Earlier this month, I travelled through the Beit Bridge border post from South Africa to Zimbabwe. The exercise took five hours in heat of more than 45 degrees Celsius. It was a horror and one that gave me a lot of time to reflect on what I was seeing.
At first, the behaviour of the South African Home Affairs officials seemed like incompetence and laziness. They did not seem to have a properly functioning system in place. By the time I had crossed the bridge into Zimbabwe, I had concluded that the South African border officials at Beit Bridge are much worse than incompetent; they preside over a corrupt, xenophobic system that deliberately prejudices poor, black Zimbabweans.
If you’re not used to the border procedures at Beit Bridge, it’s difficult to fathom what exactly to do. There are no clear instructions anywhere. There is no help desk. It’s difficult to get anyone to answer a query. I asked a woman in a Home Affairs uniform for help and she said she was no longer on duty.
No one in uniform smiled. Some officials seemed to be working, but others leaned back in their chairs, eyes drooping closed in the heat of the afternoon. Some ate lunch at their desks.
Feeding off the uncertainty of those, like me, who were new to the procedure were the touts. The touts lean into you, persistently and insistently offering you the solution of quick passage, for a fee. And the fees, to be paid in US dollars, can take you to the top of the queue.
The touts don’t let up easily. Some of them seem to be scam artists, but some are clearly able to work the system and can accelerate someone’s progress to the front of the queue. It’s hard to see that when you’re still waiting after many hours and the queue is not moving.
People are constantly arriving. Queues form and dissolve. There are queues for immigration, emigration, work permits, car permits. The queues are so long they coil around the customs buildings. People queueing mainly look down and stay quiet and calm, but a long, snaking line of hundreds of patiently waiting people will suddenly agitate when the last 50 or so in line get taken to a newly opened booth, or to another building. At one point I saw an official collect the passports of about 100 people and disappear with these documents, presumably to expedite their owners’ passage.
Mobile homes are set up outside the customs building; some people queue there. A line there for those leaving the country winds around a line for those returning. Some people sit or lie down, some stand in groups and talk. The lines are more porous than the border post everyone is trying to cross. What’s important is to stay close to the person in front of you, or else you’ll lose your place.
I spoke to the young, black Zimbabwean woman queueing in front of me. She had travelled from Bulawayo the previous afternoon in order to shop in Musina. She was pulling a bulky suitcase on wheels. On her back was strapped a cooler bag, which she said was full of fresh milk. Her hands carried plastic bags with groceries.
She explained that this is a monthly excursion for her as it’s cheaper to shop in South Africa, and there is more variety in the South African shops. Each month she takes a bus from Bulawayo to the border and then goes into South Africa. When her shopping is done the next day she crosses back over the border, walks over the bridge to the Zimbabwean side, and hitches a lift home on a truck.
Is it safe? I asked. She shrugged and said she had no option. She hoped to be home by midnight. As we edged forward, she and the woman behind us explained that this queue was not unusual. It’s always like this, they said, and they agreed that the difficulties and delays are always on the South African side of the border post. Both said they believe South African Home Affairs officials enjoy seeing Zimbabweans suffer in this way. No mercy is shown to anyone. A pregnant woman will be told she should not be there. The elderly or ill are asked what they are doing at the border post. They hate us, the women said.
They said people dare not complain or stand up for someone; you will be further delayed, possibly even refused passage. So, they have concluded, it is best they keep their eyes down and do as they’re told – which is what they did that day in the unremitting heat. People around me were in astoundingly good spirits in spite of the temperature. They kept offering me hope. They reassured me that it would be much quicker and nicer on the Zimbabwean side.
They said the queue would move once the shift changed at two o’clock. At about half-past two, the queue did indeed move, and with pace. The long backlog suddenly dissolved and we were all through. We passed each other again on the Zimbabwean side, which was indeed much quicker and friendlier, and they smiled as if to say they had told me so.
Beit Bridge is evidently straining under the pressure of vast numbers of migrants coming through the border. Instead of having an efficient system in place – with clear procedures and rules that can cope with these challenges – the South African Department of Home Affairs is running a system that is not only uncaring but also corrupt, judging by the way touts are able to work the system.
While I waited in the hot sun, I looked at the Home Affairs Twitter feed. They had retweeted the Presidency (see @PresidencyZA) as President Ramaphosa visited the department head office in Tshwane. The Presidency said: “Our Immigration Services are the first point of contact through which people from around the world experience the spirit and personality of our nation. This is where people are exposed for the first time to ubuntu and the warmth of our hospitality.”
What I saw was about as far from ubuntu or warm hospitality as I could imagine and I felt ashamed to think that this is how we treat people from our northern neighbour. MC
Barbara Dale-Jones runs two companies that focus on transforming systems and the people in them. She has worked in education for many years and is a regular writer on the subject and a frequent speaker on transforming education systems to make them “future fit”. She is based in Johannesburg.
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