Smugglers and migrants: How S.Africa's border became a hot election issue

Zimbabwean migrants wishing to enter South Africa queue at the immigration offices at the Beitbridge crossing, on April 23, 2024. [AFP]

As night falls, a handful of South African soldiers slouch under a tent near a crocodile-infested pond off the largely dry Limpopo River separating their country from Zimbabwe.

They are tasked with patrolling kilometres of wild terrain for smugglers ferrying across cigarettes, stolen cars and most of all people.

Struggling in the polls ahead of the most competitive election in decades, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has vowed to clamp down on illegal immigration amid rising xenophobia.

But outplayed by smugglers who fly drones to spy on unmanned crossings, border guards are fighting a losing battle, locals say.

Authorities tend to agree.

"Do we have the full manpower required? We don't," said Mike Masiapato, head of the recently established Border Management Authority (BMA), which works in tandem with the army.

Plunged in a perennial economic crisis, with high inflation and widespread poverty, Zimbabwe has long provided the largest influx of migrants to Africa's most industrialised nation.

Nearly half of the about 2.4 million foreigners living in South Africa are Zimbabweans, according to the latest census.

Hostility towards them has increased in recent years, as South Africans tired of unwavering unemployment, inequality and dim economic prospects.

Politicians have fanned the flames, scapegoating foreigners for high crime and the breakdown of overstretched public services.

Most parties, including the ANC and the leading opposition, the Democratic Alliance, have pledged to secure the country's borders in the run-up to the May 29 vote.

Some have made talking tough on immigration their main selling point.

One is led by a former Johannesburg mayor who recently described himself to AFP as a proud xenophobe. Another promises to build a border wall.

Xenophobia has "moved to the centre of national politics," said Loren Landau, a migration expert at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Walking through

At risk of losing its outright parliamentary majority for the first time in 30 years, the ANC has sought to show it means business.

Once a flag-bearer for pan-Africanism, the government has greenlighted an overhaul of immigration laws that would bolster deportations and pull it out of some international refugee treaties.

And in October, President Cyril Ramaphosa launched the BMA, which rationalises work previously done by different departments.

Illegal migration exacerbated "the country's social and economic problems", he said, visiting the border town of Musina.

Curbing it is no easy feat.

Of South Africa's six land borders, the 200 kilometres (120 miles) separating it from Zimbabwe are the most problematic, said the BMA's Masiapato.

The border line runs along the Limpopo, which dries up in winter.

"When the river is dry, literally people walk through," said Masiapato.

That leaves security forces playing a game of whack-a-mole with smugglers, he said.

Drones procured by the BMA are yet to be deployed.

Up to 18,000 people a day, including shoppers and daily workers, go through the disorderly border post of Beitbridge -- the only official crossing point.

Around it, informal cross border trade has flourished.

Some traders use donkey-carts and small boats to traverse the river avoiding queues, questions and duties.

They bring over vegetables and other goods and take back items that can fetch a higher price in Zimbabwe.

'Greener pastures'

Criminality is rife.

A barbed wire border fence set up in 2020 has been holed, torn apart and pillaged for scrap metal.

Locals advise against driving along the river unarmed.

Migrants say gangs lurking in the low vegetation prey on those crossing.

"Robbers are everywhere," said Beloved, 36, a Zimbabwean migrant staying at a church-run shelter in a township near Musina.

The first time he crossed over a decade ago, he was stripped of all his belongings at gunpoint. His wife and other women were raped, he said.

Beloved has since been deported three times, only to return, once on the same day he was sent back.

"I come to South Africa in search of greener pastures," he said, sitting under the shelter's corrugated iron roof.

Dozens of others live there, sleeping on wooden planks as they wait for occasional work on farms or as contraband couriers hoping to send some money home or pay for a bus ride to Johannesburg.

"Everything is difficult. Our life is up and down," said Beloved, who preferred not to give his full name.

The BMA said it prevented more than 281,000 people from "unlawfully entering" the country over the past year.

Yet, some locals in Musina say little has changed.

"Security forces are not as resourced as they should be," said Conrad Young, a private security contractor.

Some farmers say they constantly check and repair fences cut by trespassers.

Others have learnt to live with it.

"I let them through. It's not our responsibility. They don't bother us, we don't bother them," said a farmer who did not want to be named. "There is no border".