Lockdown: Smugglers changing the way they operate
The Covid-19 lockdowns in SA and Zimbabwe have made illicit trade between the two countries more difficult and costlier. To compensate, smugglers are changing the way they operate
In a scene straight out of a thriller, four men in ski masks invaded a Zimbabwe Revenue Authority depot in Bulawayo on May 6, making off with goods worth $20,000. The loot — about 300 boxes of cough mixture and boxes of gin — had been confiscated by authorities after being smuggled into Zimbabwe from SA. But as Covid-19 disrupts illicit supply chains, smugglers are being forced to adapt to make ends meet.
No-one has yet been arrested for the elaborate heist, says assistant commissioner Paul Nyathi, the national police spokesperson. "These thieves were monitoring the particular truck [that carried merchandise] long before it was brought to the depot."
SA is Zimbabwe’s biggest trade partner: 75% of its exports, with an estimated annual value of $388m, end up in SA, while 40% or $2bn worth of its imports come from there.
Despite fluid trade between the two countries, however, smuggling rings have thrived. A 2019 audit report from the government of Zimbabwe put the cost to revenue at $1bn a year, with 70% of leakages taking place at Beitbridge border.
Now, with Beitbridge closed due to lockdowns in SA and Zimbabwe, smugglers are finding it harder, and more costly, to bring illicit drugs and basic goods such as groceries into Zimbabwe. To make matters worse, illegal routes were compromised briefly when SA erected a R37m border fence in April (it was destroyed barely a month later).
Even donkey carts are being used to smuggle goodsTichaona Nyongo
Says superintendent Tichaona Nyongo, the officer commanding the Beitbridge district: "Even donkey carts are being used to smuggle goods."
Patson Phiri (not his real name) is a malayitsha (cross-border transporter) with 20 years’ experience ferrying goods — and sometimes border-jumpers — to Zimbabwe. He knows most of the border and immigration officers on a first-name basis, which is an advantage for his enterprise.
But the border closure has necessitated a change of tack: Phiri has parked his Toyota Quantum minibus and instead started using a 20t truck to transport goods.
"Commercial trade is open, but informal transporters are banned," he explains. "We now use trucks to get access to the border." This allows him to transport goods permitted under the regulations, such as inputs for industry or spare parts for machines, while illicitly including his "regular business, such as groceries and money".
Not all new truckers have been as lucky. In mid-May police impounded a truck overloaded with groceries, and two weeks back, eight suspects were arrested in the biggest haul since the lockdown began.
"We impounded a minibus and a truck with groceries at an illegal crossing point. The two vehicles had groceries, electrical gadgets and blankets," says Nyathi. "We have since deployed a fresh team of police and army officers to patrol the area. We are also searching all cargo that goes through the border, because a truck carrying maize was found with groceries worth R83,000."
It’s had a knock-on effect on prices. "Because it is now hard for us, we have increased fees," Phiri explains. "I used to charge 30% of the total value of goods [transported]; now it’s 40%-50%. For remittances I charge 12% of the total amount."
Others have also seen a substantial rise in earnings. Along the Limpopo River, smugglers have set up camps as clearing houses for receiving and distributing smuggled goods. Inflatable boats are prized assets for this illicit venture.
The illegal imports are means of survival for some, while the state loses out on much-needed revenue
"I make at least R3,000 a day just from ferrying goods using this boat," says one of the smugglers. "Before the lockdown period I made half of that."
The smugglers allege that local and SA security personnel are in on the scheme. "Some farms on the SA side are used as departure points, but one cannot go that far without protection," a smuggler tells the FM.
"The protection fee is now high [R200 a trip]. It used to be half that, [but] this route is now popular since closure of the border."
Despite the increases, there’s still a discount in the smuggled goods for local consumers. For example, a 10kg bag of maize that sells for Z$300 (about R150) at a supermarket costs R100-R120 on the parallel market. In a country gripped by its worst economic crisis in a decade, and with 7-million facing starvation, the illegal routes are avenues of survival for some — while the state loses out on much-needed revenue.
It’s not just new tactics smugglers are trying; another income stream that’s opened is smuggling people back into the country from SA. For R2,000 a Zimbabwean can return and bypass the mandatory 21-day quarantine. "They don’t want to be quarantined, so we smuggle them back," says Phiri. "It’s risky health-wise but the money is good."