efforts to restore order and to take charge of the circumstances of the refugees by providing basic food, shelter and sanitary conditions – lest things degenerate any further.
Eventually, the South African government recognised that conditions had gone well beyond their immediate ability to control things and the president’s office called upon the international community to lend a hand. The representatives of the various United Nations (UN) agencies and international humanitarian NGOs were then called upon to participate in providing needed services and supplies. Gradually, a sense of order among the refugee encampment fitfully came into being as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced that the number of people in the 10 camps now set up across the area had reached an incredible half a million people in less than a month. Food, water and medical supplies remained scarce, however, and there were growing tallies of outbreaks of communicable diseases, especially among children, the elderly and pregnant women.
Eventually, the South African government, now finally galvanised into action, sent several battalions of regular troops to assist police units in maintaining order in the camps – and right up to the border itself. Nevertheless, a continuing shortage of effective communications gear and limited transportation support still made it difficult to respond to individual outbreaks of disorder or clashes between the local population and these new immigrants.
Inevitably, perhaps, the South African Communist Party’s youth wing issued a communiqué that denounced “western nations for fermenting [sic] the violence in Zimbabwe and spreading baseless rumours about the need to flee a comradely progressive nation”, thereby “contributing to the spread of disease, the scarcity of food and the demands on hard-pressed medical personnel to preserve the benefits of the popular socialist revolution”. In response to comments like those, a new group calling itself the Alliance for Economic Progress in Southern Africa (Aepsa) decried the reluctance of the South African government to do anything to limit the collapse of security and order in Zimbabwe, thereby contributing to the cessation of most major mining and industrial operations north of the Limpopo River. Eventually, it was discovered by an enterprising investigative journalist at The Daily Maverick that major funders of Aepsa included Gupta family business interests, Lonmin, the Chinese Infrastructure Investment Bank, Anglo American, several prominent black economic empowerment mining groups, and a number of Russian mining houses.
But the plight of the refugees was not eased when a sudden outbreak of fighting near Bulawayo pushed yet more people southwards. Despite UN pleas, no nation stepped up to offer sanctuary to the Zimbabwean migrants, although several African nations did distribute handbills in the temporary camps, advertising placement possibilities in their respective nations for qualified Zimbabwean teachers, nurses, doctors, medical technologists, engineers and dentists.
After six months of fighting in Zimbabwe itself, one of the generals who had been a young recruit into the Zimbabwean army back at the time of the Gukurahundi fighting in 1983, finally succeeded in re-establishing a tenuous sense of order over the capital and major centres of a by now-devastated nation. General “Giant”, as he was popularly nicknamed by his admirers, optimistically declared the fighting was now over. Moreover, he would welcome back all of his compatriots who had fled the recent fighting and he urged international aid agencies to move their bases of operations into Zimbabwe itself in order to attract returnees, rather than across the northern rim of South Africa where those camps were now attracting even more refugees from Zimbabwe, drawn by the growing stocks of food and shelter, as well as medical care.
But most of those who had fled the fighting earlier still sensed their country was neither stable nor safe. As a result, an overwhelming number chose to stay where they were – at least until they could be certain it was safer to move back home than to stay in South Africa. This left South Africa with an unpalatable choice. It could try to integrate these hundreds of thousands of sudden migrants into its own increasingly wobbly economy, as the country’s unemployment rate had continued to grow; or it could be tempted to follow Donald Trump’s unsolicited advice – offered in an internationally broadcast interview on the BBC – that South Africa should build a wall all along the border and then simply round up all the new migrants and forcibly repatriate them back to their home nation.
Trump’s comments were widely reported inside South Africa, of course, and many South Africans almost choked on their morning tea or coffee the next day when they saw, splayed across the front pages of their Sunday papers that several senior officials of their own government had agreed that such a plan was both feasible and probably necessary. The Presidency quickly overruled these comments (explaining the press had cynically and typically misinterpreted some chance comments partially overheard from officials attending a wedding celebration the previous day, once they had heard The Donald’s remarks). But the presidential clarification simply compounded the damage to South Africa’s reputation, as it was not clear what policy the South African government would be following in the days, weeks and months ahead.
There matters stayed, balanced uneasily for months. The new refugees’ encampments were well on the way to becoming permanent, albeit dusty, tattered, generally dismal settlements as all refugee camps eventually become. And they generated increasingly widespread resentment against the newcomers – and towards a government seemingly incapable of solving this problem either by returning the people to whence they had come from, or by settling them more equitably across the country – and even moving some of them on into other nations as had eventually happened to many from Syria who had fled into Europe.
However, one immediate outcome from the crisis was a convincing victory by the EFF in Limpopo province in the national election that took place in that year, although the venerable liberation party barely held on to its national majority. Analysts explained this result represented a serious protest vote against an ANC that had long believed that province was secure for it in electoral terms, come what may. South Africa (and Zimbabwe) had become the lead story in global news round-ups again, but those reports made South Africa look increasingly helpless and incapable of addressing its urgent national problems, even as it was now also at the mercy of its near-neighbour’s troubles as well.
By this point, in the Union Buildings, South Africa’s leaders faced the near-impossible task of deciding whether or not they would have to send South African National Defence Force troops into Zimbabwe itself to stabilise the situation. The question was whether they should they use their military to restore order or they should accept the reality that the fragmenting nation would continue to be a source of many thousands more refugees – as well as a possible source of epidemics, regional food shortages and a growing number of renegade armed bands. Worst of all was the possibility that there would be fighting between South African military border patrols and one or another of the rebel bands still operating outside the control of General Giant’s wobbly government in Harare.
No matter what choice they made, it seemed, the outcome would be, in the phrasing of one of one Cabinet wordsmith/spinmeister, speaking in camera, “less than optimal”. Meanwhile, the refugee encampments had continued to grow, even though thousands of the refugees had already moved southwards to take their chances in South Africa’s cities. Finally, a recommendation to send the military northward into a limited zone of occupation and stablisation was accepted by the president, together with a secret, collateral agreement with several major nations that would provide the essential airborne reconnaissance, transport support, and communications capabilities crucial for giving South Africa some hope that its military choice might succeed in bringing more order to the situation in Zimbabwe.
And so, just before daybreak on that fateful day, the nyalas and other troop transports revved up their engines and raced forward to secure the bridges and other key spots at the Zimbabwean border, in preparation for the bigger units which would lumber forward in a few hours time. In Harare, however, General Giant was not amused in the least and made his own plans. Meanwhile, Nigeria and several other African nations urgently called for African Union and UN Security Council meetings to discuss the now-widening crisis … DM
Photo: Refugees are evicted by police officers from the side of a major road in Johannesburg, South Africa, 28 July 2008. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved