Coming Home

On Friday I did a really stupid thing - I had driven down to Beitbridge on business and then, because I could not find fuel in any of the usual places I had to cross the border to South Africa to buy some diesel in Mussina.

I went down to the border at 16.00 hrs. No sign of any problems on our side - it all looked quite calm. Then, after I had cleared Immigration and Customs, I presented myself to the external customs officers for final clearance and inspection of my vehicle. I had brought Z$2 million with me for the bridge toll and after paying this I had Z$1465 000 plus some Rand. I declared this and when I finally got to the officer dealing with currency I was told that he would have to confiscate Z$1 165 000 so as the leave me with Z$300 000 which was the maximum I was allowed to take out of the country.

I explained to this gentleman that I was only going over to fill up and would be back in an hour or so and that I needed Z$535 000 for the bridge toll. No he said to me, the regulations only allow you to take out Z$300 000. "How do I pay the bridge toll then?" He said that was none of his business. "How do I get back into Zimbabwe if I cannot pay the toll?" I asked - he shrugged his shoulders.

So back into the border post - I persuaded the bridge toll supervisor to sell me my re-entry ticket then and was left with Z$930 000. As I arrived back in the Zimra inspection area I saw a local farming friend and asked him to take Z$630 000 so that I was left with the requisite Z$300 000, he agreed and I collected the money from him later. Then back to the Customs man who reluctantly let me go. It is now after 17.00 hrs and I head for the South African side.

On arrival we were told they had closed the normal exit route for visitors - "please go to that door". Behind the door was a long queue to a desk where a lone immigration officer sat. It was hot and airless in the passage where we queued and after an hour and a half I was some three people from the desk when a officer arrived to say this desk is closing - please go back to the normal route. A rush ensued - those at the front of the queue found themselves at the back of the new queue! Another huge shambles - they pushed everyone out of the border post and then organized the queue to match the order in which we had been in the other queue.

By now we have been there nearly two hours and were then handled quite quickly and found ourselves in the dark outside the border post in South Africa. As I left the area a new horror confronted me - there as far as you could see was a sea of motor vehicles trying to get into the border post from the other side. They were not the normal sort of vehicle you might expect at a border post - the majority were small pick-ups loaded with trailers piled high with every sort of item. Toilet bowls, sinks, baths, bicycles empty drums, full drums, food and bags of every kind you can imagine. The rest of the space was taken up with people - thousands of ordinary people, all trying to get home for Christmas.

If ever you needed confirmation of the fact that 2 to 3 million Zimbabweans now live in South Africa, you could do no better than simply visit that queue on the SA side of the border. It had started, I was told, on Thursday night - by Friday morning it was 5 kilometres long, by Friday lunchtime it was 7 kilometres long and eventually it nearly reached Mussina - 12 kilometres from the actual border with 4 500 vehicles in a huge log jam of pushing, shoving humanity and smoking engines.

I got to the local filling station only to find that it was sold out of petrol but had diesel. I filled up, bought a burger and headed back into the scrum, bracing myself for a long night. After a long wait during which I was unable to even get into the queue, a police offer spoke to me - I explained my dilemma and he allowed me into the queue - about 300 meters to go. I worked out they were clearing 2 cars a minute on average - but at that rate the vehicles in the queue behind me had a long 30 hour wait. It took me an hour to reach the front, then 30 minutes to find parking and then I had to face a queue that was about 150 meters long and five people wide. I again explained my dilemma to a customs officer and this time he arranged for me to go into the exit and there I was dealt with in five minutes and was then back in the queue for the bridge. At 10.30 I crawled into Zimbabwe exhausted and thirsty - even at that time of night it was hot.

The following day I met one of the valiant vehicles that had just come through the border - I asked him how long - he replied "two days." I thought he had done rather well. As we drove out of Beitbridge on Sunday morning we were met with a Zimra roadblock managed by armed Police. Here the poor guys who had spent two days and nights in the queues and at the border post - without toilets or water or food, were again subjected to a detailed search to make sure they had declared every item and all duty had been paid. I explained that we were "local" and was waved through. How those other poor guys felt about their "homecoming" was anyone's guess.

As for the bridge toll - that is charged by a company owned and operated by a group linked to Zanu PF and they are allowed to charge the toll in foreign currency with locals being required to pay in Zimbabwe dollars at the interbank rate. This means it is now changing every week as the dollar devalues and on Saturday night it was raised again. As it is now twice the value of the sum you are allowed to take out, I suggest that the Minister of Finance fix the toll at the level of what we are allowed to take out - that would satisfy me and limit the fantastic profits this bunch of thieves is taking at the same time.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 20th December 2005