BY BRENNA MATENDERE
Thousands of Zimbabwean cross-border informal traders and bus operators are bribing their way to illegally get in and out of South Africa on a daily basis despite the closure of land borders to ordinary travellers.
Some of the buses are linked to named top government officials, among them a cabinet minister, but the links could not be verified by the time of going to print.
The scam has exposed immigration and customs officials as well as the police and army who are allegedly being paid to bend the law by allowing the unsanctioned travel by the traders.
Early this year, government promulgated Statutory Instrument (SI) 87A of 2021, which banned the movement of non-essential service providers in a bid to slow down the spread of Covid-19.
However, investigations carried out by The Standard, in conjunction with Information for Development Trust, a non-profit making organisation that supports journalists to investigate stories on public sector corruption and bad governance, revealed that authorities were receiving bribes to let unauthorised passengers into and from South Africa.
Investigations busted numerous operators as being among those that ply the Harare-Johannesburg route.
The majority of the passengers are the informal traders, who go across the border to buy wares for resale in Zimbabwe.
The buses use various pick-up and drop-off points in Harare and other cities such as Gweru, Bulawayo and Masvingo.
In Harare, the buses pick up travellers mainly from the Roadport terminus on the eastern side of the central business district and High Glen station, located at a shopping mall just outside the capital adjacent to the south-western suburb of Budiriro.
But other buses pick up passengers close to the Boka Tobacco Auction Floors, near Glen Norah suburb in the capital.
The High Glen terminus is busier than Roadport, with investigations establishing that at least 40 buses drove in and out of the former on a daily basis.
With a standard bus carrying 65 passengers, this would translate to around 3 000 passengers getting into South Africa every day from one terminus only, the majority of whom are travelling illegally.
At both High Glen and Roadport, the buses leave the terminus at different times from late afternoon, meaning that they cover most of the distance to the Beitbridge border post during night time.
Other buses arrive from South Africa and passengers freely offload their luggage.
A police post is located a few metres away from the terminus, whose details sometimes patrol the bus station.
The operators and crew pay scant regard to Covid-19 safety regulations, in violation of SI87A, as they do not disinfect their buses or test passengers — most of whom do not wear face masks or use hand sanitisers — for temperature.
SI87A of 2021 also says “(d) every public transport service driver must, no less frequently than once in every calendar month, undergo the test required to obtain a PCR [polymerase chain reaction] Covid-19-free certificate, and may not be employed as such unless he or she has obtained that certificate”.
However, it was established that the drivers of the buses were not adhering to this regulation.
The bus crews, it was established, routinely misrepresent their destinations, claiming on the route logs that they would be ferrying the passengers only as far as Beitbridge.
Normally, a traveller passes through at least 15 police checkpoints between Harare and the border post, in addition to mobile highway patrols.
While the buses get stopped at the checkpoints, they always pass, with some travellers who talked to The Standard testifying that the crew pay bribes to the police details manning the roadblocks.
Before the borders were closed, a coach trip form Harare to Johannesburg was R600 on average. But the charges have been hiked four-fold.
This publication is in possession of audio recordings of bus operators explaining how they bribe authorities at the border to ferry non-essential service providers into South Africa in violation of the lockdown measures.
A High Glen tout, who said he worked for several bus companies, revealed that his employers had increased the total transport fee to R2 500 per single trip.
His work involves soliciting for passengers and marketing the Harare-Johannesburg trips through social media.
Bribing the officials
“The fare increase caters for the bribing of immigration and police officers,” he explained.
“The money also covers for documents needed to cross the border that the passengers won’t be having the documentation.
“These include a South African permit to cross the Zimbabwean border, passport and a certificate to show one is Covid-19 negative.”
Immigration officials do not process the passengers’ travel documents.
“Passports are not being used these days, but we take you into South Africa and back,” he said.
“At the border, no passenger disembarks.
“You just remain seated and we sort everything out with the immigration guys and police on both sides of the border.”
At the Roadport terminus, a lady returning to Zimbabwe revealed that they did not experience any hassles once they paid the R2 500.
“We did not face any hassles at all. At the border, passengers were not allowed to disembark from the bus,” she said.
“Only the driver and conductors did. But if you wanted to go and relieve yourself, you were given a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of the bus company so that you would appear to the police like one of the bus crew.
“Then the conductors would accompany you to the toilet and back into the bus.”
A bus conductor at High Glen terminus revealed that authorities at South Africa’s Home Affairs department were taking bribes of R700 in order to process travel permits from undeserving Zimbabwean applicants even in their absence.
He showed this reporter a passport belonging to a Zimbabwean that he said he was going to take to South Africa for a permit even though the applicant would remain in the country.
At Roadport, a tout said he and his colleagues sought for people wishing to travel to South Africa without requisite papers and negotiated with the bus companies to take them through.
“Those immigration people at the border, we give them money (to allow non-essential service citizens to pass),” he said.
“I have been to the border and know exactly who to give the money.
“Passengers just sit in the bus and we sort (bribe) the guys at the border so that the bus can pass without being checked.”
Despite our own observations, Samuel Kamutikaoma, the Munhenzva bus company spokesperson, waved off the allegation that they were ferrying passengers illegally.
“We are only repatriating people from South Africa,” he said.
“We are not taking any passengers from Zimbabwe to South Africa.
“What we do is that we just put fuel into our buses and then they go to South Africa empty. The buses then return with repatriated citizens.’
An official from a bus company implicated in the scam also denied that the firm was involved in illegal cross-border activities.
“We are a local operator and do not ply the route across the South African border,” he said.
Another company fingered in the illegal passage of travellers into South Africa, said all operations of the firm were lawfully done.
“At the moment, we are only plying local routes, though some of our buses are contracted by Zupco (a government public transport entity),” he said. “We are not plying cross-border routes.”
Itai Rusike, the Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) director, said he was aware that people were travelling into South Africa despite the border restrictions.
“The official closure of our land borders is just on paper as thousands of people continue crossing the borders every day, thereby pausing a serious public risk of Covid-19 infections,” Rusike said.
Anti-Corruption Trust of Southern Africa (ACT-SA) director Munyaradzi Bhidi said they were also aware that travellers were crossing the border illegally and bribing immigration, customs, police and army officers manning the border.
“We have also been advised that transporters are the ones who organise the payment of bribes to ZRP [Zimbabwe Republic Police], ZNA [Zimbabwe National Army] and Zimra [Zimbabwe Revenue Authority] officials,” Bhidi said.
“I am sure that the management of ZRP, ZNA and Zimra are fully aware of these developments, but there seems to be no genuine commitment to end the corruption in the country.”
Beitbridge East Member of Parliament Albert Nguluvhe also confirmed the human traffic passing through the border.
“Here in Beitbridge, I observed that there are lots of buses with loads of goods coming from South Africa,” Nguluvhe said.
“On my way from Parliament in Harare, I also noticed them on the way.
“But I thought perhaps they were returning citizens.”
The immigration department and police fall under the Home Affairs ministry, where Kazembe Kazembe is the minister.
Kazembe, in a terse response to questions, said: “I think the issues raised are more operational than policy.
“In that case, I kindly refer you to the head of the immigration department.”
Respect Gono, the chief director in the Immigration department, referred questions to the Beitbridge office’s public relations officer, Memory Mugwagwa, who insisted her office was strictly enforcing lockdown regulations.
“The department is fully aware of the reasons for the lockdown and is enforcing that position with the aid of sister agencies,” Mugwagwa said.
“The presence of enhanced security and the deployment of air patrols and drones is also helping (to) ensure adherence.”
Mugwagwa said people allowed to cross the border were restricted to diplomats, truck drivers, returning Zimbabweans, foreign nationals resident in the country and other migrants on transit under state-coordinated repatriation programmes.
Police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said they would launch investigations while his counterpart in South Africa, Mamphaswa Seabi, told The Standard that they were keen to probe allegations of the irregular issuance of permits and failure to produce passports at the border.
“We will have to investigate and find out what is happening,” said Seabi, who asked The Standard for evidence
South Africa has the highest Covid-19 cases in Africa and uncontrolled travel further exposes Zimbabweans to the highly infectious and deadly disease.