Illegal border trade reflects Zimbabwe's growing woes

Economic, political chaos rises as leader shifts away from democracy

January 18, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEITBRIDGE, South Africa - One measure of just how troubled life has become in Zimbabwe is the wad of Zimbabwe dollar bills tucked in Chris Murehwa's pocket.

Murehwa is a smuggler. More politely, a cross-border profiteer. And here at South Africa's border with Zimbabwe, along the banks of the Limpopo River, his business has never been better. As food shortages and economic and political chaos cripple Zimbabwe, Murehwa is making a small fortune supplying desperately needed goods through Zimbabwe's black market. His best selling items: cooking oil, mealie meal (a type of cornmeal) and - this month - toothpaste.

"All the people are complaining about the lack of foodstuffs," said Murehwa, a 41-year-old Zimbabwean who speaks of his country's plight in terms of supply and demand. Yesterday, he was plotting whether to hide his next shipment of food and luxury goods in a truck or taxi for the journey to Zimbabwe from South Africa.

In Harare, Bulawayo and Zimbabwe's other major cities, shoppers find empty shelves, he said. Inflation is accelerating to more than 100 percent a year. More than 50 percent of the work force is unemployed. The government is running low on hard currency to purchase food, fuel and other imported supplies.

The hardships are multiplying as Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, seems determined to steer his country away from democracy. Faced with the first serious political challenge of his career, Mugabe is pursuing a campaign of intimidation and violence against his opponents as they prepare for presidential elections in March, human rights groups say.

Dozens of Zimbabweans, mainly opposition party members, have been killed in political violence in the past two years. Mugabe's government denies its country is in crisis, blaming perceived troubles on its former colonial power, Britain, and political opponents.

Zimbabwe's woes seep past the border into South Africa's Northern Province. They are reflected in the smugglers' profits, the trucks of arrested border jumpers and in the weary eyes of people leaving their homeland in search of a new life.

"Zimbabwe had one of the most educated populations and some of the best infrastructure in Africa. Now look at us," says Lucky Rasomoyo, an unemployed 23-year-old from Harare who entered South Africa early yesterday with a sack of crafts that he hoped to peddle in Johannesburg.

"We do appreciate what President Mugabe has done for us. But, OK, he's had his chance. We've only had one government. We want to give someone else a chance," Rasomoyo said.

The other choice for Zimbabwe is the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. Led by former labor leader Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC stunned Mugabe's ruling party in 2000 by winning nearly half of the contested seats in the parliamentary election. By all accounts, the MDC is gaining more supporters, especially among unemployed city dwellers such as Rasomoyo. Yet Mugabe is not prepared to give up without a fight.

A guerrilla war hero in the fight for independence from white rule, Mugabe was elected president in 1980. At the time, the country was considered a jewel of the African continent, and Mugabe one of its most inspirational leaders.

In the 1980s, Zimbabwe was exporting food to other parts of Africa. Now, it seems everything has fallen apart. In the past year, a drought and the chaos created by the government-sponsored seizure of white-owned farms has led to smaller harvests. Aid agencies say the food shortages in Zimbabwe are so dire that it will need to import up to 700,000 tons of wheat and corn to get by.

This border post has also changed along with Zimbabwe's fortunes. Beitbridge is at the northern end of the N1, the Great North highway, which begins more than 1,000 miles to the south in Cape Town. In its final stretch, the multilane highway narrows to a single rutted lane, cuts through giant baobab tree forests and winds past wild game farms before sloping down to the banks of the Limpopo River.

At one time, the border marked the starting point for explorations into the heart of Africa, across savanna, desert and mountains, all the way to Cairo, Egypt. But yesterday, as on most days now, no tourists could be found. A family of baboons played by the roadside. Trucks and several buses lumbered through the gate in the early morning, before the border napped as the temperatures climbed past 100. Truck drivers, smugglers, border officials and prostitutes took shelter in the shade.

Border officials said traffic has slowed since the troubles began in Zimbabwe. The bulk of the crossings takes place illegally, after dark, when Zimbabweans ford the crocodile-infested river and hop over the wire fence marking South Africa's northern border.

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