RIVULTS of sweat run down her face, falling onto her dress as Mai Muku trudges the 472-metre length of the Beitbridge steel girder carrying an awkward-looking and heavy load.
Apart from the bridge distance, Mai Muku, a dark and firmly moulded woman in her 30s, walks a further kilometre and half with the load she is carrying to earn R150. She will do four or more trips like this on a good day, manually carrying goods for travellers from the South African border taxi rank to a similar rank on the Zimbabwean side.
“That is how I earn my living. I support my family through this job. If I am well and fit, you will always find me here. I now have many established clients who hire my services and on a good day I make R500 to R600, but those days are few and far apart. This is a hard job but what can I do? I have to live,” she said.
Mai Muku is a porter at Beitbridge, one of the hundreds of men and women who call themselves Zalawis — a name derived from a Zambian Haulage trucking company — who fill the gap created by lack of motorised transport for pedestrians crossing the Limpopo River separating South Africa and Zimbabwe.
For easier management of the no-man’s land, officials at Beitbridge in both countries banned vehicles that used to ferry people between the two countries due to bad behaviour, drunkenness and smuggling.
Travellers and motorists complain of harassment and congestion caused by pirate taxis operators on the stretch, which resulted in the ban in the late 90s.
Now the Zalawis ferry cross-border shoppers’ goods for a fee and provide what many people now believe is an essential service.
Like most Zimbabweans, Zalawis are educated people humbled by the lack of employment opportunities in their country who somehow found themselves at Beitbridge, a place believed by many to have better economic prospects.Mai Muku said she is a former teacher who came to join her elderly husband who worked for a now defunct shipping company.
She refused to share further details saying it was personal, but said her new job takes care of her five children well.
“I earn better than those I went to college with. They have dignity, I have the money and my children are in better schools. It was a choice between being smart in poverty or humbling myself to support my family,” she said.
Beitbridge, like Zimbabwe, has an unemployment rate that has increased from 19,7% as reported in the second quarter of 2023 to 21% in the third quarter of the year, according to the Zimbabwe National Statistical Agency (ZimStat).
In its quarterly labour force survey, ZimStat revealed that overall unemployment across the country in the third quarter was more in women, at 23,7% compared to men’s 19%.
By comparison, Harare and Bulawayo metropolitan provinces’ unemployment rates stood at 20,5% and 23,2%, respectively.
The report puts the country’s working age population in the third quarter of 2022 at 9 190 909, with those in employment totalling 3 913 966.
During the same period last year, according to ZimStat, the country’s working population stood at 8 955 312 and of these, 3 950 618 were said to be in employment.
Only 8% of the country’s working population earns more than US$333, says ZimStat.
However, the definition of employment has been subject to debate in a country that has seen the majority and so-called unemployed eke out a decent living through often unregistered small business initiatives, while many of the formally employed struggle to live normal lives, according to research.
Mai Muku falls in the “employed” bracket of those statistics.
To newcomer government officials at both sides of Beitbridge, be they from police, customs, immigration or other departments in both countries, these porters are a nuisance.
“At first they see us as nagging travellers, but when the same travellers negotiate for our passage they begin to appreciate and get used to us. Once in a while they demand passports, but depending on how you comply, the treatment gets better,” she said.
A goods portering requires physical strength, resilience and determination since it involves the manual handling of goods and cargo, often in challenging environments such as the busy Beitbridge Border Post and searing heat.
The porter’s day starts early to catch people who may have travelled overnight and arrived at Beitbridge early in the morning.
In addition to physical strength, goods porters at Beitbridge have to navigate through a tight security environment where officials with hawk eyes suspect every traveller.
With most goods now on the Open General Import Licence, goods that a porter carries for an individual rarely attract any duty so they are cleared fast at the border.
But they must be adept at dealing with the somewhat hungry officials who demand money “to allow them to work in protected areas”.
Some unscrupulous officials abuse the Protected Places And Areas Act Chapter 11:12 which makes it an offence to be found in specified protected areas like the Beitbridge border post which handles the bulk of Zimbabwe’s imports and crossborder travellers.
The offence attracts a fine and a possible jail term for repeat offenders.
Instead of going through the hassle of going to the police station and subsequently the court, most Zalawis bribe their way off the hook to continue their work.
“If I pay once to a shift, I can work throughout the day, but manual work like this under these hot temperatures cannot be for a long time. Normally I break when it gets too hot,” Mai Muku said.
“Different security agents at the bridge in both countries demand money from us to work. On each of the three shifts on the Zimbabwean side one pays about R50 to work. They don’t even mind whether you have a passport or not, they just demand because they see you daily. It’s a setback, but such is the environment. The family needs every cent so to maximise you pay and go,” said another porter.
“After paying those policemen and soldiers we have security guards and other policemen inside the border and right up to the last point when the client takes taxis to the bus terminus. We ask our clients to be with us and make those payments or they give us the cash and we pay as we go,” he said.
Porters carry a load of any size and can team up to carry goods that fit in the trailer of a conventional bus. Like ants, the job is done consistently until they are done.
“Clients with lots of goods make prior arrangements and have someone co-ordinating and paying us. While some porters may work independently and set their rates, others may be employed by companies or agencies that dictate their wages. In either case, the earnings of goods porters are often modest, reflecting the challenging nature of the work and the competitive nature of the industry,” said another porter.
Despite the physical demands and financial constraints, many goods porters take pride in their ability to sustain themselves and contribute to their communities through their work.
Others, however, are dishonest and steal goods from their clients.
“We have handled a number of cases where some porters are arrested for stealing their clients’ goods. Despite that they perform a vital function in the movement of goods there are some bad apples among them,” said a prosecutor at Beitbridge.
Other porters are arrested for carrying contraband like smuggled cigarettes and most of these do not come through the official borders, but cross the Limpopo River with goods strapped on their backs.
Teams of security men also line themselves up at illegal crossing points where they cash in from these smugglers, mostly men, who avoid the border post.