Raymond Jaravaza, Showbiz Correspondent
BRIDGET Tonhodzayi frantically tries to get hold of her business ‘partner’ in Johannesburg but all her efforts – phone calls and texts – prove fruitless as though the woman in South Africa has just disappeared off the face of the earth.
It’s of paramount importance that Tonhodzayi, a cross-border trader who has been in the business for over 10 years, gets hold of her business partner in the shortest possible time.
“She is my runner in Johannesburg and I tasked her with buying my merchandise for resale here in Bulawayo so I need her to tell me when I can expect the stuff to be delivered. My life depends on that merchandise and I cannot afford to lose it no matter what,” says Tonhodzayi.
As the word suggests, a ‘runner’ is an individual tasked with running errands on someone’s behalf for a fee agreed by both parties.
In this case, Tonhodzayi is stuck in Bulawayo due to the recently announced lockdown by the Government to curb the spread of a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic that is sweeping throughout the country, killing dozens and infecting hundreds.
And that is where the ‘runner’ in Johannesburg comes in.
“She charges 15 percent of the total money that I give her to buy merchandise for me in Johannesburg and sends the stuff through cross border haulage truck drivers who will let me know once they get into Bulawayo.
“I have never experienced problems with my runner before so I’m actually confused and frustrated why she is not responding to my calls and texts. I expect her to send the stuff before the weekend and also give me the phone numbers of the truck driver who will be delivering the merchandise,” Tonhodzayi explains to Saturday Leisure.
Part of the merchandise the mother-of-two is expecting are boxes of green bar soap, cooking oil, washing powder and kitchen utensils, which according to her, have a ready market among her female customers in Bulawayo.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, she didn’t have to worry about depending on third parties like the runner and truck drivers to buy and deliver her merchandise. A passport, bus ticket and money to stock merchandise was all she needed to make the trip from Bulawayo to Johannesburg or sometimes Musina, depending on the stuff she intended to buy.
“Now I have to rely on a runner and truck drivers for my business to thrive. It’s so frustrating because the runner sometimes buys the wrong stuff and the truck spends over a week at the border because of congestion. Paying both the runner and truck driver also eats into my profits as well,” she narrated.
Stories of runners claiming that they have been robbed on the streets of Johannesburg while running errands for cross-border traders are not uncommon, says Tonhodzayi.
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the face of cross-border trading as witnessed by the emergence of another thriving enterprise along the porous Beitbridge Border. Local and South African organised smuggling and human trafficking syndicates are increasingly deploying fast, but dangerous boats to ferry illegal immigrants across the Limpopo River in illicit risky business activities.
Some of the illegal activities end in tragedy.
Requirements for a Covid-19 certificate for one to cross the border into South Africa have turned an already bad situation even worse. Before travelling, Zimbabweans need US$50 (R750) to test for Covid-19. This unaffordable charge has forced some unscrupulous people to forge certificates or use illegal crossing points.
Two weeks ago, a Zimbabwean woman and two children drowned when a boat they were riding in capsized on the flooded Limpopo River around the Malala Drift areas on the South African side.
Thirty seven-year-old Pretty Mpofu of Lobengula suburb in Bulawayo said she will not take the risk of dying in the crocodile infested Limpopo River. Her cross-border business has been decimated by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant continuous border closures.
“I’m a single mother of three and I have been in the cross-border business for about eight years now, but this is the first time that we have faced such difficulties. When the first lockdown was announced in March last year, I had just arrived home from Musina and since then, I have not been tempted to cross illegally into South Africa.
“We hear stories of women being raped or even murdered while crossing illegally into South Africa and I will not risk losing my life trying to do that. Life is hard, but we (female cross-border traders) have found other means of getting our stuff from South Africa without even leaving our homes,” she said.
Smuggling is big business between Zimbabwe and South Africa and truck drivers are proving to be the most effective conduit of getting goods across the border from South Africa.
Contraband through Beitbridge include goods and services; clothes, groceries, cigarettes; household items, electronics, furniture, equipment, computers and cars among other things.
The goods are not only smuggled through the border, but also via the many illegal crossings points along the river.
Syndicates running the schemes involve Zimbabweans and South Africans operating along the river on both sides.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Mpofu says she made about R2 000 weekly selling her stuff in the Bulawayo city centre. Now that income has been slashed by more than 80 percent.
“I used to sell my stuff at the City Hall open market that operated on weekends only and made about R2 000 a week.
During weekdays I would sell my stuff at home in Lobengula.
“Now the business is no longer profitable, it’s now a hand to mouth affair. When the borders were still open, I could afford to buy instant porridge for my kids to eat before going to school and also snacks for them to take to school, but that is no longer possible. Nothing hurts like seeing your children going to school on empty stomachs but things are tough now because the cross-border business is no longer what it used to be before Covid-19,” she said.
The Zimbabwe Cross Border Traders Association (ZCBTA) concedes that the livelihoods of its members have been greatly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
ZCBTA is a non-governmental organisation that represents the interests of cross-border traders in Zimbabwe. It was formed in 2000 and has over 7 000 members. – @RaymondJaravaza