Running for their lives

Times Staff Writer

The two men stared at each other for a long moment, captor and captive: a white game farmer named Andre Nienaber, with mirrored sunglasses, neatly pressed khaki clothes and an aura of military precision; and a 16-year-old Zimbabwean orphan named Peter Jell, wearing a cap marked “Jesus” and the desperate look of someone who knew he was headed back to the country he had risked his life to escape.

Moments earlier, the South African farmer had arrested Peter and four other Zimbabwean border jumpers where they sat, exhausted, hungry and demoralized, hoping to hitch a ride 300 miles south to Johannesburg.

He cuffed the five to the back of his truck with plastic ties and called the police.

“We’re so frightened to go back to that hunger country, where there’s nothing,” Peter said as he waited.


His parents died in a bus crash two years ago, Peter said, and he has five younger siblings and no hope of feeding them. Before he left Zimbabwe last month, he and the other children, ages 2 to 12, were eating two or three times a week. In between, he said, the children scoured the bush for any wild fruit they could find.

“It’s terrible. You feel sorry for them,” Nienaber said before buying some bread and milk for the five illegal immigrants and handing them over to the police. Yet he sees the Zimbabweans who cross his land, cutting his fences and destroying his water pipes, as a threat to his survival.

The tide of Zimbabweans arriving in South Africa, driven by extreme shortages of food and basic goods, has grown into a flood as strong as the nearby Limpopo River in the rainy season.

Zimbabwe used to be one of Africa’s most prosperous countries. Its slide into economic chaos under President Robert Mugabe’s regime has forced people to make heart-wrenching decisions -- taking their children out of schools because they can’t pay the fees, or even leaving them behind while they try to find work in South Africa.

The government of South Africa rejects the view of some activists that hunger and social upheaval in Zimbabwe are so severe that most border jumpers should be classified as refugees. The migrants are sent back to the chaos and poverty they fled.

The countryside around the Limpopo, which forms the border between the two nations, is a stunning canvas of red earth and green bush, but at times it is like stepping into a bygone era. Walk into some bars around here, and you’re plunged into the reflexive racial hostility of apartheid.

You might hear someone express the view that there is no such thing as a good black; another says that “it just doesn’t look right” when you see black people driving BMWs around Johannesburg. Not everyone puts it so bluntly, but you occasionally run into whites who, like the Leonardo DiCaprio character in the film “Blood Diamond,” still refer to Zimbabwe by its colonial-era name, Rhodesia.

Some people profess pity for the Zimbabweans, but many farmers have run out of compassion. They go on regular patrols, rounding up Zimbabweans and handing them to the police, and some of the farmers say they are so angry that they sometimes feel like shooting the trespassers on their land.

Thousands arrested

Police have stopped releasing statistics on immigrant arrests. The latest police data available indicate that here in Limpopo province, police arrested 5,000 Zimbabwean border jumpers in January.

But the army alone has arrested almost 42,000 Zimbabweans this year, and expects the total to reach 100,000 by year’s end, compared with about 72,000 last year, according to figures provided at a military briefing to businessmen and farmers last month in this border town.

The majestic baobab trees that loom tall in Limpopo’s scrubby acacia bush are of little scenic interest to hungry, footsore travelers from Zimbabwe, who care only for the shelter and shade they offer. The spectacular rocky outcrops are just barriers to walk around.

To landowners, the stony, dry soil is of little value except for game farming. The landscape draws hunters from all over the world to kill kudu, eland, impala -- all antelope -- and other game.

It’s not hard to pick out the ragged, dirty border jumpers who venture onto Limpopo’s roads looking for a lift. They radiate fear and vulnerability.

Akimu Tafire, 17, and Sheron Chimbuya, 20, had been wandering for five days without food or water after crossing the border with a group of 100 people.

“There’s no food. There’s no clothes. Education is poor and life is bad” in Zimbabwe, said Akimu, an orphan who supports five siblings.

Zimbabweans speak of a disintegrating society, a place so desperate that mothers of young children leave them behind to make the terrifying journey south.

Cecilia Mapani, wizened and worn down at 25, left Zimbabwe in March because there was no way to feed her young brothers and her 7-year-old son, Tanaka.

“I was afraid, but I forced myself to come,” she said. “People say a lot of things about this Limpopo River. There are crocodiles in the river. The water was powerful and I don’t know how to swim.”

She joined a group of about 130 people, escorted by traffickers. They were told to hold hands when they waded into the river, which came almost to Mapani’s neck. They walked for five hours through the bush to get to the nearest town, Musina.

Mapani found work picking tomatoes on a local farm for $40 a month. Some would call it exploitation, but to her the meager wage offered survival and hope. Mapani is now in Johannesburg, penniless and unemployed.

Ask Mapani how it felt to leave her son behind, and she gazes ahead numbly, as though seeing nothing. She left him with his father, a miner; she hopes he’ll be all right.

Farmers’ plight

The farmers of the Limpopo say they have their own worries about making a living. Armed with two-way radios, pistols and a zeal for law and order, they launched Farm Watch patrols seven years ago to combat crime, but now focus on rounding up Zimbabweans. The patrols have been criticized by the Limpopo police commissioner and by COSATU, the trade union body.

Farmers complain that their game fences are cut daily, their water pipes are broken by thirsty Zimbabweans, pump and irrigation parts are repeatedly stolen, fires are lighted, game killed and farmworkers threatened and sometimes attacked.

When game escapes, it’s impossible to recover it, said Gert Klopper, 65, who has a farm near the Zimbabwean border and lost 25 wildebeest valued at about $9,000 to a neighbor: Wild game cannot be marked or branded.

Behind Klopper’s house, strips of meat hang in an ancient van, an improvised drying room for biltong, the spicy air-dried meat South Africans love to snack on.

Another game and vegetable farmer, Willem Helm, lost a herd of eland valued at about $29,000 after his fence was cut. He has to employ a man full time just to fix the holes in his fences, he says.

“These people are so hungry; sometimes they have not eaten for four or five days. They don’t have a cent on them. They will steal anything,” he said. “They do what they have to do to survive. I’d probably do the same.

“But compassion is running out. We are getting frustrated and sometimes getting angry, especially if something is broken or stolen. The situation is so bad that you can’t let them go. If I am to survive on my land, then they must go.”

As the farmers patrol a deserted dirt track, the red dust is marked with the footprints of those who passed the night before. Here and there are traces of a scuffle: some discarded trousers and an old bag, signs that someone was robbed of their few possessions. There are also the remains of several fires.

Occasionally, you pass several large rocks placed in a line to point the way. The border crossers also tie plastic bags or bottles to trees to mark the way or indicate pickup points.

There’s a cold, biting wind on the back of Nienaber’s truck. He stops anyone he sees hanging out by the roadside, taking them by the arm and demanding to see their ID. Some of them roar with laughter, saying, “We’re from South Africa, not Zimbabwe.” Others show him their TB injection scars to prove they are South African; Zimbabweans’ scars are on the other shoulder.

Farmers also fear that the influx of Zimbabweans will scare away international game hunters. British hunter Richard Sloggett was surprised by the numbers of Zimbabweans rustling through bushes where he was supposed to be shooting.

On a June trip to the property of one Limpopo game farmer, Sloggett and other hunters slept each night with rifles at their sides, afraid of being attacked by Zimbabweans.

While hunting one morning in thick scrub, they found four border jumpers, and Sloggett was told to point his rifle at the men, march them back toward the main camp and force them to lie on the ground, an adventure that left a bad taste in his mouth.

“I’m English. It’s not in my nature to be pointing guns at people,” he said. “It was very alien.

“The problem is that these people [Zimbabweans] really have got nothing to lose. But that’s what makes them so dangerous.”

Another alien element, said Sloggett, was the way many local whites “talk as if the apartheid era still exists.”

“I found that pretty offensive. I wish they would change the way they speak. But that doesn’t mean they should be murdered. The crime is against them, not by them.”

At dusk near the Beitbridge border crossing, the sun sinks in a majestic haze of red. Stray cats and beggars scrounge for food.

There’s an air of expectancy: The drivers know it’s time for business. Pretty soon, says one Zimbabwean driver, people will start shambling in from the bushes to jump into taxis and make their way south.

But tonight, a soldier is patrolling the area, checking passports.

Darkness settles. Slowly the area empties out. It is as if the border crossers can smell the danger. They won’t be coming in from the bush tonight.



Zimbabwe at a glance


Zimbabwe, the former British colony of Southern Rhodesia, was once regarded as the breadbasket of southern Africa. White minority Prime Minister Ian Smith declared independence in 1965, and faced international sanctions and a guerrilla uprising until free elections were held in 1979. The nation was renamed Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe took power in 1980. He has ruled since.

Mugabe’s decision in 2000 to confiscate most white-owned commercial farms triggered the collapse of the agricultural industry, the country’s biggest employer and exporter, and led to spiraling unemployment, hard currency shortages and hyperinflation.

The United Nations estimates that a campaign against urban squatters and street merchants in 2005 destroyed the homes of 700,000 people. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, a former union official, has been badly beaten by police and twice arrested and charged with treason. He has not been convicted.

Zimbabwe ranked 151st out of 177 countries on the 2006 U.N. human development index, which is based on a variety of factors that include life expectancy, education and standards of living. The World Food Program estimates that by the beginning of next year, 4.1 million people, about a third of the population, will need food aid.

Quick facts


2000… $7.4 billion 2005… $3.4 billion


2000… 56.2% July 2007… 7,638%

Life expectancy at birth 2000… 39.8 years 2005… 37.3 years

Infant mortality rate per 1,000 2000… 117

2005… 132

Number of doctors

per 10,000 people

1990… 13.5 2004… 1.6

Sources: World Bank, World Health Organization, Zimbabwe Central Statistical Office