Zimbabwe is clamping down on second-hand clothes imports as cross-border Covid-19 coronavirus infections and smuggling surge.
Cross-border traders, who make their living from buying and selling goods sourced from neighbouring countries, are defying lockdown regulations to illegally cross into countries such as South Africa and Mozambique, according to authorities.
Monica Mutsvangwa, the Minister of Information, said smuggling activities especially along the vast Mozambique border pose a serious threat as imported coronavirus cases are on the increase.
“An increase in the smuggling of second-hand clothes into the country through border posts with Mozambique such as Mt Selinda and Sango poses unprecedented danger of spreading Covid-19 by to those who wear them,” Mrs Mutsvangwa said following a Cabinet meeting on the issue last week.
“The government will upscale the enforcement of the law banning the importation of second hand-clothes,” she added.
Zimbabwe first banned the importation of second-clothes in 2015 to protect the country’s textile industry, but relaxed the restrictions two years later as it is a major source of income for informal traders hit hard by the collapse of the economy. Traders source bales of the clothes from Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia to resell to locals whose shrinking sources of income make it difficult for them to buy brand new clothes.
The country closed its borders on March 30 to stop the spread of coronavirus, but desperate traders are resorting to using illegal entry points into South Africa and Mozambique to source merchandise, which they smuggle back into Zimbabwe.
Vice President Kembo Mohadi, who leads the country’s taskforce to tackle the pandemic, said smugglers operating along Zimbabwe’s borders with South Africa and Mozambique pose a serious threat to efforts to contain the coronavirus.
“People need to understand that this disease is real and we will all die if we allow people through the porous border line,” said VP Mohadi, adding, “As a country, we are not equipped to fight the scourge.”
Lorraine Sibanda, president of the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations, said loss of income caused by the ongoing lockdown was forcing people into criminal activities, including smuggling, as a means of survival.
Ms Sibanda said informal traders were risking their lives to cross borders illegally, and banning the importation of second-hand clothes would not solve the problem. “There is a need to determine whether second-hand clothes can be a factor in the transmission of coronavirus. Some of our members suggest that they be allowed to continue selling second-hand clothes because they will disinfect them and adhere to World Health Organisation guidelines on the prevention of the spread of the virus,” said Ms Sibanda.
She added that the government had failed to make funds available to informal businesses to ensure their survival during the lockdown.
According to a 2018 International Monetary Fund’s report titled Shadow Economies Around the World: What Did We Learn Over the Last 20 Years?, Zimbabwe had the largest informal economy as a percentage of its total economy in the world, after Bolivia.
Desperate citizens are also smuggling basic commodities for resell in a country hit hard by food shortages.
South Africa, the country hardest hit by Covid-19 on the continent, shut its borders over a month ago as it sought to contain the spread of the disease.
Africa’s most industrialised economy also erected a 40-kilometre fence along its border with Zimbabwe in a bid to keep out illegal immigrants as the continent faces an unprecedented public health emergency. Videos and pictures of smugglers swimming across the Limpopo River carrying an assortment of goods, which has since gone viral on social media, show that it is still business as usual at illegal crossing points between the two countries. The new border fence was quickly damaged by suspected smuggling gangs that operate along the border, who facilitate the movement of contraband between the two countries.
Smugglers move contraband such as cigarettes and alcohol to South Africa’s border town of Musina and return with maize meal and other basic goods that are in short supply in Zimbabwe. The smuggled goods are moved inland using commercial trucks that are exempted from the lockdown regulations that end on May 17. The gangs use donkey-drawn carts and small vehicles to move their contraband from the many illegal crossing points alongside the Limpopo River to Beitbridge town in Zimbabwe.
Limpopo River, which forms part of the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa, is a well-known transit point for illegal immigrants and smugglers moving between the two countries. They bribe soldiers and police officers manning both sides of the border.
Tichaona Nyongo, the officer commanding Beitbridge police, said law enforcement agents recently intercepted a truck loaded with groceries from South Africa. Police believe the smuggling is still rampant despite restrictions on travel.
There are fears that the smuggling activities will lead to cross-border infections and worsen coronavirus outbreaks in both countries, with South African politicians raising a red flag. South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, accused the country’s Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille of endangering the lives of citizens by failing to invest in a secure border fence.