Globally, the Christmas season is generally associated with families coming together and breaking bread. This is because of the religious and spiritual significance of the eve and day itself as a family orientated day in which Jesus was born, in the Christian tradition. Secular societies that embraced the tradition use it as a time to come together as a family and reflect on the year that was while planning for the coming year. However, Christmas has a much deeper significance in the Southern African region of South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. These countries experienced settler colonialism and the discovery of gold in Johannesburg changed their societies for good. Gold discovery coupled with hut tax, led to forced migration to the mines in Johannesburg.
The migrant labour system destroyed families and its effects are still being felt until today. Most of the people in these countries still take the long trek to Johannesburg in search of greener pastures. At the end of the year they sojourn back to their countries to be with their families. In this regard, Christmas has a painful yet healing significance in the region. The labour migration patterns in the region have not gone but have mutated. Scenes that play out at the Beitbridge Border post and Vhembe river, as the Limpopo is known by the Venda people, remind us of this painful history. The reminder is accompanied by an indictment on South Africa, Zimbabwe and the SADC region in general for failing to devise a sustainable framework of easing the pain on those that have to travel, without papers risking life and limb.
The author was reminded of the untenable humanitarian situation at the Beitbridge border and the Vhembe river in general when listening to the SABC owned Phalaphala FM radio station. Basically, Phalaphala FM was broadcasting reports of people drowning in the Vhembe river on their way to buy Christmas groceries in Musina. Those caught up in the flooded Vhembe river included those Zimbabwean based undocumented migrants who were trying to make their way back to that country so as to spend the few holiday days they had with their loved ones. However, these people, who earlier in the year have been victims of xenophobic attacks in South Africa are now faced with another danger from the flooded river.
In normal times, the Zimbabwean, Malawian and Zambian migrants currently getting marooned in rickety boats, being mauled by crocodiles, drowning, getting raped and murdered by trafficking gangs along the Vhembe river would bribe their way into Zimbabwe. However, these are not normal times, the Covid pandemic has meant that a more stringent regime exists on the bridge that links South Africa and Zimbabwe. The Covid restrictions and the unusually very wet season has led to a bitter cocktail for the migrants. They are now forced to choose between a perilous journey through the Limpopo or an almost impervious patrolled border post on the bridge.
One of the unsung heroes in South Africa is the South African National Defence Force. The SANDF is generally ridiculed by the general populace when the issue of the South Africa Zimbabwe border is brought up. This is because the SANDF has the ultimate responsibility to defend the nation’s border. The porous nature of the border is attributed to SANDF inefficiencies. However, the reality is much more complex. When South Africa emerged from apartheid in 1994, and the shoot to kill policy that was prevalent in South Africa’s borders was abolished, a new defense force emerged. The reconstituted National Defence Force has assumed a role of a diplomatic player. However, unlike suited diplomats communicating through cables and note verbales, the SANDF is a master of people to people diplomacy. Having boots on the ground, the SANDF interacts with migrants on a daily basis.
The interaction between migrants and the SANDF along the Vhembe river is one of creative co-existence. It involves facilitating movement or a benign approach to an equally unthreatening movement of persons across the boundaries of the two countries. One thing the SANDF quickly realized was that much of the migration into South Africa through Beitbridge was circular. It was basically people coming to buy groceries and medicines for their families. Over time, a relationship of trust and respect has developed between the SANDF members and the circular migrants.
It can be rightly argued that this is not the role of the SANDF. And that such a relationship, in a different space and time may compromise state security and sovereignty. But the SANDF’s role is one borne of realism. In the contrary, the approach could be credited for the state of stability between the two neighbors. Most importantly, the SANDF as a diplomatic player, fills a vacuum caused by a paralyzed foreign and migration management policy in Pretoria.
The country’s foreign and migration management policy has been caught up in some sort of paralysis. Pretoria’s policy on Zimbabwe vacillates from quiet diplomacy, non-diplomacy to liberation movement inspired diplomacy. The common theme about all these different types of diplomatic engagements is that they are elite based. As a result, they serve no purpose to the common person on the street. Pretoria and Harare’s engagements are nothing but nostalgic conversations about revolutions that never were.
To illustrate the elite nature of Pretoria’s diplomacy on Zimbabwe. When the Harare regime was persecuting democracy activists, Pretoria was generally silent. The ANC sent a delegation that was sent packing by Harare. Later on, in the year when xenophobic attacks flared in KwaZulu Natal and towards truck drivers, none of the SADC countries affected, including Harare expressed outrage.
The congestion at the Beitbridge Border Post and the dangerous situations in which migrants from countries north of the Vhembe river find themselves in is reflective of a deeper national and regional problem. However, South Africa should take the lead in finding a lasting solution. In the short term, the author suggests an annual two-week amnesty at the Beitbridge border in which undocumented migrants are allowed to exit South Africa. If the economic situation in Zimbabwe prevails, people should be allowed to pass and buy their basic needs in Musina.
The envisaged amnesty should start now in 2020, considering that the Vhembe river is flooded and that there is almost none observation of social distancing for those who take the dangerous route through the river. In the long term, Pretoria should take diplomatic and political measures that will deepen democracy in Zimbabwe, in a way that safeguards South Africa’s stability and economic interests.
Azwimpheleli Langalanga is a consultant researcher and writes in his personal capacity.