Migration Trajectories and Experiences of Zimbabwean Immigrants in the Limpopo Province of South Africa: Impediments and Possibilities.

Author:Mpondi, Douglas


This paper interrogated the migration experiences of Zimbabwean migrants in the Limpopo Province of South Africa (SA) based on five month fieldwork research. It seeks to tease out from the research participants the reasons for moving to SA, the informal nature of emigration, the migrants' perceptions about their stay and the challenges and impediments they face in their adopted country. Pseudonyms were used for those participants who did not want their identity disclosed. Data collection methods included face-to-face in-depth interviews, participant observation, literature review and documentary analysis. This study was grounded on the participants' stories and narratives about their experiences moving from Zimbabwe into SA, the challenges they faced and how they have navigated their stay across the south of the Limpopo River. The opportunities and prospects that the migrants encountered are also explored in depth in terms of interpreting the different types of Zimbabwean migrants in the Limpopo Province of SA.

The in-depth interviews enabled us to explore the personal and collective experiences of the migrants and the nature of their transnational relationships with those at home and how this shaped not only their transnational practices, but also their way of living in SA and the relationships that they have with fellow Zimbabwean migrants. This allowed us to unpack and interpret the different and multiple individual and collective meanings of being Zimbabwean in SA across a number of variables such as age, education, gender, immigration status, religion and social networks. Our selection of qualitative research as the medium of generating data was predicated on the need to seek out in-depth information from the study participants about their lived experiences, perceptions, viewpoints and feelings of their lives in SA (Denzin & Lincoln, 1998).

Informalised and perilous migration into South Africa

Zimbabwean migration to South Africa (SA) during the period under study was highly informalized as a result of border control and restrictive laws of the South African border authorities. There was a high prevalence use of informal crossing points from Zimbabwe into SA. Prior to the mass exodus of 2008, migration was dominated by economic migrants, most of whom entered the country legally. However, the economic collapse and political violence that was directed at opposition party supporters during the 2008 elections saw a significant number of migrants seeking asylum in SA on the basis of persecution by President Mugabe's ZANU PF government. As many Zimbabweans migrated to SA, the South African government required Zimbabwean immigrants inside the country to report to the Musina Border Post after every 90 days to have their passports stamped so as to remain legal. To circumvent this border control by South African authorities, new Zimbabwean migrants into SA started using illegal entry points even when they had passports.

The informal movements of Zimbabweans into SA are fraught with manifold menaces for the migrants. The hazards are multiple and varied. They range from the natural to the human. Indeed tales from the migrants suggest a litany of these dangers that they had to grapple with as they traversed their way into SA. During the fieldwork, we saw first-hand the dangers and treacherous routes that the migrants had to contend with. The Limpopo River forms a formidable barrier between Zimbabwe and SA. This, however, has not proved to be a sufficient enough deterrent for desperate Zimbabweans trying to seek a new life in SA. Migrants have to contend not only with the raging tide of the river but with crocodiles. There were reports about people being swept by the swollen river, being pulled under the river by crocodiles and never to be seen again. Other respondents told of people being deliberately left to be washed away by the river following misunderstandings over money with the maguma-guma. The following quotes are informative:

... I was waist deep in water on the Zimbabwean side of the river, and by the time when I was in the middle, it was up to my neck. I was afraid and silently, I was saying my prayers. I was holding firmly to the guy in front of me and behind me the other woman was doing the same. We had to hold on to each other in a straight line with the guide in front another in the middle, and one at the end. Suddenly there was a piecing scream and because it was dark I could not see who it was, the guides told us that two people had been swept away when we had crossed. (Interview with Charles, Polokwane, March 2015) I am not doing it again... never ever. The current was too strong and it swept me and the person I was holding on to and the one who was behind me, holding on to me. I was thinking that I was going to die and how I am still alive, only God knows. I was on the verge of dying with thirsty and hunger when I stumbled onto a farm. (Interview with Noah, Seshegho, SA, April 2015) As if the danger posed by the river was not enough, migrants also reported having to be constantly on the lookout for marauding animals, especially lions in the Gonarezhou and Kruger national parks. Interviewees spoke of being attacked by prides of lions during the dangerous trek into SA. One interviewee told of the attacks by a pride of lions in which six of his colleagues perished. Others told of deaths of other migrants caused by snakebites, as the game parks are infested with dangerous and venomous snakes as the case of Noah demonstrates,

We entered SA through Chikwarakwara and crossed the flooded river with a canoe. There were some guys who knew the way. Two days after we crossed the Limpopo, we were suddenly attacked by a pride of lions. I ran like I never before, I had to because you could hear cries, those cries are still with me now, cries of people that I knew being eaten by lions. It was painful and scary; I survived by climbing a tree where I stayed for a further two days. I am alive by the grace of God. I later saw park rangers who were in the company of one of the people that we were with. (Interview with Noah, Musina, June 2015) It is clear from the above account that the flooded Limpopo River was not the only foe to contend with but the wild animals such as lions. That Noah lived to tell his tale can be ascribed to the efficiency of the South African National Park Game Rangers who responded quickly to the distress call of his friend who had escaped.

For some, the journey to SA has left indelible physical, emotional and psychological imprints inflicted by wild animals, the Limpopo River and human smugglers who have arrogated the space between Limpopo and Musina to themselves. Human smuggling which is rife between Zimbabwe and SA has been taken over by criminals, commonly referred to as Maguma-guma. Maguma-guma is a Shona term for gangs of people who patronize the Beitbridge Border post engaging in criminal activities ranging from petty theft to facilitating the illegal crossing of goods and people through the border post and also through informal channels. Some of the Maguma-gumas are said to lie in wait for people who will be trying to "border jump" by traversing the river banks on both sides of the Limpopo or in the known paths that are used by migrants once they are on the South African side of the border. The Maguma-gumas can be equated to the coyotes that Mexicans and other Latin American migrants use to facilitate their entry into the USA (Mahler, 1995, Mahler 1998). Maguma-gumas have been reported to extort money, goods, mobile phones and other valuables from desperate migrants. The case of Tarisai, a 24 year-old man who was shot by Maguma-gumas on his way to SA after an argument about payment demonstrates not only the ruthlessness of these human smugglers but also the vulnerability of the migrants:

I was shot because I didn't have more money to pay. I had already paid them R150 they had asked for to be guided into SA from Beitbridge. I told them I didn't have any more money and he shot me on the leg. I was saved by the South African police who found me and took me to hospital. Now I am crippled, I left home perfectly normal but now I am an invalid. (Interview in Musina, 22 March 2015) Notwithstanding the threats outlined above, a significant number of migrants stated that the greatest danger facing the 'border jumpers' was the scourge of maguma guma. Border jumper is a term commonly used to refer to people who cross into SA through informal channels. According to the information provided by the interviewees, migrants were typically approached by members of the gangs or 'runners' (people who recruit and channel migrants to the guides) at the Beitbridge border post with the promise of a safe passage to Musina. They were also usually being promised protection from Maguma-guma. The fee was usually agreed in advance and respondents spoke of negotiations taking place in the event that one did not have enough money. The fees charged by the Maguma-guma varied from as little as 50 Rands to as high as 2000 Rands. They accepted payment in kind such as mobile phones, watches, jewellery and designer clothes and shoes.

The experiences of respondents who were smuggled through the Beitbridge border post by 'Amalayitshas' indicate that there may be some collaboration between the two networks. Amalayitshas is a Ndebele language term for delivery drivers who originally delivered goods from South African-based Zimbabweans to their homes in Zimbabwe. Increasingly, these are now smuggling people into and out of SA for a fee with the help of corrupt officials on both sides of the border. Zimbabwean bus drivers are engaged in the business of smuggling people too as they are well known to the SA border officials. Reports indicate that Amalayitshas work in concert with Maguma-guma.

People smuggled across the Beitbridge border post spoke of paying exorbitant fees to be helped through the border...

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