A chilly breeze blows over a tiny village entrenched by the South African border with Lesotho, forcing grown men to clutch their blankets tightly.
Odd showers sprinkle through the village, sending villagers scurrying for cover. Cattle herders in gumboots and traditional Basotho blankets go about their business undeterred by the drizzling rain – they are used to working in any kind of weather.
But a group of young men dressed in more Western clothes settle underneath the veranda of a tuck shop by the Van Rooyen’s Gate border post, shielding themselves from getting soaked.
It is there that they stand huddled together, their eyes surveying taxis off-loading passengers by the Lesotho side of the border with South Africa.
They are here to make money; helping those without passports cross the border is how they make ends meet.
No one swims across a crocodile-infested river here. No one crawls underneath a barbed wire fence.
It takes less than 10 minutes to cross over into a country alive with possibilities.
Some are on a job-searching mission. Others are off to visit relatives, while others are just desperate to meet lovers employed in various sectors in South Africa.
Business is slow on this particular weekday and as soon as Kheola Nyaphuli spots a lone woman with a bag full of clothes slung over her shoulder, he rubs his hands in glee, excited at the prospect of making his first R150 for the day.
Within five minutes, Nyaphuli disappears with the woman as they make their way between village houses to get to the back of the high mesh fence housing migration offices.
It is there that they meet another man who stays behind with the woman by rows of rusty stainless-steel poles that somehow got left behind when the fence dividing a South African farm from Lesotho was stripped.
Nyaphuli takes a few steps on to the South African side and starts sprinting across the farm to a loose wire fence, which he jumps easily to get to a main road leading to the border – or away from it.
He then surveys the stretch of tar for police patrol cars and signals to the companion left behind with the woman to cross over.
Within minutes, the woman is whisked away by one of the cabs called Four-Ones after handing Nyaphuli R150.
With the woman gone, the men walk hurriedly through the South African farm, which, because of the lack of a fence, has now turned into a grazing field for livestock belonging to Basotho villagers – a headache for Free State farmers.
They refuse to talk about their illicit activities, becoming defensive when asked how much they make daily and demanding that their pictures be deleted.
But the cattle herders shed some light on the illegal cross border activities, indicating that much more than people get smuggled into South Africa right under noses of police and custom officials stationed at the border.
“A whole lot of things happen here. It is just not people crossing illegally. Some smuggle dagga into South Africa and if you come at the right time, you might even see a car being driven through this farm,” one cattle herder says as he leads his flock deeper into the South African farm.
“The payment is also negotiated, with some people paying as little as R20 when business is slow.”
The cattle herder smiles and walks off when told he is also illegally in South Africa.
Porous borders like this have proved to be a huge headache for Free State farmers, who have taken the government to court to compel it to address the problem as they have suffered huge losses because of stock theft, and have noted an increase in livestock diseases and overgrazing.
Farmers agree that the mountainous terrain makes it difficult for officers to patrol, but in other areas like Diphiring there are SANDF soldiers stationed to patrol areas leading into smaller villages in Lesotho.
On a rocky gravel road dotted with weather-beaten peach trees, a lone soldier takes a stroll, a firearm slung over his shoulder.
He patrols the deserted dirt road, his eyes fixed over mountainous terrain usually used to smuggle in dagga.
A few metres down the road two of his colleagues sit huddled around an open fire while a fourth soldier washes his uniform in a plastic bucket.
There’s a newly erected fence about 100m away, although a small pedestrian gate still allows Basotho villagers to cross in and out to visit a farm labourer working for Danie and Magda Grobler.
A meerkat welcomes us to the Groblers’ home and more stories of illicit cross-border activities are revealed.
“It is very quiet here these days since we took the government to court and they got the SANDF soldiers stationed here,” says Danie.
Among the farmers who have suffered great losses is Zastron resident Jacques van Tonder, who has a farm along the Makhaleng Bridge, some 230km from Bloemfontein.
“For the past five years we had three instances of stock theft which involved the border. I lost 11 heifers and about six cows.”
Kobus Breytenbach, the
chairman of Agri SA’s rural safety committee, says that while they still have problems, the deployment of soldiers to border patrol duties has made a huge difference.
Free State police spokesman Brigadier Billy Jones admits that there are illicit operations along the South African border with Lesotho.
Dagga valued at more than R2.6 million was seized along the border between July and October.
While there were arrests made in the 24 cases opened over those three months, there were other cases where 921.7kg of dagga valued at more than R1.2m was abandoned at the borders.
Jones says they run drug-related crime bust operations daily through their border post unit commanders.