Jumping into a swimming pool is an insurmountable task for many — but Sithembile Moyo (34)* dares crocodiles and other dangerous reptiles found in the Limpopo River at least four times a month as she illegally crosses into South Africa in search of a better life.
BY XOLISANI NCUBE
For 10 years, Moyo, who hails from Beitbridge, has risked her life to cross the crocodile-infested river at least twice after every fortnight so that she could feed, clothe and send her three sons to school.
“What can I do for my family? Do you want them to die because I was afraid of a crocodile? I have a duty to take care of them, even if it means risking my life, let it be,” Moyo told The Standard news crew in Beitbridge last week shortly after crossing the Limpopo River from South Africa. She goes to work at a farm that has become popular with illegal immigrants.
She met the news crew on the banks of the river with her luggage which she was to carry for more 10km to the nearest bus stop.
“I have seen colleagues die in this river. Some drowned while others were attacked by crocodiles,” she said.
“But the question is: should I watch my children die of hunger when I can afford to cross the river? This is a matter of survival,” she narrates.
“We are used to this life. Every weekend I come home and on Monday I will be here again, in this water crossing back to South Africa where I work.
“I have seen a lot of things happening here, but the grace of God has kept me going.”
Early this year, Moyo witnessed six people drown after a heavy flood hit them while in the middle of the river.
The person whom they had paid to assist them cross the river was able to swim through the flood and survived.
“I have many friends who have failed to make it across the river because of many factors,” Moyo added.
“Some just collapse along the way, while others are hit by big logs and fall into the water. Some are killed by crocodiles.”
Moyo has also on several occasions had to run for dear life after encountering dangerous wild animals, among them elephants and hyenas.
“The best way to escape from an elephant is to run going in the direction of the wind and it will be easy to escape.
“But if you are breastfeeding or you are menstruating, you will be in trouble.”
As she narrated her story, an elephant appeared along the road and blocked the movement of cars for over 40 minutes, but for Moyo, it seemed like just another minor inconvenience she usually encounters on her travels.
She said at times a team of “brave men” helped her to cross the river, especially during the rainy season when water levels are high.
“If you look at the current water levels, you need someone to help you cross,” Moyo said.
“We pay anything between R50 to R100 or even get into a boat owned by these white commercial farmers who reside along the river.”
She said most farmers who lived along the river were cashing in on desperate Zimbabweans who hired the boats to cross the Limpopo.
“At one time, this farmer [name withheld] provided shelter to over 40 people who wanted to cross the river,” Moyo claimed.
“But it was impossible to cross because of strong winds. He gave them free food as he knew that he would charge them R100 each to cross using his boat.”
Moyo narrated how women were often abused by men who helped them cross the river as they demanded sexual favours as payment.
“When you don’t have money to pay the people who help you cross, they usually ask for sexual favours and this also happens across the Limpopo whenever you meet game rangers,” she alleged.
“Some women are raped by these rangers for them to proceed or else one risks being sent back home.”
The South African game rangers, according to Moyo, demand a payment of about R50 to allow the immigrants to proceed while those carrying goods such as cigarettes pay more.
Moyo said there were at least eight crossing points that were used by those travelling to South Africa illegally.
“People cross at various points along the river depending on what they have and where they are coming from [for those working on South African farms],” she said.
“Some cross from here, Deek Bee, others use Velem farm, Nottingham farm, while some go as far as Commission — especially those who would want to cross with cigarettes.
“We have some who go as far as the Shashe area down there.”
Moyo said every day; a person is raped, mugged or in some cases killed by criminals, who operate along the corridor where there are an estimated 200 illegal crossing points along the Limpopo River. Most of the cases go unreported.
At an area known as Commission, Moyo said, soldiers and police officers also helped people cross the river, especially at night.
“They pay something like R200 per box of cigarettes so that the soldiers would guard them as they cross the river,” she said.
“There is a gang of young people permanently stationed there to assist.
“This team takes care of soldiers who should be providing security along the border.
“They provide them with food and beer as well as look for prostitutes for them [soldiers] so that they are allowed to do their work [helping those who want to cross the Limpopo River].”
The Standard crew witnessed a gang of six men led by one Phineas waiting for potential clients, while soldiers and police officers were relaxing in the makeshift shelter with some women.
The gang was very suspicious of the crew — probably due to the dressing and the language common in the area.
Phineas could be heard telling his gang to be careful when dealing with the crew as he suspected that they were police investigators or state security agents.
He warned his troops — using his native Venda language — to deal ruthlessly with The Standard crew if “they try to be funny.”
Moyo works at a potato farm together with over 500 other Zimbabweans and she said none of them crossed through Beitbridge Border Post.
She said most of them were working in South Africa illegally.
Moyo added: “For me, it’s better to die in the river than to die of hunger at home.
“I have to send my children to school. I don’t have a husband to take care of my family so I can’t sit at home when I can work across the Limpopo and put smiles on the faces of my kids.”
“If I cross via Beitbridge Border Post, I will be given only 14 days to be in South Africa and should come back at the end of those days.
“So it’s better for me to just cross here and be an illegal immigrant there.
“Each time South African police raid our farms, we normally run away or bribe them so that we continue to work.”
Zimbabwe’s ailing economy has forced thousands of locals, especially young people, to leave the country in search of greener pastures.
Moyo said many have been killed along the way by the very same people who help them to cross the river, especially those who “export” lucrative commodities such as cigarettes and ivory, among other goods.
“I can’t tell you much on that. It is a difficult story to tell. Women are raped in the bush either by the maguma guma or the rangers guarding the game parks. Some have lost all their goods to these people,” she said.
For a better understanding of how a truckload of groceries from South Africa or cigarettes crossed the Limpopo River, The Standard team caught up with Lucy Kaitano (32), a dealer who was in the area to organise the “processing” of her contraband by Phineas and his gang.
“It’s a game of life and death, you either survive or not,” Kaitano said.
“I have a seven-tonne truckload of cigarettes that is on the way from Harare and I have to make sure that all is in place for it to cross to South Africa.
“For each 90kg box of cigarettes taken across the river by Phineas and his team, I pay R140. They cross the river carrying the boxes on their backs. It’s risky but let me tell you my brother; no risk, no money.”
She said at times, women took off their clothes and remained with undergarments to enable them to cross the river while accompanying smugglers carrying boxes and they would navigate through the game park — bribing rangers through to South Africa.
“As soon as we cross the river, we walk for 14km to the road where we meet with the buyers,” Kaitano said.
“I have no option but to stick with these boys because some of them are mischievous. They can lie that the stuff was confiscated when in actual fact they would have sold it along the way.
“So to be safe and sure with money, I travel with them or get a relative, someone I trust to go with them until I meet the buyer.”
Asked about the risk of drowning Kaitano said: “what if you don’t drown, what are you going to say? I said without risk, you will never make money.”
“You are a journalist and you write dangerous stories which at times put you at risk of being killed, why don’t you fear that? It’s money, isn’t it? So do I. I risk [my life] for survival”.
Just like Moyo, Kaitano has witnessed people dying in the river or women being raped trying to cross the river.
“Please, whatever happens in the bush must remain there. If people decide to indulge in sex along the way, whether you call it rape or by agreement, it remains in the bush. We don’t discuss what would have happened while in the bush,” she said.
Her face looked so innocent yet her deeds tell a story of a desperate woman who has a hungry family to feed back home.
“I can bring anything you want from South Africa, even drugs and groceries. I can supply anything provided you pay well,” she said.
Early January the South Africa police rescued over six people marooned by floods along the Limpopo River while crossing to South Africa.
Home Affairs deputy minister Obendingwa Mguni told the senate last week that government was aware of people who crossed into South Africa via the Limpopo River and his department was exploring ways to stop it.
“We have implemented new technology. We are bringing in the drones that are able to fly, patrolling along the border post. We have an inter-ministerial committee involved,” he said.
“Finance and other ministries like the ministry of Mines are now buying those machines so that they can fly to take care of those boundaries to see who is crossing so that we search for those people.
“Most of the drug traffickers are using such areas [Limpopo],” Mguni said.
Mguni’s boss, Ignatius Chombo said he was still checking on reports of people drowning in the Limpopo River and by Friday, he had not yet responded to questions sent to him.
* Not real name