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In S. Africa, border scene seems eerily familiar

A turbid river divides relative prosperity from misery. Desperate illegal migrants from Zimbabwe keep coming.

June 24, 2007|Paul Salopek | Chicago Tribune

MUSINA, SOUTH AFRICA — The greasy brown river sliding past this African border town might seem eerily familiar to Americans.

First, there are the concrete international bridges that span its waters, linking a relatively affluent community on one side -- tidy, well-paved, replete with American franchises such as Kentucky Fried Chicken -- with a dustier, impoverished town on the other.

Then there are the illegal immigrants, who hunker by the hundreds in the riverside brush, waiting for nightfall to crawl under a porous border fence. Grim-faced law-enforcement agents hunt them down in trucks equipped with flashing police lights. So do posses of angry civilians, most of them white, many of them armed, and all of them outraged by what they see as a dangerous lapse in border controls.

The scene could pass for the banks of the Rio Grande between the United States and Mexico -- except for the baboons ambling among the human pedestrians on the bridges and a sign identifying this muddy waterway as the Limpopo River, the troubled frontier between Zimbabwe and South Africa, and the finish line for one of the largest illicit migrations in the world.

"They get robbed and raped by criminals, extorted by our cops, and eaten by crocodiles," Jacob Matakanye, a South African human rights advocate, said of the tens of thousands of undocumented Zimbabweans who have stampeded past this remote port of entry. "That doesn't stop them. Nothing does."

Some immigration experts say that 10% or more of South Africa's 43 million people may be in the country illegally, the majority of them impoverished Africans seeking a better life in the continent's economic powerhouse. With South Africa unable to afford more patrols along its 2,500 miles of land border, and realizing that illegal immigration keeps feeble neighbor Zimbabwe from total collapse, South African President Thabo Mbeki has conceded that the enormous human influx "is something we have to live with."

Yet coexistence hardly describes life on the Limpopo River. A level of misery and desperation hangs over this border that South Texas can never know.

Hundreds of people -- some walking 3,000 miles from Somalia with only the clothes on their backs -- pass through the backcountry around Musina on well-beaten trails every day. At the approach of vehicles, they melt into bushes where the amagumaguma -- local slang for the gangs of smugglers, thieves and rapists who prey on the migrants -- skulk.

"If you don't have money, they will beat you and strip [off] your clothes," said Bernard Sibamda, 25, a Zimbabwean toiling on a border farm. "People walk naked into town."

Sibamda carried a slingshot to defend himself, smiling bleakly at the impotent toy.

Nearby, a Somali almost lost his hands recently when border thugs tried to hack them off, according to the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency that helps deported migrants return home.

And such brutality isn't limited to criminals. In 2004, a South African army captain and four soldiers were convicted of systematically raping and robbing Zimbabwean "border jumpers" -- one of many instances of violent abuse by South African authorities on the border, human rights groups contend. In May, a soldier on patrol shot and killed an unarmed Zimbabwean man.

Illegal immigrants interviewed in Musina also accused the South African police of constant shakedowns. The price of freedom after being arrested: as little as 100 rand, or about $14. The South African government has acknowledged problems with petty corruption. The agency responsible for immigration, the Ministry of Home Affairs, is being overhauled.

Finally, as if the human gantlet weren't enough, there is the random cruelty of nature.

The crocodile-gnawed bodies of immigrants wash up occasionally on the banks of the Limpopo, said activist Matakanye, who works with Zimbabwean farm workers at the Musina Legal Advice Office.

And every year during the rainy season, the river itself kills scores of men and women seeking low-paying jobs in South Africa's bustling farms and cities. In February, 45 Zimbabweans drowned as they held hands trying to cross the river, the police reported. Another group of 60 swimmers died the same way last year. Such tragedies are routine enough that they barely register in the South African media .

"If you stay in Zimbabwe, you starve," said Kenneth Marara, 28, an unemployed factory hand from Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, who was sleeping with a crowd of other undocumented migrants at a bus stop in Musina. "It is better to die here."

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