Monday, July 24, 2006

[Africa] River is border between poverty and humiliation

from The Times Online

By Jonathan Clayton

Faced with a torrent of illegal immigration, South Africa is losing patience with Zimbabwe

DARKNESS falls early and swiftly over the Limpopo River, marking the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Each night it also brings hope to dozens of impoverished Zimbabweans who emerge from thick bushes along its banks, slip into crocodile-infested waters and slowly wade across to the other side in search of a better life.

In recent months, as President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe has teetered close to economic collapse, the steady stream of illegal immigrants has turned into a torrent that the South African authorities are struggling to contain.

South Africa deports about 265 Zimbabweans a day. Countless more slip through undetected or simply wait a day or two before trying again and, more often than not, succeeding.

More than 51,000 illegal Zimbabwean immigrants were deported between January and June this year, the Johannesburg-based Sunday Times newspaper reported yesterday.

“Last year, 97,433 Zimbabweans were deported compared with 72,112 in 2004 . . . as floods of people fled economic collapse,” the paper said.

Zimbabwe is in the grip of a seven-year recession. Inflation has rocketed to nearly 1,200 per cent and the economy has shrunk by more than a third.

The country is also grappling with severe fuel shortages and a lack of foreign currency. Every day ordinary Zimbabweans struggle to find basic essentials in a country that, only seven years ago, was known as southern Africa’s bread basket.

The influx from Zimbabwe is having an enormous effect on its southern neighbour’s budget. Pretoria spent a total of £15 million on immigration control last year — more than double the figure for 2004.

Few illegal immigrants find the good life. A report from the Crisis Coalition of Zimbabwe said that refugees suffer from destitution and harassment. Many women turn to prostitution or are paid a pittance working illegally.

Mr Mugabe has in the past blamed Western sanctions and drought for the crisis. Critics largely point the finger at Harare’s economic policies, particularly land reform. About 4,000 white commercial farmers have lost their land since Mr Mugabe introduced his fast-track land reform programme in 2000. The new owners — most of them cronies from the ruling party — have failed to maintain the farms.

South Africa has in recent months shown signs of increasing exasperation with Mr Mugabe. Aziz Pahad, Deputy Foreign Minister, has spoken of the danger of a “failed state on our doorstep” and has called for “fundamental changes” to Mr Mugabe’s economic policies. Official figures issued in Harare suggest that about 3.4 million people — a quarter of the population — are now living abroad. Some 1.2 million are believed to have fled to South Africa, more than any other country.

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