Los Angeles Times

In Botswana, border turns electric

Sun Foreign Staff

MATSILOJE, Botswana - Residents of this village along the border withZimbabwe were quite pleased when Botswana's government began erecting a10-foot-high electrified fence to separate the two countries.

Officially, the fence is to keep out livestock from Zimbabwe suspected ofcarrying foot-and-mouth disease.

But the villagers are hoping the fence, which will snake across 300 milesof desert scrub, will do more: block the path of thousands of illegalimmigrants who are fleeing the political and economic turmoil in Zimbabwe.

Now that the electric fence is nearly complete, villagers wonder whether itwill deliver a shock powerful enough to stop the Zimbabweans, whom they blamefor Botswana's rising number of thefts, rapes and other crimes.

"We still don't know whether it will work. The generator is very weak,"said Simon Lephalo, a member of the local council in this acacia shadedvillage of 1,200 people.

In the shimmering desert heat, Zimbabweans plod from house to house inborder towns begging to wash cars, mow lawns, weed gardens and perform oddjobs, anything for a hot meal or a handful of change.

At night they disappear, sleeping in the dry reeds along the banks of theTati River, bedding down in the desert, taking refuge in bus stops or crowdinginto tiny rented shelters.

No fence may be high enough or threatening enough to hold back the risingtide of illegal immigrants, authorities in Botswana say. There are too manyreasons for Zimbabweans to leave.

Nearly half of Zimbabwe's population of 12.5 million people is facingstarvation this year, and 80 percent of the population is without work andliving in poverty. There are shortages of fuel, bread, and cooking oil andother staples. The country's doctors have been on strike since Octoberdemanding raises to keep pace with an annual inflation rate of 450 percent.

Zimbabwe's hardships are the legacy of President Robert G. Mugabe, theformer guerrilla fighter who brought an end to white minority rule in 1980.Twenty years later, facing mounting opposition to his poor management of theeconomy, Mugabe launched a racially charged, chaotic and often-violent programof seizing white-owned farms for landless black peasants, crippling thecountry's agriculture-based economy.

Mugabe won re-election last year after a vote marred by charges ofintimidation and fraud. A long-lasting drought, meanwhile, left millions ofZimbabweans hungry and dependent on government food aid that critics say isoften denied to Mugabe's opponents.

But Zimbabwe's problems do not stop at its borders. Like the echoes from adistant explosion, the political and economic upheavals of Zimbabwe are beingfelt across the region, especially in Botswana and South Africa.

South Africa remains the top destination for Zimbabweans, but theimmigrants' impact is greater in Botswana, a sparsely populated country of 1.7million people.

Each new economic or humanitarian disaster in Zimbabwe triggers a freshwave of human misery spilling into Botswana.

Flooding the country are Zimbabweans such as 22-year-old Themma Tlou. Amother of two, Tlou lived on a white-owned commercial farm where her fatherworked until government-backed militias seized the land and forced them toflee in 2000.

Out of work and out of food, Tlou left her children with her parents andpaid a guide $5 to escort her across the border into Botswana. Under the coverof night she slipped through a tear in the fence and started walking toFrancistown, an industrial center of 100,000 less than an hour's drive fromthe border. She had no money, just a jacket and hat to wear at night and amodest dream of earning the equivalent of $50 to take home. But her dreamswere short-lived. Early the next morning, Botswana police patrolling theborder arrested her.

She was brought to the Center for Illegal Immigrants, a sprawling brickcomplex outside Francistown that houses hundreds of immigrants awaitingdeportation. They are given three meals a day, a blanket to sleep on and aride to the Zimbabwe border. Some Zimbabweans are so flattered by thetreatment they beg to stay at the compound. In Zimbabwe, they say, they willonly suffer.

"All of the industries have closed. We don't have work," says Tlou, waitingto be deported.

Edmora Banda, a surprisingly cheerful 20-year-old who is well-known amongimmigration officials, was also waiting to be deported - for the eighth time.

On his most recent stay, he found a job at a brick-making factory inFrancistown, earning 20 pula, about $5 a day, a fraction of what a Botswanacitizen would demand but a fortune in Zimbabwe, where he earned $10 a month asa gardener.

He has sent his savings back home to support his parents, two brothers andthree sisters. When authorities deport him again to Zimbabwe, he'll do just ashe has done in the past.

"By tomorrow afternoon, I will be back," he promises.

Darling of the West

From the Zimbabwe side of the fence, Botswana beckons like a promised land.As the world's largest producer of gem diamonds, Botswana has one of thefastest-growing economies. Combined with a government that embraces multipartydemocracy, exercises prudent fiscal policies and polices corruption, Botswanahas become a darling of the West, a model for other African nations to follow.

No one knows how many illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe live here, butauthorities estimate at least 1 million. So far this year, more than 36,000Zimbabweans have been deported.

Those who elude authorities perform the backbreaking jobs that theBatswana, as the people of Botswana are known, consider beneath them. If theimmigrants die, their deaths often go unnoticed. Earlier this year, theFrancistown government buried the unclaimed bodies of a dozen Zimbabweanillegal immigrants. By September, the mortuaries were again clogged withZimbabwean bodies.

Although Botswana's economy has come to depend on them for cheap labor,Zimbabweans are largely viewed here as a nuisance, responsible for the sharprise in prostitution, theft, rape and murder.

"Zimbabweans are hated so much. It's as if you are something stinking,"says Nomsa Mdlozu, a reporter who covers immigration issues for Francistown'snewspaper, The Voice. "Zimbabweans are hard workers especially when it comesto construction. But the Batswana ignore their existence."

Batswana forget, she says, that just 20 years ago when their country wasstill very poor, thousands of Batswana sought work in Zimbabwe, onceconsidered the breadbasket of Africa.

Police say there is no evidence that Zimbabweans are any more responsiblefor crime than Batswana. Yet police have won support for stepped-up raids onZimbabweans, rounding them up by the hundreds at village taxi stands, atfactories and in their hide-outs in the desert. Zimbabweans are also thetarget of a growing vigilante movement in Botswana.

In Francistown, police recently rushed to rescue a Zimbabwean from an angrymob that had accused him of stealing a purse.

In Tlokweng near Botswana's capital, Gaborone, the chief called for theexpulsion of Zimbabweans from his village, arguing that they were responsiblefor escalating crime rates. This year, Botswana's government amended its lawsso foreigners could be tried in tribal courts, where chiefs may mete outhumiliating sentences such as public lashings.

In Matsiloje, Chief Seleka Paul Moipolai has no doubt that Zimbabweans areguilty of stealing food, cattle, clothing and other items from his village,but he adds that he is sympathetic to the Zimbabweans' suffering.

"When we ask them why they come here, they say they are starving," he says.

A convenient obstacle

A survey by the Southern African Migration Project found that a majority ofBatswana support having an electrified border fence to control illegalimmigrants.

In the eyes of many Batswana, the animal control fence is a convenientobstacle for humans as well as cattle. To the Zimbabwean government, it is aninsult. Zimbabwe's High Commissioner to Botswana balked at the project,comparing it to the security wall that Israel is building in the West Bank tocontrol the movements of Palestinians.

Botswana has been one of the few African nations to openly criticizeMugabe's land reform, and the fence has further cooled relations. Zimbabweanofficials, meanwhile, say they are baffled by the numbers fleeing theircountry.

"I don't know why anyone from one country would go to another country,"George Charamba, a spokesman for the Zimbabwe President's Office, says in atelephone interview from Harare.

But Emmanuel Madzongwe, a 34-year-old musician who was arrested jumping theborder this month in hopes of earning some money playing his guitar inBotswana, had an answer for his government.

"There's nothing to do in Zimbabwe," he says, waiting to be deported in awindowless truck to his homeland. "People don't have money for entertainment.Any money they have, they spend on food."

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