IT’S a cold August night and the long winding queue at Beitbridge border post, which links Zimbabwe and its neighbour South Africa, barely moves.
Women and children, some of whom are as young as six months strapped tightly on their mothers back, wait patiently to be served by South African immigration officers.
It is so cold that the older children try to keep warm by running around close to their mothers, excited about their journey to Mzansi – the country of bright lights, where they will be treated to goodies like sweets, ice cream, yogurt and pizza. After nearly six hours of playing, the cold starts biting and the children are now hungry and exhausted and they start crying.
The mothers try to comfort their children by telling them that they will soon be on their way.
However, this is just the beginning of the ordeal that Zimbabweans have to go through on the South African side of the border post.
Despite the situation almost normalising in the country with most basic commodities now available on the shelves in the supermarkets, thousands of Zimbabweans still flock to South Africa each day and continue to endure the humiliating and degrading experiences at the South African border post.
Some travel to seek treatment and medication, jobs and quality education.
In May this year, South Africa scrapped visas for Zimbabwean travellers to that country. Zimbabwean citizens can now apply for a 90-day visitor’s permit and can also do casual jobs while in South Africa. This only applies to travellers with valid passports or emergency travel documents.
While this is viewed as positive to relations between Zimbabwe and South Africa, the situation at the border post tells a different story with Zimbabweans, including children, being subjected to degrading and humiliating conditions by the South African immigration and police officers.
The queues stretch for hundreds of metres meandering to as far as the bridge and it can take more than 12 hours to have a passport stamped.
At first sight, one might be forgiven to think that the people were desperately queuing for free food rations in a poverty-stricken country.
It was heartbreaking for the Zimbabwe Independent last Wednesday and Thursday to watch Zimbabweans, particularly women and children, being pushed around by South African police and immigration officers.
It was even more painful to watch a once proud people beg for passage into South Africa.
At Beitbridge border post the nights are bitterly cold and late mornings and afternoons are scorching hot. Despite the heat, people in the queue are not allowed by the South African officials to stand in the shade, worse still to sit down.
“You did not come here to sit, you Zimbabweans. This is not a sitting area,” a policeman bellowed and people quickly stood up to avoid assault.
A few minutes later there is commotion in the queue, with terror-stricken women trying to duck a sjambok from a policeman who was trying to straighten the queue.
A middle-aged woman is not so fortunate – she is beaten up and her young children start weeping as they cannot understand why this man was hitting their mother continuously. She was accused of jumping the queue.
Her explanations fell on deaf ears as the policeman continues to beat her. She eventually succumbed and moves to the back of the queue, further delaying her passage by another 12 hours.
No one questions or challenges the policeman for the inhuman treatment but instead try to please him.
Tapiwa from Mbare claims she stood in the queue for more than eight hours, without the queue moving an inch.
Â It is alleged that the immigration officers are on a go-slow.
“When we got here, very few people were in front of us, such that if they wanted to move faster they could have stamped our passports way back. But the other buses started arriving and the crowd became larger, now people are going in front of us causing a lot of chaos,” she said.
Like an abused wife or child, a mother visiting her husband with three children the youngest being seven months, has come to accept the humiliation and degradation.
The woman lamented: “I am used to this. This is not the first time that we are made to wait for so long.
Sometimes they are fast in stamping them and when they want to be slow it’s up to them. They can do it and we will wait patiently. They will eventually clear us all. We have been patient for a change in our country for so many years – so what is a few hours at the border. This is actually even better, there are times when they fail to control the crowd that they have to spray cold water on people.”
Zimbabweans argued that the removal of visas was not a licence for South Africans to degrade them.
“I think if they can’t stand the removal of the visas they should just put them back because the way they are treating us right now is so unfair,” a disgruntled man said. “Why are they even on a go-slow at a border like this? If they don’t want us they should just tell us rather than beating us and calling us all sorts of names.”
However, with between R30 and R50, one can jump the queue. The money is given to one of the officers controlling the queue at the front.
While Zimbabweans are excited about the relaxation of the visa requirements, the South African immigration officers are complaining that the volume of people crossing into South Africa has increased dramatically and their staff can no longer cope with the numbers.
The scrapping of the stringent visa requirements was a culmination of talks between Zimbabwe and South Africa under the Joint Permanent Commission on Defence and Security that began in November 2007. The relaxation is the first step towards the eventual removal of the visa.