Before the borders were closed, 31-year-old Michael earned a modest income by buying clothes and electronics in South Africa and reselling them for a profit across the border in Zimbabwe. But when the pandemic shut down most traffic between the two countries, her income dried up and she had to try “other means of making a living,” she said.
Thousands of other cross-border traders in South Africa face the same dilemma. For decades, this informal commercial network has provided steady work to the region’s borderlands, mostly women. The United Nations estimates that the industry accounts for 40% of the $17 billion trade market in the 16 countries of the Southern African Development Community. But the pandemic has hit this vital economic pillar for communities where job opportunities are thin and access to COVID-19 vaccines is limited, sparking an economic recession with no end in sight.
According to the UN about 70% of traders in Zimbabwe are women, and they need to find other sources of income. Some have tried to buy and sell goods domestically for little profit. Some partner with smugglers who sneak products across borders, taking a cut of the proceeds. Some, like Michael, have begun selling sex, boarding and companionship to truck drivers stuck in town for weeks due to shipping delays, COVID screening disruptions and the confusion of changing government policies.
A trucker stayed with Michael for two weeks in his small home in Beitbridge, Zimbabwe, waiting for clearance to get back on the road to haul goods to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a 15-hour drive away. She prepares him a meal and a warm bath every day.
“This is life – what can we do?” said Mitchell, who requested anonymity in part because he did not want to publicize his current work situation. “I don’t want to think ahead. I work with what I have at the moment.”
Beitbridge, a trucking hub with a busy port along the Limpopo River, and other border towns offered opportunities for upward mobility through a bustling multinational trade network that brought an infusion of the South African currency, the rand, whose value was more stable. Zimbabwean dollars have been weakened by years of hyperinflation. But with that trade network blocked, the economic engine of those communities is sputtering.
“The virus and the resulting lockdown happened so quickly that women did not have enough time to prepare for any economic consequences,” said Ernest Chirume, a researcher and member of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Catholic University of Zimbabwe. Paper on the Impact of COVID-19 on Informal Traders.
Before the borders closed, Marion Siziba, 40, bought large appliances from South Africa such as refrigerators, four-plate stoves and solar panels for resale to small downtown shops in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city. For months, she was able to make ends meet with her service of selling foreign currency and offering small loans, providing a trickle of payments from customers with ongoing loans. Lately, however, many of his customers have been unable to meet their dues.
Before the coronavirus, “we were already used to financial hardships,” he said. “Only now it’s worse because we can’t work.”
Fadzai Nyamande-Pangeti, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration in Zimbabwe, noted that the pandemic has made informal cross-border trade harder than in other sectors. But in the absence of government relief, financial setbacks that once seemed temporary to Mitchell, Siziba and other cross-border traders are now indefinite.
Transportation challenges have exacerbated wealth inequality. Either people have the means to get around border restrictions or they don’t.
Nyasha Chakanyuka runs a popular clothing store in Bulawayo and said the road closure has not hindered her sales because she relies on long-haul air travel, which most traders BuzzFeed News spoke to could not afford. In fact, the situation gave her an opportunity to expand her business: she was buying bulk inventory in other countries and selling goods to traders who could not travel outside of Zimbabwe.
Others have resorted to those who cross the land border illegally. “You can give money to someone you trust to buy goods for you in South Africa, but that requires extraordinary trust because the risks are obvious,” Siziba said.
Those who cannot afford to pay others to move their goods will have to find other ways to make ends meet while they wait for business as usual to return.
Adapting to the new circumstances, Getrude Mwale, a trader and mother of five in Bulawayo, started selling clothes at the gate of her house, although business was very slow, but it took her a year to clear the inventory she once could. To clear within a month.
“Selling from home means you’re only selling to people you know from the neighborhood,” Mwale said. “It’s not easy.”
Before the pandemic, Sarudzai, 33, who requested partial anonymity to keep her work situation private, traveled as far as Malawi to buy children’s clothes sold at a flea market in Masvingo, Zimbabwe, earning the equivalent of thousands of US dollars each. year
When the epidemic hit, she suddenly had piles of shirts, pants and socks in her house but no one to sell them to. As her business stalled, she decided to move to Beitbridge.
She sells samosas, fries and soft drinks, but these days most of her income comes from transacting relationships selling sex and companionship to stay with her in a one-room wooden house she rents. She now earns enough money to send her two children to school in Masvingo, where they live some 200 miles away from their mother.
“I always knew truckers had money — that’s why I made it here,” he said.
The Pulitzer Center helped support the reporting of this story.