Rural informal traders pose new Covid-19 threat

news in depth:BY BRENNA MATENDERE

Rural areas face the risk of degenerating into coronavirus hotspots as informal traders are increasingly turning to border-jumping into South Africa and other neighbouring countries to source goods for resale.

A recent snap survey of Covid-19 related vulnerabilities in rural areas by The Standard, working in partnership with Information for Development Trust, a media non-profit organisation promoting access to information relating to corruption, revealed that, in the Midlands province, informal traders were freely moving in and out of South Africa.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa decreed a lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 in late March.

However, he has gradually eased the lockdown, but, last week, said government could re-introduce stringent measures due to a steep spike in positive coronavirus cases, which have now breached the
1 000-mark as compared to less than 10 when the lockdown started.

The majority of the positive cases have been from quarantined Zimbabweans returning from the region — particularly South Africa, which has the biggest caseload in Africa of more than 300 000 positive cases and over 4 000 deaths by Friday — and other parts of the world.

But positive cases are now also being identified within communities in increasing numbers.

While government introduced a fund to cushion informal traders and vulnerable populations affected by the lockdown, the cash transfers, at less than US$5 per head, have been dismissed as too little, erratic and inaccessible to rural populations.

Without alternative means to earn income, informal traders from such areas as Zhombe, Gokwe and communities surrounding the Midlands city of Kwekwe have joined small-scale hawkers from other parts of the country to illegally cross into South Africa to buy goods, among them used clothes, shoes and basic commodities, for resale.

At a shopping centre in Zhombe, The Standard came across a group of the traders, who had just returned through Beitbridge, busy sorting out their goods and freely mingling with other villagers without wearing face masks.

A Zhombe businessman who is also the Anti-Corruption Trust of Southern Africa programmes manager, Munyaradzi Bhidhi, confirmed the growing menace posed by the traders.

“Highly disturbing is that a number of cross-border traders mostly from Gokwe, Zhombe and Kwekwe team up and use illegal means to cross into Musina in South Africa where they buy goods for resale back home.

“They use trucks and traffickers known as omalayitsha,” Bhidhi said. “There has been an increase in the number of temporary markets here as the traders barter their goods for grain, which they then sell in the towns and cities. Covid-19 cases will spread easily here.”

In Zimbabwe, responses to Covid-19, which the World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic early this year, have largely ignored rural areas where residents mostly view the affliction as a city-based disease.

The Beitbridge border post is closed to ordinary business and the truckers are reportedly bribing officials to smuggle goods in and out of Zimbabwe, while traders and the omalayitsha cross through undesignated points where they allegedly pay security details.

A senior intelligence officer during the late Robert Mugabe’s reign and Beitbridge East member of arliament, Albert Nguluvhe, urged the security forces to tighten their patrols so as to prevent the illegal crossings.

“People are putting money first. rather than life,” he said.

“I do appreciate that the border is porous, but I call upon the security departments like the police and army to improve their security deployments at the border, otherwise the nation will perish (due to Covid-19).

“I also call upon the government to avail affordable foodstuffs in rural areas so that people do not cross illegally into South Africa to acquire them.”

In order to deter smuggling, police must impound vehicles involved in the illegal transportation of goods, Nguluvhe added.

Morgan Ncube, the Beitbridge mayor, said he was also aware of the resurgence of the informal traders and transporters crossing into South Africa illegally and bemoaned his council’s lack of capacity to stem the border jumping.

“As council, we are powerless on that issue, but we see it happening. Our by-laws do not give us space to act effectively against the illegal crossings, so our plea is to the security forces to institute tight measures at the border,” he said.

Police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said they were receiving reports of smuggling and bribery involving their members.

“We are actually investigating several cases of smuggling at the border and the officer commanding Beitbridge district has been tasked with the duty to lead an operation of security forces to arrest all the perpetrators of those crimes,” Nyathi said.

“We are also investigating reports that some of our officers allegedly receive bribes.

“We are going to see a lot of arrests over those issues.”

In Victoria Falls, informal traders are freely crossing into the neighbouring Zambian city of Livingstone daily to buy liquor and other goods for resale in the resort town.

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