South Africa has a shining new fence and it’s guarded jealously. The razor wire runs along forty kilometres of the border with Zimbabwe by the slow curve of the Limpopo River. It’s designed to keep their neighbours to the north at a safe distance. ITV News joined the troops who patrol it, clamping down on a cross border trade that has been a way of life – indeed the only means of making a living – for many people for years. One officer tells us they’re returning hundreds of migrants every day. "Those who want to sustain their families, they cross on the river," says Brigadier General Edward Mulaudzi. "Those who want to do business, they cross on the river. Those who are coming here for medical purposes, then they cross on the river."
It’s the dry season and the mighty Limpopo is reduced to large expanses of sand. The greatest danger used to come from the crocodiles which lurk in the remaining pools of water. But now travellers must watch out for the beefed up army patrols as well. Last month, 2,000 Zimbabweans were arrested on the southern side of the border. Covid has made the illicit crossing both riskier and more urgent. While Zimbabwe has officially escaped the worst ravages of the pandemic – with fewer than 250 deaths recorded – the economic isolation has been catastrophic.
At one point inflation surged beyond 700 per cent. The essentials of life are in short supply or priced beyond most pockets. At the border, stopped by the South Africa army, ITV News met a forlorn looking Tatenda Moyo.
"I cross to buy food and fuel," he tells us. "Back home, there’s no employment. And food in Zimbabwe is too expensive." He’ll try again tomorrow. He has no choice. Nor does Soames Ndlovu, who tries to cross illegally every day. "I have a wife and two children. I used to come and carry bags for people and earn enough to buy food in South Africa but now it’s very tough. "In Zimbabwe, some of the shops have food, but your money won’t buy you anything."
We meet Soames at Beit Bridge; the official customs point. There’s a long queue of lorries waiting to cross. Essential goods are allowed in – but the process is slow. Yet it is a lifeline for those who can afford to import their weekly groceries, those with relatives in South Africa.
In Johannesburg, Patricia Chawoma is entrusting a carefully wrapped parcel to one of the courier companies that travel to Harare, seven hundred miles to the north. There are beans, canned vegetables and long life milk for her three children in Zimbabwe.
"They trouble me. Keeping phoning day and night. ‘Mamma we are hungry. We have nothing’," she says. "But I can’t manage to send them every time." The courier costs are equal to the cost of the groceries – all paid for out of her meagre salary as a shop worker. But still much cheaper than buying in Harare. As the Covid pandemic subsides, authorities on both side of the border are under pressure to ease travel restrictions.
And for Zimbabweans, hunger is a far greater menace than the virus.