Zimbabwe’s goods smugglers bring relief and trouble as prices triple at home
By Ray Mwareya in Chimanimani
Mozambique´s vast porous border with east Zimbabwe is now a boon for beverages, medicines, used car tyres, and combustible fuel smugglers who are out to dodge Zimbabwe´s punishing prices and a biting cash shortage crisis.
An illustration: a crate of Coca Cola soft drinks costs a whopping 18US$ here. Just ten miles across the border in Manica, Mozambique, the same sells for 10$. The price of a two-litre bottle of cooking oil , used daily by the majority of Zimbabwe´s households, has recently tripled to 10$. In Mozambique, 4$ would fetch the same.
This disparity has become both a curse and blessing for businesses and smugglers in Chimanimani, a district in east Zimbabwe.
Chimanimani sits along the granite peak mountains and thick forests that loosely act as the demarcation line with the neighbouring republic of Mozambique.
Here, local Zimbabwe businesses, communities, and smugglers unite in a scheme where lorries, river canoes and motorcycles are cranked up mainly at night and in the mornings, and rumble by without any immigration checks—no border, frankly speaking—into Manica or Espungabera towns in Mozambique to scoop consignments of beers, clothes, medicines and soft drinks for onward posting to Zimbabwe.
Foreign syndicates thrive by paying bribes to Mozambique border police to gain passage. Their consignments flow back to Zimbabwe by same route – totally avoiding paying customs duty and in the end helping to ground some lawful Zimbabwe beverages sellers who cannot match the artificially low prices of illegal imports.
On Haroni River, I meet Isaiah. He says he is 36. “I´m the border king here in Chimanimani,” he boasts, his hands oily from hauling 20-liter jerry cans of petrol onto a wobbling motorbike. He lives in a rural village outside Espungabeira, on the border of Mozambique and Zimbabwe. He dumps fuel, cartons of flour and a crate of beers into a small wooden canoe. He then rows the canoes acroass the muddy Rusitu River that buffers Zimbabwe and Mozambique in Chimanimani. He has to be steady.
“But, look, diesel and petrol costs 60 US cents a litre in Mozambique. In Zimbabwe fuel is charged $1,40 a litre,” he reveals. “There is a high demand for smuggled fuel. I earn 75 US cents for each illegal run. In a good hour I make $6.”
“My smuggling is a good deed. I keep my community going,” he adds. After all, scores in Zimbabwe are sleeping in fuel queues as shortages leaves gas stations empty.
Lorries come from Chimoio town, 130 kilometres away, loaded with 30-litre drums of petrol. Isaiah and a friend, Gondai, 33 – also a “river sailor” – transfer the petrol into sub-divided ten-litre jerry cans and load them into their canoes. Minibus and van drivers across the river on Zimbabwe side stand in anticipation, smoking cigarettes as the operation sneaks towards them.
It is a five-minute trip by canoe to the Zimbabwean side. Here, there is a frenetic effort to get the petrol into trailers as fast as possible. Drivers live in fear of raids, fines and seizures that may be conducted by the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra). But so far, no customs officers from the Zimra have visited the river site. “Chimanimani district is too dusty and forgotten,” laughs Major, a minibus driver who receives goods on the Zimbabwe side.
Once safely back in Mozambique, Isaiah and Gondai scrape the river mud from the soles of their gumboots.
This is December. Their operations get a jolt in the arm. Lorries coming from Johannesburg, South Africa, are locked in their own smuggling trick. “Their real destination is Zimbabwe. But they head to Mozambique here instead, and lie to customs that they will offload their goods here in Mozambique. They proceed to Zimbabwe border to dump their wares across the river by canoe and quickly drive back to South Africa,” says Gondai.
This three-country smuggling racket is an act of necessity because customs duty at Zimbabwe borders are so expensive. In October, Zimbabwe’s finance ministry declared that all customs duty on imported stuff will be paid in hard currency greenbacks.
Smugglers’ fortunes are also helped by beliefs that car fuel manufactured in Zimbabwe is sub-standard. “Diesel, petrol produced in Zimbabwe burns 30 percent faster inside engines because it is blended with sugarcane ethanol. Mozambique´s fuel stays longer in vehicle tanks,” claims Major.
School children ditch classes for smuggling
Profits are so tempting that some primary school-going children on both the Mozambique and Zimbabwe sides of the border are forfeiting their studies to become river canoe handlers.
Promise* says he is 15. He lives on the banks of the smuggling river.
“When I gave up school, it took me four days to learn how to steady a wooden boat,” he says, proud. He smuggles 20 litres of diesel and an assortment of beers at a time.
“School is boring, uneventful,” he grins. “Smuggling earns me money. Mother and I went hungry until I left school to work with smugglers.”
Promise maneuvers the river and this time successfully brings a consignment of dangerously worn-out tyres.
A dozen minibus smugglers on the Zimbabwe side mill around him, inspecting the load. He is paid in US dollars. Isaiah says the tyres are polished with black wax to fool customers that they are new. They are fitted onto used Japanese cars and sometimes used to make rubber soles. Brand new tyres in Zimbabwe cost US$100 each, so there is a thriving market for run-down tyres from Mozambique, which sell for US$20. But this causes dire road mishaps, he admits.
Local economist Wallace Hlobo says that, “Zimbabwe´s dysfunctional economy means we not only harm out our thin tax collection base by smuggling, but we also sell around substandard clothes, machinery, and even dirty smuggled fuels.”
Antonio Gama, Secretary for Public Schools in Manica Mozambique National Organization of Teachers union, says that, “In this province bordering Zimbabwe, up to 10,000 children never finish primary school. Smugglers are stealing school time for child workers.”
But although business is booming on the Mozambique side of the border, the knock-on effect is creating a bad outcome for Zimbabweans. Counterfeit beers, and toxic or dubious medicines are flowing in the smugglers consignments.
In Zimbabwe, many people cannot afford the fees charged at hospitals. Doctors are on job action. On 5 December, the Pharmaceutical Society of Zimbabwe president, Portifa Mwendera, told parliament that their members charge for products in U.S. dollars, which most locals don’t have. This is because, “The crisis that we are in is critical. We have shortages for painkillers, anti-diabetes medicines,” he said.
One popular brand carried by smugglers from across the border in Mozambique is called Tsunami. The yellow pills have flooded the streets of Mutare, Zimbabwe´s biggest border city with Mozambique. Tsunami is hawked as a multipurpose treatment for flu, skin pimples, malaria, migraine headaches, and even syphilis. “It´s such a dangerous joke. None of us medics knows the origin of this street pill,” says Dr. Laxton Majoni, an infectious diseases expert in Mutare.
But buyers don’t care. “Lawful hospitals need $5 up front. Then they reveal to you they don’t have drugs,” said Charity Kanyekanye, a diabetes and cholesterol patient in Mutare. “Here, I just pay $2 and I can drink my medicines without a hassle.”
At one street-side stall, the most expensive items are smuggled pills that the seller claims are “cancer drugs”. They cost around $2.50 but the price is negotiable.
“All my medicines are for a dollar, except for those ones that treat cancer,” says Bla John, the smuggler. “My tsunami pills are for stomach problems. They came from afar: India,” he claims. “If you crush my tsunami pills and drink with hot milk, this could triple your sperm count. If your gearbox is down.”
People like Bla John say they are small runners who get various goods from Mozambique, clothes, food, fuel and medicines and sell it forward on the streets of Zimbabwe. They don’t see themselves as sophisticated organized crime syndicates although, without knowing it they are, in a small way, enabling the transnational movements of counterfeit and unchecked medicines.
They are not so keen to tell us the source of the medicines. “We buy our pills from back street traders in Manica town, Mozambique, for a marked up price. This pill is for malaria, this for STIs, and this for flu, colds, is all they say and send us away back to Zimbabwe,” says Bla John.
They say it could be that some of the medicines are stolen from public clinics and charity stockrooms in Mozambique or originate from the many Asian (mainly Indian and Chinese) import businesses that flourish in sea-connected Mozambique.
Nearby, revelers are gulping Karango, a popular illegal intoxicating whiskey. It is smuggled from Mozambique. Its alcohol contents are not listed, but Bla John gives a clue: “We´ve lost five friends who finished a cup of Karango without diluting it with water.”
This story was produced as part of Reporting Transnational Organised Crime, a media skills development programme run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in partnership with the EU funded ENACT programme. More information at http://enactafrica.org/. The programme funders are not responsible for the article’s content. The content remains the editor’s sole responsibility.
*not his real name