Last weekend I made my customary annual road trip up north to Zambia through Zimbabwe.
Starting off at the crack of dawn, it was a glorious drive on the N1 during that time of early morning when the breaking light of a new day slowly takes over a landscape wrapped in the fading darkness. With my niece and her baby in tow, we reached Louis Trichardt/Makhado in no time, where we stopped for a rushed breakfast.
Thus far, everything had been spot on schedule until we reached Musina border post to be greeted by the sight of a mass of travellers queuing outside the immigration buildings. It was a scene from a Nazi movie, the hordes of travellers resembling prisoners at a concentration camp. The time was 10am when I drove through to the parking area at the border. We quickly established that the South African immigration officials were on a go-slow and resigned ourselves to a long wait in the frustrating heat. What we did not know was that it was going to be another six hours before we would be processed through the South African side and then cross over into Beitbridge on the Zimbabwe side.
It was a terrible ordeal. The queues stretched for tens of metres on end, meandering around the buildings. All in all, there were three queues: one for South Africans; the second for those in transit; and the longest for Zimbabwean passport holders.
Scanning the weary crowd, I saw women and children being jostled by haughty South African police officers and immigration officials. As the queue heaved and shuffled inch by inch, I listened to personal accounts of women and children who had been waiting in the queues from the night before for more than 10 hours, pleading to the officials for passage. All of a sudden there was a stampede at the front of the queue, with terror-stricken women fleeing a policeman wielding a sjambok. The woman who had been whipped was sobbing and shaking her head from side to side. It was at that point that I became angry, distraught and disoriented because of the treatment being meted out to innocent people whose only crime was to be travelling through the border on that day.
On a day reserved to celebrate the heroic spirit of women, South African immigration officials chose to ridicule and mistreat those who under the norms of African culture can be counted among their mothers, sisters, and daughters. Treated like animals, Zimbabweans in particular were singled out by the officials, who reserved their choicest insults and expressions of disdain for this lot of broken and dejected people. These meek and long-suffering people who have endured many hardships in their country deserve nothing less than empathy. Instead, made to stand in queues for hours on end, they had their rights impugned by callous immigration officials and police officers. If an alien were at the scene, he or she would have been forgiven for thinking that the Zimbabweans have committed a great wrong against the South Africans for them to be treated so harshly.
Let it be known that what is happening at the Musina border post is a gross and inexcusable violation of human rights. People have a right to travel and those who apply to work for Home Affairs as immigration officers must of necessity serve all travellers within the confines of acceptable international norms and courtesy. It is a crying shame for South African immigration officials to act as if they are doing Zimbabweans a favour, treat them as if they have leprosy and tag them with this despicable badge of undesirable visitors. It is precisely this sort of inhospitable treatment by South Africans towards fellow Africans which will continue to stoke the fires of hatred and suspicion across the continent.
There is a more than a hint of coldness out there by South African Home Affairs officials who look down upon foreign nationals coming from countries which they consider despicable. It would seem that they rate Zimbabweans and Somalis as prime examples of such. It is wrong to punish citizens from these nations for the sins of the tyrants and power-hungry politicians who have ruined their countries. All that is being asked is that immigration officials do their jobs as humanely as possible.
I fear that the impressionable minds of the children of those long-suffering people who endured the high and mighty, better-than-you South African immigration officials, will grow up knowing no better in terms of how to treat foreigners should they one day find themselves as adults working in the civil service of a country with better prospects than that of its neighbours.
Borders should exist as touch points of a nation’s goodwill while enforcing state safety and security. They should not exist as garrisons of repression. On the contrary, the Musina border post is being used as a centre to break the spirit of Zimbabweans and all other foreign African nationals who come from less privileged nations.
If anything else, the violation of human rights at the Musina border post is a damning indictment on the presidency of Jacob Zuma, who has vowed to make service delivery a top priority for his government.
If South Africa cannot resolve to exorcise the demon of xenophobic treatment of fellow Africans from its society and government departments, they have but two options: the first is to impose prohibitive visas to restrict “the undesirables”, failing which they should close the fucking border and spare fellow Africans this inhumane treatment.