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The World | The New Foreign Aid: Zimbabwe

The Road From Ruin

To flee financial despair, many endure high fees and great peril on often illicit rides to S. Africa.

October 18, 2006|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe -- Andrew Dube was cruising across the savanna, past baobab trees, donkey carts and herds of giraffes, when a flashlight pierced the gathering dusk, waving him off the highway.

A policeman approached, aiming the light at sacks heaped under a web of bungee cords in Dube's open-top trailer. The driver muttered a curse in Zulu.

"Let's see what's inside," said the officer, who was searching for undeclared foreign currency.

Dube chewed nervously on a paper clip. His deliveries, mostly food for 20 poor families here, were already late. The 800-mile drive from Johannesburg, South Africa, had taken 24 hours and required bribes at six checkpoints on both sides of the border. Now a few miles from his destination, he was out of cash.

He turned to the 12 weary passengers crammed into his 1998 Toyota Venture station wagon. Each already had paid a $75 fare, about a month's salary for most of them.

"We can sit here three hours while the police search every package," he told them. "Or you can help me fill their stomachs."

The passengers coughed up $100, and the cash passed from the driver to the policeman, who let the vehicle pass.

This ritual, performed daily by hundreds of cargo haulers known as "runners," keeps a lifeline open for Zimbabwe in a time of economic meltdown.

Four-wheel-drive taxis shuttle cash and care packages from migrant workers in South Africa to their kin back home. On the return trip, drivers ferry fresh waves of migrants across the border. Many of them are crossing illegally to seek work as waiters, maids, seamstresses, farm laborers, construction hands and street vendors.

Their endeavor is part of a global movement. The World Bank reports that migrants from poor nations sent home at least $167 billion last year, a fast-growing sum that exceeds all foreign aid.

Remittances bring Zimbabwe an estimated $360 million to $600 million a year, says John Robertson, an economist in Harare, the capital. They rival mineral exports as the biggest source of foreign income for a country of 12 million people.

Countries such as El Salvador, Haiti, Moldova and Yemen depend as heavily as Zimbabwe on their citizens abroad. But those countries are closer to the world's wealthy regions. About one-third of all the money sent home by migrant workers flows from nations such as South Africa that are barely better off.

The arrival of as many as 2 million Zimbabweans has fueled a backlash of public anger, human rights abuse and mob violence. South Africans accuse them of fomenting crime, spreading AIDS and stealing jobs in a country with a 40% unemployment rate by working for rock-bottom wages that local people won't accept.

Yet they keep coming.


Dube's weekly journey begins and ends in a fenced parking lot surrounded by high-rise slum dwellings in Johannesburg's inner city.

The lot was bustling on a Saturday evening as runners hitched up two-wheel trailers. Dube's passengers piled into the white Toyota with the cracked windshield and booming sound system.

Wendy Masuku, a 21-year-old waitress, was going home to Bulawayo to marry her boyfriend, but they would come back to jobs in Johannesburg. Precious Moyo, 23, said she was going to bury an older sister and would return with the sister's passport, hoping it would look more authentic than the fake ID she had been using.

But the primary purpose of Dube's trip was to move cash and goods.

Zimbabwe's economy, once the strongest in Africa, has been tormented by shortages of fuel, food, medicine and skilled labor in the six years since President Robert Mugabe confiscated large, mostly white-owned farms that had accounted for about half the country's foreign exchange.

Thousands of businesses have closed, at least 70% of Zimbabweans are unemployed, and annual inflation tops 1,000%, the world's highest.

To keep its hands on dwindling reserves of foreign currency, the government maintains rigid exchange controls. But the illegal parallel market pays two to three times as much, so most migrants hire runners who deliver envelopes stuffed with cash and, increasingly, consumer or industrial goods.

Dube's trailer was laden with not only care packages but containers of paint, solvents and spare parts for Bulawayo's factories -- 1,300 pounds of cargo in all. No one wants to be caught moving large sums across the border, so brokers in both countries have developed an elaborate payment scheme to avoid it.

First, brokers in South Africa collect money that migrant workers want to send home. Instead of sending it directly, they use the cash to pay South African suppliers of materials ordered by Zimbabwean factories. The suppliers then instruct the factories to release cash to brokers in Zimbabwe, who distribute it to the workers' families.

Finally, the runners ferry the supplies across the border, along with documents showing they have been paid for abroad.

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