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  • Writer's pictureAlasdair Bruce

How COVID-19 travel restrictions have impacted Zimbabweans in South Africa

The COVID-19 pandemic has unsettled the way we live for ever. At its height, shut borders disrupted travel and supply chains; daily life was transplanted to the virtual world, with loved ones prevented from seeing each other.

But these disruptions mean something different in every part of the world. In the United Kingdom, supply disruptions were relatively mild, and, thanks to technology, separation felt less distant.

In other parts of the world, informal supply chains were decimated. For one Zimbabwean domestic worker in Johannesburg, South Africa, the restrictions on travel has led to a strain on her already limited financial resources and familial separation at a time of tragedy.

Princess Sibanda, 43, has faced these challenges with an enduring ability to adapt.

Princess's family remain in Bulawayo. There, her twin brothers, Alan and Alex Maphosa, 53, both passed away. Alex suffered complications resulting from diabetes and high blood pressure. He died in hospital.

The doctors said the death was not related to COVID-19, but it is hard to separate the two with the mounting pressure on an already failing medical system.

Alan's health, on being informed of his brother’s death, quickly decline. He soon after suffered a stroke. He, too, passed away in that same hospital just two weeks later.

Meanwhile, in Joburg, their younger sister Princess was helplessly separated from her family by closed borders and lockdown in the face of a worsening pandemic.

Princess was unable to attend the funerals of her elder twin brothers.

“They were too young. It's so painful”, said Princess.

Princess moved to South Africa more than 13 years ago at a time of political crisis in her home country. She came to find work and escape Zimbabwe’s crumbling economy.

Princess works as a domestic worker in Johannesburg and has become a lifeline for her family in rural Bulawayo.

Every month, using informal couriers and taxi services known as Malayitshas, Princess would send food and supplies home to her family just outside of Bulawayo.

Malayitshas are a service of necessity. With annual inflation in Zimbabwe estimated at 737.3% and vast numbers of Zimbabwean nationals in South Africa with vulnerable family left at home, a large number of people rely on transporting more affordable goods across country lines.

Princess said: “Things that side are so expensive. It's better for us to buy it here and send it that side. I am sending for my mum, my dad and my other brother. They have some cousins who are living with them, because, you know, my mum is so old she needs the care."

In her monthly parcels home, Princess includes basic essential items such as flour, rice, cooking oil, sugar, salt, tinned foods, soap and toothpaste.

Each parcel costs roughly R1000-R1200 (£47.93-£57.51), with a delivery charge, depending on the size of the parcel, of R500 (£23.97).

The Malayitshas take one of two routes to Bulawayo: through the Beitbridge Border Post, or via Botswana and through the Plumtree Border Post.

Princess opts for the Beitbridge route, which can take 12 hours, but only if the queues at the border are forgiving. It can sometimes take a full day to make the 861-kilometre journey before the goods are delivered to her family at the other end.

However, this was all before the imposition of lockdown in both countries at the end of March.

“We used to send goods for four to five people every month. We used to, but now we can’t. We only send money,” she said without abandoning her bravery.

Closed borders halted Malayitshas, and with it the framework which facilitated benevolent children and upheld a way of life for dependent families.

“Two litres of cooking oil here is around R38 (£1.82), but in Zim you can find it for R100 (£4.79). This side things are much better than that side.”

Having to send money to Zimbabwe means that Princess’s money is far more stretched than if the courier system was allowed to work.

Compounding matters, Princess’s husband, who works as a waiter at a restaurant chain, has been unable to work since lockdown closed the hospitality industry.

His salary was replaced in part by the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), a South African government scheme offering temporary relief to the unemployed.

This meant Princess’s earnings were the primary source of income for both her immediate family and her relatives in Zimbabwe.

With worsening health conditions in South Africa and an already decaying health system, it is unclear whether lockdown measures will lift any time soon.

Princess has become inured to her circumstances, yet she is still grateful for her ability to work.

“Now I am back to working full-time, which is good, but, sometimes in life, you just face some challenges,” she said.

Unlike the formal supply networks in Europe, Malayitshas were no exception to travel restrictions.

Princess hopes to return to Zimbabwe in December to see her mother who she hasn’t seen in a long time. If borders do not reopen, this reunion will have to wait and her finances will continue to be strained.

“It’s life - there is nothing we can do. We have to keep going.”


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