By Themba Sibanda
BULAWAYO — Hopes of a better, lavish, and financially rewarding life characterised by the glitz and glamour of South Africa continue to take a toll on Zimbabweans, especially young men from the southern parts of the country.
Some have sacrificed the little they have to make the long trip down south.
For some it has been relatives who have pressured jobless young men to follow suit and travel to Jozi, as Johannesburg is popularly known by locals, even without adequate travelling documents.
Risks such as crossing the crocodile infested Limpopo River, mugging by gangs along the way, and rape — in the case of women, have all failed to deter desperate Zimbabweans from travelling to South Africa.
For Rapelang Tshabalala (22) of Sun Yet Sen village in Kezi district of Matabeleland South, the story of his long journey to Johannesburg speaks to a combination of factors.
The quest for a better life, the need to fend for a young wife and a set of twin baby boys, his widowed mother and three other siblings, are all factors that pushed him to sell off the remaining three goats the family had in order to find money that would facilitate his travel to South Africa where the search for a better life would begin.
During the two years that he has been in South Africa, Tshabalala has toiled to find menial jobs that enable him to send a few groceries every month back home given that he is “a family man.”
In June, Tshabalala encountered difficulties in sending groceries to his family due to restrictions imposed by Zimbabwean and South African authorities as part of efforts to reduce the spread of Covid-19.
“As a man, I took matters into my own hands,” he said in an online interview from his Hillbrow base in Johannesburg.
While many Zimbabweans have always used unauthorised entry points to cross the Beitbridge border, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced even passport holders to take up this option — this time to evade quarantine centres where they would have to be tested for the novel coronavirus.
For many, spending 21 days away from work, family and in run-down facilities is unfathomable. If caught, they escape.
Tshabalala’s journey is a web of determination, bribes, capture, frustration and eventual escape.
“I vowed I had to come back home to see my family and bring them some small things to keep them going,” he said.
Tshabalala said the trip home was not a difficult one as they evaded roadblocks using some routes that eventually took them from Johannesburg to the Zimbabwe-South Africa border.
“When we got there, we had to part ways as we had to use the illegal routes to come through to Zimbabwe.
“On the South African side, it was okay because we paid some small money to the patrol officers and they let us go.
“We encountered problems on the Zimbabwean side as we were caught by the police as we tried to gain access to the highway where we were supposed to connect with the man who had transported us from Johannesburg,” Tshabalala added.
Despite efforts to “sweet-talk” the officers into releasing them, coupled with offers for a bribe, Tshabalala says the police officers refused to budge and took them to a nearby police post where they were told they needed to be taken to a testing centre for Covid-19 before undergoing the mandatory 21-day quarantine.
“I felt the world collapsing around me,” he said.
“To imagine spending the 21 days in quarantine was the worst ever thing I was going to endure.
“We were taken to this centre which is housed at what used to be a hotel. We joined several other people there.”
“It was tough. There was no water. Food was scarce and it was just tasteless.
“The sleeping arrangements were even worse. I could not stomach the pressure.
“On the first day, I could not sleep at all.
“I was awake the whole night and to imagine undergoing this for the next 21 days stressed me more.
“The thought of my family worsened matters and I thought I needed to make a plan as a man.”
On the night of June 11, 2020, Tshabalala says he and three new found friends, courtesy of laxity in security at the centre where they were held, managed to sneak out through the security fence.
“We could not take it any longer. We were suffering in Johannesburg and struggling to make ends meet. But that situation there was unbearable,” he says.
Tshabala said they sneaked out of the quarantine rooms in the dead of the night and had to find their way to the Limpopo Bridge where they knew they would meet amagumagumas (illegal entry point guides and gangs) to help them cross back into South Africa.
“For R300 each, they guided us through, and we eventually found our way back to Johannesburg.
“It is much better to die of coronavirus while I fend for my family and also away from that dungeon quarantine in Zimbabwe where people are not treated as they are expected but as if they are animals,” he said.
“I will not come back home anytime soon. If it means dying of this coronavirus while here in South Africa, I would rather do so.
“As long as I am able to work and send money to take care of my children, that will be the life going forward,” declared Tshabalala.
Norman Matara, Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights secretary general, said some of the reasons returnees were escaping from quarantine centres was poor treatment and lack of proper facilities.
“There have been many complaints about the treatment and general running of these Covid-19 quarantine centres,” Matara said.
“People there complain of food, ablution facilities, bedding and linen, and water among other things.
“The situation remains dire. Nothing much has improved at those centres despite stakeholders’ concerns.
“That is why you find people would obviously escape if given an opportunity because the centres are not up to scratch.”
At the beginning of July, over 200 people were estimated to have escaped from quarantine centres across the country — less than 30 were traced and arrested,
Agnes Mahomva, the principal coordinator of the Covid-19 response in the Office of the President and Cabinet, has in the past said the government is working to ensure that centres where people are quarantined are habitable.
In June, the United Nations published a Zimbabwe situation report which among other issues noted that only 62% of centres had running water, while only 40% of hand washing stations had soap.
l This article was originally published by The Citizen Bulletin, a hyperlocal nonprofit news outlet covering Covid-19 in Matabeleland.