'Vigilante' farmers expose Zim refugees

By Michael Schmidt

The controversial "vigilante" farmers along the Limpopo/Zimbabwe border have transformed themselves into media-savvy operators.

Marie Helm, the northern general manager of the Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU), said the TAU had hosted 15 different news crews, including The Times of London, this week.

The rush was started by a Sky News report of the TAU farm-watch patrols "hunting" refugees as if they were game, arresting the hungry and bedraggled Zimbabweans and handing them over to the police.

Jody Kollapen, of the South African Human Rights Commission, said this week that the farm-watch was a "paramilitary" organisation acting in a racist fashion against black Zimbabweans.

But in interviews, the farmers expressed not only their concern about stock theft and fence-cutting, which they attributed to the influx of refugees, but also emphasised that a humanitarian crisis was snowballing in the region.

South Africa's borderland with its imploding neighbour is a place where the hated Zimbabwean police patrol the N1 highway with their SAPS colleagues, on the lookout for defectors from President Robert Mugabe's grave new world.

It is a place where potential asylum seekers, exhausted after lengthy treks to the haven of South Africa, have to run a gauntlet of panga-wielding thieves, extortionist "guides" and remnants of the notorious old Commandos.

The Commandos are being transformed into the new South African National Defence Force's reserve force, but here in the far north that process has yet to begin.

But, Lourie Bosman, the spokesperson for the more progressive AgriSA, which is opposed to the TAU's "vigilantism", said: "Under the 1998 rural safety programme promoted by President Mandela, the Commandos were included.

"They still exist, but are now restricted to border patrol - which they do poorly - instead of area control ."

This is frontier territory where the local Nando's slogan is "Skop, Skiet en Hoender" (kick, shoot and chicken); where a dominee was recently trampled by a buffalo; and where a lengthy defence of the retention of the town name Louis Trichardt, on the basis of the eponymous trekboer's anti-imperialist credentials, was run in the local "black" newspaper.

In similar fashion, the farm-watch patrols, which in the apartheid era were a frontline defence against "terrorist" Zimbabwe, now champion the humanity of those same Zimbabweans.

"The Australian Broadcasting Corporation came with us on a patrol," Helm said.

"They wanted to interview a Zimbabwean we caught and he wouldn't allow it until they assured him his picture would only be shown in Australia.

"He was afraid Mugabe would see him on TV and have him killed. These people are desperate."

This is a land of boom and bust, where police helicopters hunt the hungry and where spazas and stores in Musina do a roaring trade off Zimbabweans who cross the border to shop, particularly since groceries and basic household goods have all but vanished from their country's shelves.

In 2006, Zimbabweans spent more than R2,2-billion in South Africa despite their skyrocketing inflation.

But on Tuesday this week a new law came into effect in Zimbabwe outlawing the importation of a wide range of foodstuff, animal products, tyres and timber.

In Musina, ahead of the Tuesday deadline, there was a rush on sugar, beef, mealie meal, soap, doors and window frames.

But on Friday night this week, scores of Zimbabweans were still sleeping at the Musina taxi rank in order to be first in the shops when they opened.

"I am here to buy basic food like rice, mealie meal, and cooking oil, as well as clothes and soap," said Washington Mwadini. He was unaware that he faced possible arrest and the confiscation of his precious goods on his return to Zimbabwe.

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