By Tumelo Nare
President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government has deployed a crack team of security forces from Harare to deal with the rot at the Beitbridge border post after pressure from South Africa fuelled by the deadly festive season chaos that saw travellers spending days at the busy port of entry.
A new requirement for travellers to produce valid Covid-19 clearance certificates and curfews imposed by both Zimbabwe and South Africa, created a logjam at the border where people spent as many as four days waiting to be allowed into the neighbouring country.
A proliferation of fraudulent Covid-19 certificates that were being used by travellers to enter South Africa peeved the neighbouring country so much that its Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi publicly accused Zimbabwean soldiers and police officers of corruption.
Motsoaledi also accused Zimbabwe’s security forces of facilitating entry into South Africa by illegal immigrants.
“We are worried,” the minister said at the time.
“We have said this before that we heard rumours that there are people, who will come with fraudulent Covid-19 certificates and we have found them and we are returning them.
“We are arresting people with no documents, either Covid-19 certificates or passports.
“They showed me a video where Zimbabwean soldiers and police were helping people to come.
“I asked ‘what’s that?”
Motsoaledi said South Africa was deporting an average of 500 illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe every day.
The illegal crossings along the Limpopo River escalated during the festive season with syndicates now operating in plain sight of local security details at the border as they used the Old Limpopo Bridge to facilitate entry into South Africa by undocumented immigrants.
This prompted Zimbabwe’s Joint Operations Command (Joc), a body comprising of army, air force, police, prisons and intelligence chiefs, to send at least 400 officers from Harare to launch an operation targeting the illicit activities at the border and illegal crossings along the Limpopo River.
On January 8, CITE witnessed armed soldiers rounding up people that were found loitering, who included vendors and illegal money changers at the border gate.
The crack team has relegated local law enforcement agents, who say they have become mere spectators.
“They brought helicopters that have been hovering around the border everyday searching for border jumpers and smugglers along the flooded Limpopo River,” said a Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) source.
“Troops from the Air Force and (army) commandos cover the ground to ensure no smuggler or border jumper escapes the hook.”
The operation, however, has fuelled discontent among local law enforcement agents who say the issue of corruption was being used as a cover by their commanders to benefit from the chaos.
“What amazed many was the way (the new deployees) pushed their counterparts out of the border with threats of arrest if ever they set foot at the border line and the border post,” said a disgruntled soldier.
“ZRP Support Unit members and a team from the (Central Investigations Department) took over the ferret duties as well as the vehicle clearance processes.
“Those previously deployed could be seen milling around like chicks that have just been missed by an eagle, they had no answers to what befell them.”
The crack team was said to be led by an Assistant Commissioner Gowo, who is feared among the ranks.
Displaced security teams complained that the crack team was being given special treatment.
“They came with truckloads of food comprising of mealie meal, cooking oil and meat, among other foodstuffs,” said a Beitbridge based police officer.
He said one of the reasons corruption was flourishing at the border was that police officers were poorly resourced and were susceptible to bribes.
The police officers said border jumpers were paying 50 rand each to be allowed to cross the Limpopo River using inflatable boats.
Once on the South African side, the border jumpers pay another 50 rand to soldiers to be allowed free passage.
“Police officers are deployed at forward bases without transport or even any allowance and there they live at the mercy of the army details, who are supplied with rations,” the source said.
“The displaced teams say they wish to see the army helicopters participating in the arrest of robbers, who terrorise the Beitbridge community day and night.”
Another police officer said the authorities were expecting too much from them as they did not have enough resources to patrol the border.
“Beitbridge ZRP urban has one Ford Ranger whilst the newly donated Land Cruser is reserved for the bosses,” he said.
“Beitbridge ZRP rural has no vehicle of its own and has allocated itself a Ford Ranger meant for the Chitulipasi post whilst this operation has state of the art Land Cruisers and Toyota Rav4s.
“CID Beitbridge, which is known for arresting the notorious armed robber Taj Abdul and his team does not have a vehicle of its own and relies heavily on the benevolence of the community.”
Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi confirmed that a security operation was underway in Beitbridge, but refused to disclose more details.
“Any detail will jeopardise our operations, suffice to say all people engaged in deals must stop now,” Nyathi told a local publication on January 11.
A recent investigation by the International Organisation for Migration revealed that there were least 22 unofficial entry points along the 200 kilometre Beitbridge border line between Zimbabwe and South Africa.
IOM’s population mapping survey carried out in October last year show that the closure of the Beitbridge border during the initial lockdown to slow down the spread of Covid-19 did little to stop the flow of illegal immigrants between the two countries as people resorted to using the established unofficial ports of entry.
The identified 22 illegal entry points remained a hive of activity amid fears the numbers of people arriving illegally in Zimbabwe from South Africa will increase during the festive season and fuel a spike in Covid-19 cases.
A visit by CITE to Lutumba, about 30 kilometres from Beitbridge town on January 8 showed that border jumpers were still using the illegal entry points despite the fact Limpopo River was flooded and ongoing security operation.
Cars comprising of Toyota Granvias and trucks could be seen parked at what locals said was the ‘rank’ for traffickers that took the illegal immigrants to the border.
“People pay about 50 rand to be taken to the different ‘gates’ along the Limpopo River,” said a shopkeeper at Lutumba. “At the moment few people are crossing because the river is flooded and there is a new team of soldiers that was deployed recently.”
The locals also spoke of border jumpers that were swept away by the flooded Limpopo River during the festive season but said the tragedy was nothing new.