Before the border closed, Michele, 31, made a modest income buying clothes and electronics in South Africa and reselling them for profit across the border in Zimbabwe. But when the pandemic shut down most traffic between the two countries, she said, her revenue dried up and she had to try “other means of making a living.”
Thousands of other cross-border traders in southern Africa face a similar dilemma. For decades, this informal trade network has provided steady work to people, mainly women, in the region’s border regions. The United Nations estimates that the industry accounts for 40% of the $17 billion trade market among the 16 countries of the South African Development Community. But the pandemic has toppled this essential economic pillar for communities where job opportunities are slim and access to a COVID-19 vaccine is limited, triggering a financial recession with no end.
According to the UN, almost 70% of traders in Zimbabwe are women and they have to find other sources of income. Some have tried buying and selling goods domestically, for less profit. Some have partnered with smugglers who sneak across borders to transport products, cutting revenue. Some, like Michele, have started selling sex, getting on cars and befriending truck drivers stuck in town for weeks due to transportation delays, COVID screening bottlenecks, and confusion about changing government policies.
A lorry driver stayed with Michele at her cottage in Beitbridge, Zimbabwe for two weeks while waiting for customs clearance to return to the freight line to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a 15-hour drive away. She prepares his meals and gives him warm baths every day.
“This is life – what can we do?” Michele said, the person requested anonymity partly because he did not want to make his current work situation public. “I don’t want to think ahead. I work with what I have at the moment.”
Beitbridge, a trucking hub with a busy harbor along the Limpopo River and other border towns, has long offered an opportunity for upward mobility through a bustling network of transnational trade, bringing one more infusion South Africa’s currency, the rand, is more stable in value than the Zimbabwean dollar, which has weakened after years of hyperinflation. But with trade networks limited, the economic engines of those communities are in disarray.
Ernest Chirume, a researcher and a member of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences of the Catholic University of Zimbabwe, said: “The virus and the consequence women don’t have enough time to prepare for any any economic impact. paper on the impact of COVID-19 on informal businesses.
Before the border closed, Marian Siziba, 40, purchased large appliances such as refrigerators, 4-disc stoves and solar panels from South Africa to resell to small downtown shops in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. For months, she was able to make a living from selling foreign currency and issuing microloans, providing her with a small payment from clients with ongoing debt. Recently, however, many of her clients have been unable to meet their fees.
Before the coronavirus, “we were used to economic hardships,” she said. “Only now it’s worse because we can’t work.”
Fadzai Nyamande-Pangeti, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration Zimbabwe, noted that the pandemic has made informal cross-border trade more difficult than in other sectors. But in the absence of a government bailout, financial setbacks that once seemed temporary for Michele, Siziba and other cross-border merchants now feel limitless.
Transportation challenges have increased inequality between rich and poor. Either people have the means to cross the border or they don’t.
Nyasha Chakanyuka runs a casual clothing store in Bulawayo and says the closure has not hindered her sales as she has long depended on air travel, which most merchants do. talked to BuzzFeed News all said they couldn’t afford it. In fact, the situation gave her the opportunity to expand her business: she bought large amounts of inventory in other countries and sold to merchants who could not get out of Zimbabwe.
Others have turned to transporting people across land borders illegally. “You can hand over money to someone you trust to have them buy for you in South Africa, but that requires special trust because the risks are so obvious,” Siziba said.
Those who cannot afford to pay others to deliver their goods have had to find other ways to make a living while waiting for business to return to normal.
To adapt to her new circumstances, Getrude Mwale, a merchant in Bulawayo and a mother of five children, started selling clothes on her doorstep, although the business was so slow that she lost one years to clear out the inventory she once had. will clear within a month.
“Home-selling means you only sell to people who know you’re in the neighborhood,” says Mwale. “It hasn’t been easy.”
Before the pandemic, Sarudzai, 33 years old and requesting anonymity to keep her work situation private, traveled as far as Malawi to buy baby clothes she sold at a flea market in Masvingo, Zimbabwe, earning numbers money equivalent to thousands of US dollars per person. five.
When the pandemic hit, her house suddenly had piles of shirts, pants and socks, but there was no one to sell. When her business stalled, she decided to move to Beitbridge.
She sells samosas, chips and soft drinks, but most of her income these days comes from sex-trafficking relationships and the company of truck drivers who stay with her in a single-family bungalow. the room she rented. Now, she earns enough to send her two children back to the school in Masvingo, where they still live, nearly 200 kilometers away from their mother.
“I’ve always known truckers with money – that’s why I make money here,” she said.
The Pulitzer Center helped support reporting for this story.