The Sunday News
Melinda Ncube, Sunday News Reporter
SOME bus operators in Bulawayo have resorted to playing cat and mouse with authorities as they remain defiant, smuggling travellers and goods into the country to and from South Africa despite the closure of land borders to ordinary travellers.
According to the national lockdown level four regulations not only are land borders closed for ordinary travellers but also city to city travel has been banned in a bid to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. Only returning nationals are allowed but should go through a quarantine period.
However, an investigation carried out by Sunday News revealed that authorities were allegedly receiving bribes to let unauthorised passengers and goods into the country from South Africa despite the neighbouring country having the highest number of Covid-19 cases in Africa. In fact at one time the increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in Zimbabwe was blamed on people sneaking in from South Africa.
Investigations showed that numerous buses were operating between the Bulawayo-Johannesburg route daily. The buses leave Bulawayo empty and pick up passengers at various pickup and drop-off points which are Macs Garage in Bulawayo, Esigodini, and Gwanda. However, the bus drivers claim that they only repatriate people from South Africa to Zimbabwe.
“What we do is that we just put fuel into our buses and then they go to South Africa empty and pick up cross border traders at picking and dropping off points who want to buy goods at Musina across the border, sometimes the bus leaves with passengers. When the bus returns it will have repatriated citizens and most of them would be coming to Zimbabwe for a funeral,” said one of the drivers who declined to be identified.
On a normal basis before Covid-19 bus fare from Bulawayo to Johannesburg was R600 on average and now the bus fare has increased to R2 500 per single trip, with those without Covid-19 free certificates forking out more.
“A woman that I was travelling with who was going for a funeral in Bulawayo had no required documents especially a Covid-19 certificate but the fact that she had paid R2 500, she did not face any problems. What happens is that when we get to the border we are not allowed to disembark from the bus, we remain seated, no one leaves the bus and the driver is the one who sorts out everything with the immigration officers at both Zimbabwe and South African sides,” said a traveller who dropped off from one of the buses in Bulawayo.
Another traveller said authorities at South Africa’s Home Affairs department were allegedly taking bribes of R700 in order to process travel permits from undeserving Zimbabwean applicants even in their absence.
However, with the increasing number of Covid-19 cases, the Government banned travellers arriving in Zimbabwe from countries with the Alpha and Delta variants. Investigations further revealed that bus drivers prefer travelling at night after the curfew since there would be few or no roadblocks when they are carrying passengers and those crossing into South Africa without passports go through the crocodile-infested Limpopo River.
“I travel mostly to Zambia and South Africa and I have never encountered any challenges along the way since I would be travelling at night and the road will be clear, with no roadblocks besides that sometimes I do travel; on normal times but have never had challenges as well on the highway even if I carry passengers. Probably it is because I have been in this game for long and I am used to most of the traffic cops.
We pay the South African police anything close to R100 at each checkpoint to cross. When we get to the Zimbabwean side, we then pay R200 fine but if you don’t have that you can just go to the gate and pay the officials R100 and they will let you pass,” he claimed.
The cross-border buses load and offload at hidden places and garages during the night and secure most of their passengers through referrals. In an interview, National police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said police were aware of the bus operators smuggling passengers and goods requiring payment of duty on import and they have arrested some of the bus crews in Harare and Mutare.
“Police officers are on the ground enforcing the law because borders are currently closed to ordinary people and some are using undesignated entry points to bring in goods. We have discovered that after using illegal crossing points, the smugglers are boarding buses in Beitbridge heading to various towns in the country. We strongly warn bus operators that they must discontinue smuggling goods and passengers and anyone caught will be dealt with accordingly,” he said.
This month, alert police in Marondera intercepted and impounded a Sable bus which was in the process of offloading passengers allegedly from South Africa, but without Covid-19 certificates.