There was a disturbing story in the local press recently about 19 Malawian women and children who spent over a month at Chipinge Prison in Zimbabwe for contravening Zimbabwe’s Immigration Act.
The story says that of the 19 people, 14 were women and five were under-five children who were travelling to South Africa in a bus, but were intercepted by Zimbabwe police at a road block because they did not have travel documents. The story itself is not new. Malawians have been travelling to South Africa without passports or any form of identity for many years.
But how is it possible that people could travel to South Africa without travel documents? Some people blame porous borders. This is true, but only part of the story. However, the major problem is corruption at border posts and road blocks from Malawi to South Africa. People who travel to South Africa without passports are actually trafficked by transporters (whether by bus or light vehicle), mostly from Mzimba and Mangochi, who bribe their way to South Africa. It is a multimillion kwacha racket that involves immigration officials and other security agents. And this is why it is difficult to curb the malpractice because law enforcers benefit from it.
The corruption starts at Malawian border posts such as Dedza and Mwanza. Transporters pay huge bribes to law enforcers both on the Malawian and Mozambican side for safe passage. Sometimes transporters can stay at Dedza border a day or two negotiating their way through. Once in Mozambique, transporters have two options to use. One route is to go via Maputo and use the Lebombo border post with South Africa. Those who have used this route will tell you that it takes about two weeks to reach Johannesburg. Apart from the route being long, transporters have to pay bribes all the way to until they reach South Africa. And usually they travel at night because there are few roadblocks. The passengers are subjected to untold suffering such as harassment from Mozambican police, hunger and exhaustion.
The second option is to use the Zimbabwean route which takes them through to Nyamapanda and Beitbridge. Again, transporters bribe their way through. They popularly call it ‘kugula musewu’ (‘to buy the road’). Travellers who opt to use the Beitbridge route have to jump the border. Transporters arrange with private individuals to assist travellers to cross the crocodile-infested Limpopo River at great risk. Sometimes travellers have fallen into the hands of criminals known as ‘amaguma guma’ who have robbed them of their money and other valuables. In extreme cases, they have murdered travellers and raped women.
Once they cross the river, travellers walk for many kilometres before they reach Musina town from where they start the final leg of their journey to Johannesburg whose route has very few road blocks and rarely do they check travel documents.
The latest saga of undocumented women and children travelling to South Africa being apprehended in Zimbabwe should be seen as an unfortunate incident. The traffickers met ethical law enforcers who refused to take bribes. Otherwise these traffickers have been getting away with their criminal behaviour for many years courtesy of corrupt officials in Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa who receive colossal bribes to enable human traffickers drive through the check point with illegal immigrants.
So while fingers are pointing at porous borders for people travelling without documents, the main culprits are law enforcement agents at border posts and on the roads. If the vice is to be stopped, the starting point is to stop corruption at Malawian borders. Get those corrupt law enforcers behind bars! This a special message to the Anti-Corruption Bureau. Let investigative officers go to the border posts and observe what is happening there. It’s shocking!