Before the borders closed, 31-year-old Michele earned a modest income buying clothes and electronics in South Africa and reselling them for profit across the border in Zimbabwe. But when the pandemic closed most of the traffic between the two countries, she said, her income dried up and she had to try “other means to earn a living”.
Thousands of other cross-border traders in southern Africa face the same dilemma. For decades, this informal trade network has provided a stable job for men, mostly women, in the border areas of the area. The United Nations estimates that the industry accounts for 40% of the $ 17 billion trade market among the 16 countries in the South African Development Community. But the pandemic has destroyed this vital economic pillar for communities where job opportunities are weak and there is limited access to COVID-19 vaccines, triggering a financial downturn with no visible end.
Nearly 70% of traders in Zimbabwe are women, according to the UN, and have had to find other sources of income. Some tried to buy and sell goods domestically, for less profit. Some have partnered with smugglers who sneak across the border to move products, taking a cut of the revenue. Some, like Michele, have started selling sex, entry and camaraderie to the truckers stranded in the city for weeks due to shipping delays, COVID control of bottles and confusion about changing government policies.
One truck driver lives with Michele at her small home in Beitbridge, Zimbabwe, for two weeks waiting for permission to get back on the road to transport goods to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a 15-hour drive. She prepares meals and a hot bath for him every day.
“This is life – what can we do?” said Michele, who asked for partial anonymity because she did not want to disclose her current work situation. “I don’t want to think ahead. I’m working on what I have right now. “
Beitbridge, a truck hub with a busy port along the Limpopo River, and other border towns have long offered opportunities for upward mobility through a vibrant transnational trading network that has brought in an infusion of South African currency, the edge of which has been more stable. than the Zimbabwean dollar weakened due to years of hyperinflation. But with that limited business network, the economic engine of those communities is emerging.
“The virus and the resulting confinement occurred so quickly that the women did not have enough time to prepare for any economic consequences,” said Ernest Chirume, a researcher and member of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Catholic University of Zimbabwe, who wrote article on the effects of COVID-19 on informal traders.
Before the borders closed, 40-year-old Marian Siziba bought large appliances such as refrigerators, four-plate ovens and solar panels from South Africa for resale to small downtown shops in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. For months, she was able to support herself from her service by selling foreign currency and issuing small loans, providing her with a flute of payments from customers with ongoing debts. Lately, however, many of her clients have been unable to meet their fees.
Before the coronavirus, “we were already accustomed to economic hardship,” she said. “Only now is it worse because we can’t work.”
Fadzai Nyamande-Pangeti, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration of Zimbabwe, noted that the pandemic has hit informal cross-border trade harder than other sectors. But without government assistance, financial failures that once seemed temporary to Michele, Siziba and other cross-border traders now feel indefinite.
The transportation challenges have widened rich inequalities. Either people have the means to avoid restrictions or not.
Nyasha Chakanyuka runs a popular clothing store in Bulawayo and said the road closures did not hinder her sale because she has long relied on air travel, which most retailers who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they cannot afford. In fact, the situation offered her an opportunity to expand her business: she bought wholesale inventory in other countries and sold goods to traders unable to travel from Zimbabwe.
Others have turned to transporters who cross the border illegally. “You can give someone you trust money to buy goods for you in South Africa, but that requires extraordinary confidence because the risks are obvious,” Siziba said.
Those who cannot pay others to move their goods for them had to find other ways to make ends meet, expecting a return to business as usual.
Adapting to the new circumstances, Getrude Mwale, a businessman in Bulawayo and mother to five children, began selling clothes at the gate of her home, although business was so slow that it took her a year to clean up an inventory she once could. clean up within a month.
“Selling from home means you only sell to people who know you from the neighborhood,” Mwale said. “It wasn’t easy.”
Prior to the pandemic, Sarudzai, who is 33 years old and asked for partial anonymity to keep her workplace private, traveled to Malawi to buy children’s clothes she sold at a trail in Masvingo, Zimbabwe, earning the equivalent of thousands of US dollars each. year.
When the pandemic hit, she suddenly had piles of shirts, pants and socks in her house but no one to sell to. With her business stalled, she decided to move to Beitbridge.
She sells samosas, fries, and soft drinks, but much of her income currently comes from transactional relationships selling sex and camaraderie to truckers who stay with her in the one-bedroom wooden home she rents. She now earns enough money to send her two children back to school in Masvingo, where they stay, nearly 200 miles away from her mother.
“I’ve always known that truckers have money – that’s why I made it here,” she said.