Cross-border traders crippled by Zimbabwe’s hard lockdown

An immigration officer processes the entry of a traveller entering South Africa at passport control.

Pretoria – The International Cross-Border Traders Association (ICTA) on Wednesday said the government of Zimbabwe has made a special arrangement allowing citizens with work permits in foreign countries to travel back to their foreign places of work despite a hard lockdown announced by the country’s Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga, who is also the health minister.

“At first Mr Chiwenga announced that no one was allowed to make any movements (during the hard lockdown re-imposed last weekend to curb the spread of Covid-19). We then showed our disquiet to the government of Zimbabwe,” said ICTA president Denis Juru.

“We engaged the Zimbabwean government until they accepted that there was need to allow people working outside Zimbabwe to move out. As you know, there was a lot of congestion at the border in December, with people trying to get into Zimbabwe. Those people were still in Zimbabwe and wanted to come back to work in their country of residence. The government of Zimbabwe then adjusted the lockdown and allowed people holding foreign work, residence, business or study permits to exit Zimbabwe.”

On Saturday, Chiwenga announced the month-long restrictions, including an immediate 6pm to 6am curfew and a ban on intercity travel.

From Tuesday, non-essential business activity has also been suspended across the country. Road cross-border traders have also been barred from travelling, save for commercial transport and transit cargo related to essential and critical services.

Chiwenga, however, said air travel was still allowed, with visitors and returning residents required to present certificates showing them to be free of Covid-19.

Juru said cross-border traders have been plunged into economic distress.

“The lockdown in Zimbabwe has affected our business as cross-border traders and as people living in the diaspora. When the lockdown was announced, Mr Chiwenga said it was with immediate effect and people panicked. There is also a curfew in Zimbabwe which is very, very serious, from 6pm to 6am. This means the movement of people is limited. There is no interprovincial movement,” said Juru.

“We are paralysed. We are very much affected. Some of our people have orders to go and stock outside the country. We have some members who were already outside the country buying their goods. We are paralysed as the cross-border fraternity.”

On Tuesday, the ruling Zanu-PF party’s spokesperson in neighbouring South Africa said the hard lockdown imposed by Zimbabwe’s government in response to a spike in Covid-19 cases was a “drastic yet necessary intervention” to save lives.

“Given the state of the health-care facilities and the economic challenges in Zimbabwe, coupled with the desire to curb the spread of the virus to save lives, the decision taken by the government, though drastic, was necessary due to the unprecedented spike in the reported number of new infections and deaths due to Covid-19,” Kennedy Mandaza told the African News Agency (ANA).

“Faced with the challenge that the government was experiencing, the government should be commended for taking that decision to save lives and reduce the spread of the Covid-19.”

As panic heightened among marooned Zimbabweans trying to return to South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government noted a spike in attempts to illegally cross the Limpopo River separating the two countries.

To curb this, Pretoria has deployed additional home affairs and military personnel to the border. The South African National Defence Force has helicopters hovering above, while the South African Police Service has boats patrolling the crocodile-infested river.

The South African branch of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC-A) said Pretoria was attempting to mask its failures in trying to resolve the political problems facing its neighbour.

“Illegal immigration is caused by the total failure by both South Africa and SADC (Southern African Development Community) in addressing the political settlement in Zimbabwe,” MDC-A chairperson Trust Ndlovu said.

“The government of South Africa is part of the problem in the economic meltdown of Zimbabwe. Their relationship with the ruling party in Zimbabwe is costing South Africa in terms of its fiscus and immigration controls.”

Ndlovu said economic immigrants from Zimbabwe should not be classified as undesirable persons in South Africa and that those found with fake Covid-19 certificates should be treated leniently.

“These are desperate measures taken by desperate people in a certain context of the pandemic. It is a violation of South Africa’s immigration (laws) under very difficult conditions,” he said.

As of Saturday, Zimbabwe had recorded 14 491 cases of Covid-19 and 377 deaths, with about 1 400 infections reported over the past week.

Zimbabwe first introduced a hard lockdown in March but had gradually eased the restrictions.

African News Agency (ANA)