By Veronica Gwaze
Greedy and selfish cross-border bus operators are placing the lives of many at risk as they continue to smuggle travellers from neighbouring countries.
This is in direct violation of Covid-19 lockdown regulations which prohibit inter-city and cross border travel.
The sad development is threatening to derail the country’s efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus. The third wave of the pandemic has seen soaring deaths and infections.
On Thursday, Zimbabwe had 105 656 confirmed cases and 3 421 deaths.
There were 81 fatalities on that particular day.
However, what is even more disturbing is the growing number of cross-border bus operators being charged for flouting laid down regulations.
Earlier this month, alert police in Marondera intercepted and impounded a Sables Bus which was in the process of offloading passengers allegedly from South Africa, but without Covid-19 certificates.
All the 38 passengers on board were tested for Covid-19 by the Ministry of Health and Child Care officials and three of them registered positive results.
On July 16, the police arrested the crew of a Chilies Logistics bus in Mutare after they were caught loading South Africa bound passengers.
At least 45 people were already on board, including infants.
It gets worse!
Seven cross-border buses were intercepted a few days later and their crews arrested in Gweru and Shurugwi for operating illegally.
“We have discovered that there are some cross-border buses and private car operators going against the regulations. The police are out in full force and we have arrested some of them including three buses, two from Sable Transport Company. More arrests will be made of those caught on the wrong side of the law,” said National police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi.
He urged the public to report such criminal activities.
“Some of the foreign-registered buses will be bringing returning residents deported from neighbouring countries, but when they go back to their countries, they ferry passengers and these passengers are engaging in illegal border crossings.”
While some of the illegal operators have been arrested by vigilant police officers, others have unfortunately been getting away with the wicked crime.
Unsurprisingly, this is causing panic within the public as there are fears they could be spreading the coronavirus.
But, how are the buses and private transport operators evading security checkpoints along the highway?
Investigations reveal that the bus crews are using fake returnee passes.
Under the current lockdown measures, only cargo haulage trucks, repatriates and those with study, and work permits are allowed to cross borders either by road or air.
Each bus should carry a maximum of 20 deportees on its way into the country.
Furthermore, the repatriates should be certified by the foreign government and be in possession of a Covid-19 certificate obtained less than 48 hours earlier.
However, rogue transporters and cross-border traders are playing cat-and-mouse with the authorities as they have remained defiant.
Indications are that the syndicates have devised a “sophisticated” booking and loading system in a bid to dodge the watchful eye of the police.
The cross-border buses load and offload at hidden places and garages during the night and secure most of their passengers through referrals.
Working on a tip-off, The Sunday Mail Society approached some of the operators posing as potential travellers.
The conductor initially requested R600 (per traveller) before we settled for R450 after successful negotiations.
“This is a favour. We are not allowed to ferry passengers into South Africa unless you have a study or work permit. This amount we charge is to guarantee you a safe passage into South Africa since we are going to encounter several roadblocks,” explained the conductor.
“However, we usually prefer those who buy return tickets as this guarantees a profitable trip for us . . . there are fewer roadblock hustles on the way back and we usually increase the fare a bit because of the luggage.”
The bus crew even offered to arrange one-year South Africa work permits if we were willing to part with R1 000 for each document.
“I have contacts in South Africa and I can have the documents ready by the time we get to Johannesburg. I can even facilitate repatriation documents,” added the hyperactive conductor.
“ . . . the police are never strict on checking if the documents are legit or if all passengers have the proper paperwork on the way back.”
Patience, a veteran cross-border trader who was closely following our conversation while waiting to pay her bus fare, quickly weighed in.
“It is now difficult to board at the usual stations because police are pouncing hard on us. Sometimes we have to board just outside town to avoid detection. We have a strong network and it is easy, you will discover along the way.
“I often pay about R500 to get to Johannesburg. It is a lot, but staying home is not an option because I need to keep my business running to feed my family. The lockdown has slowed us down, but we always find a way to make things happen,” she said.
Gift Mupandanyama who manages the two roadports said there was little or nothing they can do to address the worrying situation.
“Our hands are tied. My responsibility is mainly ensuring that buses have a safe and clean offloading space in line with general health and Covid-19 regulations. I notice that some of the passengers are not repatriates by the nature of their luggage, but there is nothing I can do. It is the duty of the authorities like the police to ensure that repatriates are legit.
“The number of travellers that we see illegally crossing borders on a daily basis probably explains why we have soaring Covid-19 confirmed cases and deaths. In cases of departing buses that load at our stations, we ensure that the passengers have all the required documents namely Covid-19 clearance certificates, valid passports and permits.”
But some of the travellers make use of haulage trucks and private cars that charge an almost similar amount for the trip.
“I travel mostly to Zambia and South Africa. But, I have never had challenges on the highway even if I carry passengers. Probably it is because I have been in this game for long,” boasted Simbarashe, who works for a leading cargo transport company.
However, his colleague prefers to play it safe.
“I used to carry passengers before, but I stopped due to Covid-19. I cannot risk my life or that of my family because of the love of money,” said Abel Mutero.
Tendai Munetsi, who drives a Nissan Elgrand, said he offers a “private service”.
“I have a certain group of cross-border traders that I transport to and from South Africa every fortnight. My fare is a bit higher than charged by big buses as I am fast and efficient on the road. Also, it is much easier to breach security checkpoints with a small vehicle,” he said.
Zimbabwe’s chief envoy to South Africa, Ambassador David Hamadziripi, said the repatriation process was strict and meticulous.
“Since October 2020, the Embassy and the Consulates are no longer involved in the return of Zimbabwean nationals to Zimbabwe from South Africa. The repatriation processes ended at the end of September 2020 when South Africa was placed under Alert Level One lockdown of the country’s risk-adjusted levels to combat the spread of the coronavirus,” he said.
“The Embassy had to seek that authorisation by sending its request to the Department of International Relations and Co-operation and submitted the names of those to be repatriated, passport numbers, mode of transport, date of travel and point of departure from South Africa.”
The office is involved in the clearance process for deceased nationals for burial in Zimbabwe. The Sunday Mail