Advertisement

The Road From Ruin

Times Staff Writer

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe -- Andrew Dube was cruising across the savanna, past baobab trees, donkey carts and herds of giraffes, when a flashlight pierced the gathering dusk, waving him off the highway.

A policeman approached, aiming the light at sacks heaped under a web of bungee cords in Dube’s open-top trailer. The driver muttered a curse in Zulu.

“Let’s see what’s inside,” said the officer, who was searching for undeclared foreign currency.

Dube chewed nervously on a paper clip. His deliveries, mostly food for 20 poor families here, were already late. The 800-mile drive from Johannesburg, South Africa, had taken 24 hours and required bribes at six checkpoints on both sides of the border. Now a few miles from his destination, he was out of cash.

Advertisement

He turned to the 12 weary passengers crammed into his 1998 Toyota Venture station wagon. Each already had paid a $75 fare, about a month’s salary for most of them.

“We can sit here three hours while the police search every package,” he told them. “Or you can help me fill their stomachs.”

The passengers coughed up $100, and the cash passed from the driver to the policeman, who let the vehicle pass.

This ritual, performed daily by hundreds of cargo haulers known as “runners,” keeps a lifeline open for Zimbabwe in a time of economic meltdown.

Advertisement

Four-wheel-drive taxis shuttle cash and care packages from migrant workers in South Africa to their kin back home. On the return trip, drivers ferry fresh waves of migrants across the border. Many of them are crossing illegally to seek work as waiters, maids, seamstresses, farm laborers, construction hands and street vendors.

Their endeavor is part of a global movement. The World Bank reports that migrants from poor nations sent home at least $167 billion last year, a fast-growing sum that exceeds all foreign aid.

Remittances bring Zimbabwe an estimated $360 million to $600 million a year, says John Robertson, an economist in Harare, the capital. They rival mineral exports as the biggest source of foreign income for a country of 12 million people.

Countries such as El Salvador, Haiti, Moldova and Yemen depend as heavily as Zimbabwe on their citizens abroad. But those countries are closer to the world’s wealthy regions. About one-third of all the money sent home by migrant workers flows from nations such as South Africa that are barely better off.

Advertisement

The arrival of as many as 2 million Zimbabweans has fueled a backlash of public anger, human rights abuse and mob violence. South Africans accuse them of fomenting crime, spreading AIDS and stealing jobs in a country with a 40% unemployment rate by working for rock-bottom wages that local people won’t accept.

Yet they keep coming.

*

Dube’s weekly journey begins and ends in a fenced parking lot surrounded by high-rise slum dwellings in Johannesburg’s inner city.

Advertisement

The lot was bustling on a Saturday evening as runners hitched up two-wheel trailers. Dube’s passengers piled into the white Toyota with the cracked windshield and booming sound system.

Wendy Masuku, a 21-year-old waitress, was going home to Bulawayo to marry her boyfriend, but they would come back to jobs in Johannesburg. Precious Moyo, 23, said she was going to bury an older sister and would return with the sister’s passport, hoping it would look more authentic than the fake ID she had been using.

But the primary purpose of Dube’s trip was to move cash and goods.

Zimbabwe’s economy, once the strongest in Africa, has been tormented by shortages of fuel, food, medicine and skilled labor in the six years since President Robert Mugabe confiscated large, mostly white-owned farms that had accounted for about half the country’s foreign exchange.

Advertisement

Thousands of businesses have closed, at least 70% of Zimbabweans are unemployed, and annual inflation tops 1,000%, the world’s highest.

To keep its hands on dwindling reserves of foreign currency, the government maintains rigid exchange controls. But the illegal parallel market pays two to three times as much, so most migrants hire runners who deliver envelopes stuffed with cash and, increasingly, consumer or industrial goods.

Dube’s trailer was laden with not only care packages but containers of paint, solvents and spare parts for Bulawayo’s factories -- 1,300 pounds of cargo in all. No one wants to be caught moving large sums across the border, so brokers in both countries have developed an elaborate payment scheme to avoid it.

First, brokers in South Africa collect money that migrant workers want to send home. Instead of sending it directly, they use the cash to pay South African suppliers of materials ordered by Zimbabwean factories. The suppliers then instruct the factories to release cash to brokers in Zimbabwe, who distribute it to the workers’ families.

Advertisement

Finally, the runners ferry the supplies across the border, along with documents showing they have been paid for abroad.

For this trip, Dube was also carrying 3,000 South African rand, about $400, to deliver directly to families, along with 20,000 rand worth of groceries, used clothing and kitchen cabinets. He charges senders a 20% fee on the cash, much higher than wire transfer costs in most of the world, and heftier percentages on consumer goods.

“The big mess in my country, it’s good for my business,” said the runner, with no trace of lament for his native Zimbabwe. He figures he earns as much as $300 a week.

Reaching Zimbabwe’s Beitbridge border crossing Sunday morning, he paid a $14 bribe to ensure a minimal import tax, about $40.

Advertisement

A compact man with an easy, back-slapping manner, Dube used the seven-hour wait to chat up customs inspectors. After shuttling people and goods across the border for 11 of his 42 years, he moves seamlessly between the two countries, keeping a wife and two children in Johannesburg and a girlfriend in Bulawayo, while cultivating the gatekeepers in between.

He is evasive about his legal status in South Africa. This time he was traveling on a Swaziland passport in the name of Bandze Banana.

Dube worries more about criminals than cops, but says the two once conspired in the hijacking of his vehicle. This time the trip was marred by nothing more than delays, and for passengers who wanted to sleep, the chest-thumping CD of South African pop singer Bojo Mujo that kept the runner awake.

He twice paid off South African police to overlook the trailer’s excess weight and bribed his way through five roadblocks in Zimbabwe. In both countries police appeared much more intent on profiting from the traffic than on curbing it.

Advertisement

“As long as you keep paying, you keep moving,” Dube said.

*

Dube’s deliveries in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, began at the mud-brick home of Ivy Khumalo. The runner dropped off a 400-rand envelope from her bartending son.

The house is surrounded by a dusty yard and a few rows of corn. Khumalo, a big, strong woman of 58, was a self-employed seamstress for 21 years but can no longer afford thread and cloth. Without that income, she had to halt construction of an outdoor flush toilet to replace the family’s pit latrine. She supports seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren on remittances from her four children in South Africa.

Advertisement

“My children send money, but it all goes for food,” the matriarch said wearily.

A 16-year-old grandson, Talent, sat idle against a wall, a high school dropout with no job.

“Any money I earn would be worthless,” he said. His niece, 3-year-old Pearl, seemed to understand that. Crawling onto her great-grandmother’s lap, she unfolded a ragged bill worth 500 Zimbabwe dollars, reduced by inflation to pennies in value, and playfully tore it in two.

At the next house, Dube found Portia Moyo, a sickly single mother with several missing teeth, a tattered denim jacket and a bitter tale of deprivation.

Advertisement

Last year a government crackdown on urban vendors destroyed the stall where Moyo, 39, had earned $28 a month selling vegetables. She had to rent space in a government-authorized market, and says her sales have dropped by more than half.

“Some days nobody comes to the market, and my vegetables rot,” she said.

The campaign, known as Operation Murambatsvina, meaning “clean out the filth,” affected an estimated 2.4 million people and made 700,000 of them homeless, a U.N. report said. Moyo, who can no longer feed herself and two children without her sister-in-law’s care packages, talks of moving to South Africa.

Msgr. Pius A. Ncube, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo, said Moyo’s plight is common. “There is a lot of desperation here,” he said. “All the younger people are trying to leave. They cannot get jobs. They cannot start households. Those with families cannot afford the rising school fees. Half the children are out of school.”

Advertisement

In every household Dube visited, someone was counting on remittances to finance a one-way trip out of the country.

His final delivery was to Kelly Phiri, 25, who lives with her mother and adolescent niece in a two-room house. Dube sat in the tiny living room as she opened the monthly package of fish oil, potatoes, flour, sugar, beans and soup from her sister-in-law.

Phiri, a well-spoken high school graduate, said she had been barred from nursing school for refusing to serve in Mugabe’s militia and felt stuck in a low-paying job at the Ministry of Housing and Public Works.

“I have dreams,” she said. “I want a nursing career, my own house, a car.”

Advertisement

The runner is part of her escape plan. Along with the groceries, Dube brought good news: Her sister-in-law had saved most of the $145 fee he will charge to smuggle Phiri across the border.

*

Like Phiri, many Zimbabweans are willing to risk death to breach a wealthier neighbor’s perilous border. Those who make it often trade one hardship for another.

In South Africa, they complain of harassment by landlords, neighbors and co-workers who blame immigrants for many of the country’s social ills.

Advertisement

“They tell me I stink,” Loyce Gonese, a 35-year-old bookkeeper from Bulawayo, says of her neighbors in a nine-story Johannesburg apartment building. “They refuse to let me hang my laundry on the roof.”

Those with needed skills -- including engineers, accountants, doctors -- usually get in legally. Many unskilled laborers turned down for visas sneak in illegally and then use tribal connections to vanish into protective urban enclaves.

South Africa has reacted with stepped-up border patrols and sharp policy debates over whether immigrants are a burden or a blessing. The number of deportations from South Africa is growing: nearly 100,000 Zimbabweans last year, up from 17,000 in 2001. But so is the number of successful border jumpers.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, mindful that blacks fighting apartheid in his nation a generation ago were embraced in neighboring countries, has urged his compatriots to be more hospitable. But Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said recently that xenophobia was “spreading like wildfire.”

Advertisement

In a report this summer, Human Rights Watch said Zimbabwean immigrants were frequently lodged by farm employers in shacks with no electricity or running water, assaulted by bribe-extorting policemen and soldiers, and deported without being allowed to collect back wages.

In the squatter settlement of Diepsloot near Johannesburg, Khulani Moyo, 32, said South African neighbors complained about prices at his fruit stand and threatened to burn it down, along with his two-room shack. Recently, vigilantes nearly beat to death a Zimbabwean suspected of stealing a cellphone.

“You try to live as invisibly as possible,” said Mkululi Dube, 26, a former journalist who works as a waiter in Johannesburg. “You learn Zulu words. You get a local ID. When the police stop you, you pretend you’re from a South African village, but you have to know enough about that village to describe it in detail when they interrogate you.”

*

Advertisement

The indignities waiting in South Africa worried 15-year-old Cassandra Makwelo as she climbed into a covered pickup in Bulawayo. But the shy 10th-grader, an aspiring engineer, was fleeing a dead-end future.

“There is nothing left for me here,” she said.

In Bulawayo, Zimbabweans headed for South Africa gather daily at Fantasyland, a fast-food strip mall. Many have no visa and pay the runners to smuggle them across the border.

For Cassandra, that job was entrusted to Norman Ncube. He roared up in a 2006 Toyota pickup and directed 16 passengers into the back. They crowded onto a thin mattress, seated in rows facing each other.

Advertisement

Among them were a teacher leaving her job, a servant returning to work after giving birth to twins in Bulawayo and two schoolboys with fake South African passports going to visit their parents.

Cassandra barely knows her mother, Clara, a seamstress who for years has sent money from Johannesburg. As Zimbabwe’s schools deteriorated, the mother decided to send for her.

The girl wedged into the pickup across from the teacher. Passengers swapped life stories. The drive to the border took six hours, punctuated by the cries of the 3-month-old twins and two stops to pay off policemen.

Just before midnight, as the vehicle neared the Limpopo River border, Cassandra grew quiet and tense.

Advertisement

Migrants often sneak into South Africa on foot, balancing behind metal girders of the Limpopo Bridge. Some lose their footing, fall into the water and drown, as 13 did during one week in July. Or they are eaten by crocodiles. Those who make it across lower themselves by rope to the riverbank, look for an opening in the border fence and hike through the bush, dodging assailants who prey on migrants.

“I imagined myself swimming,” the teen confided later. “And then being gang-raped.”

At the border, the runner instructed Cassandra and the seven other undocumented travelers to wait while the rest went into a building to get visas stamped.

Meanwhile, he slipped away in the dark with an immigration official. If there was no transaction, the undocumented ones would have to either return to Bulawayo or attempt the perilous crossing on foot.

Advertisement

But for the equivalent of $57, the border agent looked the other way.

Eight hours later, Cassandra awoke in Johannesburg, in the driver co-op’s parking lot. As the other passengers scattered, the teenager grabbed her backpack and set off on a freezing morning to find her mother.

By evening the lot would be crowded again with runners and their trailers. The cycle would begin anew.

*

Advertisement

boudreaux@latimes.com


Advertisement