x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Fight for survival is a 2000km commute

The journey snaps his energy. Thirty-four hours, 2,144km, on a stuffy bus overloaded with passengers and luggage. But Tshepo Mpofu, 34, has no choice.

PLUMTREE, ZIMBABWE // The journey snaps his energy. Thirty-four hours, 2,144km, on a stuffy bus overloaded with passengers and luggage. But Tshepo Mpofu, 34, has no choice. The ride from the capital, Harare, to Gaborone in neighbouring Botswana and back is a test of stamina, but one he endures just to earn enough money to survive and support his wife and three children. He undertakes the gruelling journey twice a month, or more, like others in the growing ranks of informal cross-border traders in Zimbabwe. "I buy items like television sets, digital video decoders, radios and groceries in Gaborone for sale back home. It helps me a lot because I earn some money to sustain my family," Mr Mpofu said. On average, he said, he buys goods worth 1,000 Botswana pula (Dh460) and after selling them, he makes a profit of about 3,000 pula. This is a decent return in a country where the common monthly salary is 570 pula. As much time as he spends on the bus, he spends even more queuing at the two countries' border, especially as it becomes even more popular with Zimbabweans travelling to Botswana to buy food and other basic commodities. Zimbabwe is grappling with a 10-year-long economic crisis that has left most companies operating at below 10-per-cent capacity or completely closed and inflation that was estimated at 231 million per cent in July. As a result, there are widespread shortages of just about everything, including cornmeal, soap, cooking oil, salt, flour and clothing. The shortage has eased marginally in recent months, but the cross-border traffic continues. The traders import mainly from Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia and the regional economic powerhouse, South Africa, to earn an income. Columns of vehicles, packed with entrepreneurs and their luggage, are now a common sight at Zimbabwe's borders. Although some packed the tops of buses and in cars, others ride precariously perched on top of overloaded open lorries. To cope with the mounting traffic, two passenger train services were recently introduced. They link Zimbabwe with Botswana through Plumtree and Zimbabwe with South Africa through Beitbridge. Beitbridge is Zimbabwe's busiest border post. Plumtree, on the border with Botswana, is the second busiest, followed by Chirundu near Zambia to the north and Forbes on the border with Mozambique to the east. To try to address the shortages at home, the government has suspended duty on all imported basic commodities. Julia Murisi, 28, prefers going to Botswana instead of South Africa because Zimbabweans do not need to obtain visas to visit. Apart from stringent visa requirements, the 2,276km roundtrip bus journey from Harare to Johannesburg is another push-factor. She regularly travels from Harare to Gaborone or sometimes Francistown, a shorter distance from the border. "Goods are cheaper in South Africa than in Botswana," she said, heaving a carton of laundry soap from the trailer of a minibus at a customs checkpoint at Plumtree. "But the problem is the high visa fee. Also, the Beitbridge border post is always busy. That is why I favour Botswana. It is also a tedious journey, but it is something that I have gotten used to now. This has sort of become my job." After unloading her belongings, she stands in the searing summer heat at the tail of a queue, snaking for 100 metres. It takes another three or so hours before officials - taking their time - sift through her luggage to check it against her customs declaration form. "Immigration and customs formalities are most taxing. They hand-check every item in your luggage and you can imagine the time you spend when the queue is long like this. "But if you are not prepared to work like this - sleeping on the bus, spending the day hungry or queuing for hours on end, you cannot survive in this country," she said. On the trip to Gaborone, Ms Murisi takes handiwork that she sells to tourists. She then uses the earnings to buy groceries, shoes and electrical appliances for resale back in Harare. Because the bus staff have to spend hours arranging and rearranging the luggage on the roof of the bus each time a passenger disembarks, the journey to Harare from Plumtree takes up to 12 hours instead of six. It also takes longer because the bus travels slowly - to prevent the baggage from falling off. In Plumtree, as night falls, Ms Murisi is finally through the tortuous customs formalities and heads off to the waiting bus to start the foreboding 551km, 10-hour ride back to Harare. tmpofu@thenational.ae