News in depth BY NOKUTHABA DLAMINI
The Victoria Falls, on the mighty Zambezi River between Zimbabwe and Zambia, is one of the world’s seven wonders and arguably the largest waterfall by width and depth.
It is alternatively known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, the Lozi language for “The smoke that thunders”. It got the name from the perennially roaring sheet of water that plunges over a gorge for some 108 metres.
Below the waterfall is the Victoria Falls bridge that links the two southern African countries, which in colonial times were known as Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).
The roaring thunder of the falls and the thick spray of plunging water can be heard and seen from this bridge.
Outside that, the bridge is largely a quiet entry and exit point for travellers between the two countries when you compare it with busy ports like Beitbridge border post.
Coming from the border city of Livingstone in Zambia, a casual traveller takes about 10 minutes to walk to the Victoria Falls border post in Zimbabwe.
Travellers to and from this post come in different forms. Tourists and other visitors or returnees in cars. Rushing female cross-border traders with heavy luggage in their hands and on the head. Male daily traders on bicycles and, of course, haulage trucks. And traders who use daily passes issued in Zambia use taxis, if they can afford them.
Traders go through the port procedures with some modest rush, but not enough to give the uninitiated traveller a sense that there is more than meets the eye between the bridge and the border post on the Zimbabwean side.
Typical of border posts in southern Africa and other parts of the continent, the Victoria Falls border post is a swirl of systematic smuggling involving Zambian and Zimbabwean traders, on one hand, and immigration and tax officials, the army and police, on the other, an investigation by The Standard, working in partnership with Information for Development Trust, revealed.
Ozia Mwembe, a trader in his 40s, is now a common figure at the border post. He has managed to build a strong rapport with the authorities.
He worked in a lowly teaching job in Lusaka for many years before switching to cross-border trade less than a decade ago and told of an intricate underground smuggling racket in which he is part.
Mwembe comes to Victoria Falls about twice a week with an illegal consignment of skin-bleaching creams that have a ready market in the nearby Victoria Falls town’s hair salons, tuckshops, street corners and night spots.
“My creams are not approved in Zimbabwe, but are in high demand. It’s easy smuggling them in because almost everyone here (at the border post) knows me. I can give you the names of those that I deal with who are here and those that have been transferred over the years due to corruption,” Mwembe told The Standard.
At the bridge, he goes past the guarding soldiers with a casual wave and a greeting on some days, but sometimes stops for a short and jovial chat, and the routine palm-to-palm slap of a small Zambian kwacha — mostly 50 kwacha— “tip for a drink”, he revealed.
He jumps the queue to the immigration desk and is never searched by the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) officials.
Mwembe cannot officially declare his goods because they are banned in Zimbabwe, so he also pays the tax officials a bribe or meets them up in the resort town of Victoria Falls at night for a beer and gives them a share of the smuggled goods for sale.
Past the post, Mwembe hikes a taxi and takes his contraband, carefully arranged in disposable bags, to his web of clients in town, gets paid and also uses the trip to collect what the buyers owe him from previous trips.
“It has taken me a number of years to build these networks and now it is very easy for me to bring in the goods,” he boasts.
At least 250 day-trippers on foot and about 100 others on cycles pass through the Victoria Falls border post every day, the Zimra head of communications, Francis Chimhanda, said.
Chimhanda, though, insisted that the recorded traders properly declare their goods and could not smuggle them in due to tight security which he said included 24-hour surveillance and sniffer dogs.
He acknowledged that smuggling was common, but claimed that happened through illegal crossing points on the porous border.
“The Victoria Falls border perimeter fence along the no-man’s land was vandalised and has numerous holes, which can be used by omanyamula (touts) to smuggle the prohibited goods by avoiding the official border entry gate,” he told The Standard.
Besides illegal skin lightening lotions, Zambians are popular in the Victoria Falls resort town for smuggling in vagina-tightening creams that are in high demand among sex workers and ordinary women, both married and single, who believe these unlicensed products enhance sexual pleasure during intercourse.
Smuggled boxes and bags also contain Body Luxe, Extra Claire, Caro Light and Glairmen body creams in varying quantities, in addition to intoxicating substances such as Bronclear (popularly known as Bronco) and Histalix D.
Movate and Epiderm, both illegal in Zimbabwe, are among the popular combinations of hydroquinone, steroids and mercury that commercial sex workers and other women buy from the smugglers to apply on their skins.
However, such creams come with a risk as some brands, untested by the Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe, contain potentially dangerous substances.
Scientific research has established that mercury, for instance, interferes with renal and nervous systems while steroids can cause the thinning of the skin and results in a sickly pigmentation that is common among people who apply them repeatedly.
Other common side effects of the creams include uneven bleaching, intense irritation or even cancer.
Victoria Falls is an easy conduit for the contraband, investigations revealed.
The smugglers use their networks of clients and fellow traders to ship the goods farther afield to places like Bulawayo, Harare and other cities and towns.
The traders, it emerged, pay bribes at three checkpoints at the border post, first the soldiers who provide both static and roaming security duties at the port, then the tax officials and the police.
Bribes that are determined by the quantities and black market value of the smuggled goods are mostly paid in US dollars or the Zambian kwacha, with interviewed traders saying they paid 100 kwacha for a box of 12 by 300 grammes of skin lightening creams.
The traders commonly place the bribes within or under the baggage and tax officials collect the money while pretending to be searching the luggage.
This normally follows eye contact and “coded” body language between the officials and the smugglers, but, in some cases, the traders keep folded notes in their palms and pass them on to the officials as if in a greeting.
In other cases, the bribes are handed over to middlemen who spend the whole day loitering at the port. The officials collect their money when they knock off and keep records of the bribers and the amounts in their phones or on scraps of paper to avoid being cheated by the middlemen.
But it’s not all the time that the bribing sequence proceeds so easily. Police details, soldiers, Zimra as well as immigration officials are regularly transferred or go on breaks and new faces take their places. Undercover surveillance teams are once in a while deployed to monitor events at the border.
When that happens, investigations also revealed, smugglers switch to the undesignated entry points where they use the roaming touts to smuggle the goods through the bush and pay them varying amounts.
This usually takes place at a popular spot in the no-man’s-land stretch between Zambia and Zimbabwe which is often patrolled by plainclothes details from the police’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID).
And the omanyamula have an easy passage through the bush because, according to The Standard’s observations, the CID details never arrest the smugglers as long as they receive satisfactory bribes.
The touts, who mostly carry the smuggled goods on their heads, backs and shoulders or use hand-driven carts, walk distances of up to 3km into Victoria Falls and usually hide the baggage in thick bushes near the railway line that runs into Zambia through the town or just behind one of the leading hotels.
The smuggled creams are sold in a hush-hush manner in Victoria Falls to avoid detection by the regular and municipal police officers. The Standard found out that traders based in the town, most of them women, hide the prohibited items in the undergarments, drainage pipes and at home, where they retrieve them after getting orders.
The daring ones, though rare, sell in open spaces in the streets and backyard hair salons, with some even venturing into the police camp to find customers while law enforcers look away.
Arrests and prosecution of Zimbabwean and Zambian smugglers occur once in a while, but do not match the rate of smuggling, as shown by a perusal of court records at the Victoria Falls magistrates’ court.
One such case involved Angelina Sibanda (46) from Victoria Falls’ Chinotimba suburb, who was sentenced to four months in jail on July 15 this year after she was found in possession of a huge stash of unregistered cough medicine and skin bleaching creams after her arrest at the border post.
Cain Mathema, the minister of Home Affairs under which immigration and the police fall, professed ignorance over the involvement of his officials in the smuggling.
“If that is what is happening, those employees accepting bribes will have to be fired,” he said.
“We are a country that does not tolerate corruption at all and that shall be investigated.”Matabeleland North police spokesperson Siphiwe Makonese said they were going to investigate the allegations.
Like Mathema, Zimbabwe National Army spokesperson, Alphios Makotore said he was not aware soldiers were taking bribes at the border post, but, “as the army, we will investigate”.