Botswana fence rips families apart

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By Tawanda Kanhema in Maitengwe, Botswana

An old makeshift immigration and customs "office" at Maitengwe: PIC TAWANDA KANHEMA

The border fence that is being erected by the Botswana government in some parts of its frontier with Zimbabwe, ostensibly to prevent the spread of Foot and Mouth Disease, is slowly tearing Kalanga families living along the two countries’ borders apart.

Kalanga families in Botswana’s border settlement of Maitengwe, about 150km north of Francistown and those living in Zimbabwe’s Ndolwane, Madhlambuzi and Nswazi villages have interacted with and known each other for decades, and they have a lot in common.

However, the four-meter-high 220-volt fence erected by the Botswana government with assistance from the European Union over 500 km of the country’s border with Zimbabwe will soon restrict any movement between these villages.

“We attend funerals on either side of the border, and there are intermarriages between Kalanga families on our (Botswana) side and those on the Zimbabwean side,” said an elderly Kalanga woman Maitengwe, which still has a loose border fence.

The fence at Maitengwe is barely high enough to keep foraging livestock from crossing to either side of the border in the dry region, and villagers leisurely leap over the loose fence to   buy basics, mourn their relatives, marry and make merry just as the Tswana did before Zimbabwe’s independence in the 1980.

“Before Zimbabwe’s independence, when we were suffering severe food shortagesin Botswana and things were better on the Zimbabwean side, we would cross and buy groceries there,” she said.

The scales have tilted, and the influx of immigrants from the Zimbabwean side has risen in the past few years, but the bulk of people who breach the border fence everyday in areas like Maitengwe are not “illegal immigrants”, but relatives.

In Changate, where the solar-powered fence has already been erected, villagers used to go on cheap shopping sprees in Nswazi village, where some of them had relatives, but now they will have to walk about 20km to the Maitengwe border post.

Most of the people have no passports, having found no use for it in their traditional setting, and they would have to travel to Tutume, 140km away, to get passports, while those on the Zimbabwean side would have to travel about 190km to Bulawayo.

Zimbabwean immigrants have been blamed for the increase in crime in Botswana, and some villagers on the Botswana side have welcomed the erection of the fence as a deterrent, but that has not been the case with most villagers, as they continue to scale the fence and breach the border, mostly for very basic purposes.

A Zimbabwean immigrant who had just leapt over the border fence in Maitengwe said he was coming from work in the farms on the Boswana side close to the border and said he crossed the fence on a daily basis.

“I work at a farm here in Maitengwe and I have been working there for three years, I do not have a passport” he said, as he stole away into the bush on the Zimbabwean side.

The area has well pronounced footpaths that lead to numerous crossing points, and animals grazing in the area have trampled on the fence in search of water upstream in the heavily siltated Maitengwe river, which meanders across the border.

Botswana’s livestock control authorities have maintained a strict approach to the control of livestock movements between the two countries, and thousands of cattle and goats have been slaughtered for crossing to the Zimbabwean side in the past few years.

The country heavily relies on trade in beef and its herds have been heavily affected by Foot and Mouth Disease, which they say is contacted from livestock inZimbabwe. The two governments have not adopted similar disease control mechanisms.

Botswana’s presidential spokeperson, Mr Jeff Ramsay said the fence had been erected purely for disease control purposes and not to restrict movement of people in the two countries.

“It’s a disease control fence, we had animals crossing into Botswana and its incorrect to say that the fence was designed to keep people out,” he said, adding that there were many designated border crossing points and Botswana had not imposed Visa restrictions on Zimbabweans willing to travel to that country.

Botswana struck a deal to supply beef to the European Union, and the government has stepped up its efforts to maintain the standard of its beef exports.

On the issue of Zimbabweans being blamed for the increase of crimes inBotswana, he said government had never blamed Zimbabweans, “though having illegal immigrants can aggravate the situation”.

The Botswana government has set up numerous veterinary checkpoints, where travelers from Zimbabwe and Botswana’s outlying areas have to walk through disease control troughs.

People in Botswana’s Ramokgwebana area have, which has more Zimbabwean immigrants mainly from Bulawayo and Plumtree have their own tales of “strangers who beat and rob people in the bush”, and it is here that xenophobia has remained high.

“They attack, if you want just walk into the bush and see for yourself,” said Joyce Ndebele, who operates a phone shop on the Botswana side of the border.

The fence will keep animals and people out on the greater part of the Zimbabwe-Botswana border, but further up north, life for the Kalanga people will remain unperturbed, at least for the time being.

Between the Lines