Journey from fear— part II

2010-07-19 13:44

The Passenger Express – drawing a trailer packed with bulging MaShangaan (colourful, checked plastic bags), pots, fridges, ­television sets, door frames, blankets, microwave ovens, ­generators and many other valuables – will only leave around 5pm as long shadows ­begin to ­engulf the City of Gold.

For five long hours, we have been waiting and watching as hordes of passengers push and shove in snaking queues, ­battling to buy tickets and book space for their ­luggage on trailers from overwhelmed bus operators. Scuffles break out often and ­insults ­delivered in Shona add to the chaos as some attempt to jump the queues.

Dozens upon dozens of buses, some old and crumbling, others not new but not old either, bear handwritten boards pasted on windscreens: Harare, Bulawayo, Mutare.

They are parked haphazardly through the terminus in downtown Joburg, transforming it into an informal settlement of sorts.

It is the middle of the month, but the bus terminus is extremely busy. Joseph Chikati (37), his wife Blessing (37) and four-month-old daughter Nyasha are also caught up in this mad rush to board a bus to Harare.

They are fleeing from a possible outbreak of xenophobic violence.

The word xenophobia rolls off most tongues everywhere in the busy terminus. Even a hawker tries to lure customers by saying they will be left alone by ­xenophobic mobs if found kitted out in the takkies he’s selling. People laugh off the marketing gimmick.

The Chikatis arrived at the terminus late that morning, set for the 980km journey to Harare. A cousin (name withheld on request) at whose house they had spent the night after arriving from the 1?400km ­journey by truck from Cape Town, had dropped them and their luggage off at the terminus.

The tension of the past two days when we sat huddled in a truck on the long journey from Cape Town has eased a little. Even ­little Nyasha looks rested and smiles ­joyously. She was born in Cape Town and this will be the first time she sees the land of her parents’ birth.

A single ticket to Harare costs R350 on the Passenger Express. It costs as little as R200 on other buses, most of which, if they had been people, would long have passed ­retirement age.

Chikati paid another R590 for his ­luggage – three large bags (each almost as heavy as a cow); a plastic bath tub carrying Nyasha’s washing utensils; an extra MaShangaan bag carrying skaftin; and a bucket carrying ­Nyasha’s provisions of milk, hot water and bottles to suckle from.

Inside the bus, passengers jostle for space with even more luggage, blankets, handbags and plastic bags, among other things. As we sit waiting in the bus, hawkers selling ­pirated CDs, shoes, Bafana ­T-shirts and ­refreshments cause a traffic jam in the aisle. A conductor makes the call and the Passenger Express pulls off ­into the setting sun.

Heads are bowed as two female ­passengers say a brief prayer after being ­invited to do so by the conductor.

Then the conductor makes further ­announcements – each passenger should prepare to pay an ­extra R20, which will go ­towards “sorting out” customs officials at the border.

The conductor moves around collecting R100 from those whose papers are “not right” and those without passports so that a “plan” can be made at the border.

It turns out most aboard the bus either have no passports or their papers are not in order, judging by the number of R100 notes the conductor collects.

The mood on the bus is relaxed and somewhat jovial, though it turns out later that many are making the trip home in fear of a possible xenophobic violence outbreak and are planning to sit out a few weeks in ­Zimbabwe while monitoring the situation back in South Africa.

Among them is a young woman (name withheld on request) carrying a two-week-old baby boy. She decided to head home to Masvingo when news of imminent attacks spread in Diepsloot, where she was living as the World Cup drew to a close. She fears for her and her baby’s life.

Others on board are Zimbabwean citizens involved in cross-border trading.

Joseph sits quietly admiring Zimbabwean music icon Thomas Mapfumo’s music DVD beaming on the three television monitors in the bus. Blessing sits a row behind him cuddling Nyasha and chatting loudly to a group of women discussing the threat of xenophobic violence.

But as the night wears on, the voices on the bus become fewer and quieter, as ­passengers wrap themselves in blankets and wait for sleep to transport them to a world far away from xenophobia, violence and papers that are “not right”.

After a brief stop in Musina, the ­Passenger Express finally pulls up on the South African side of the Beitbridge border post at around 1am. Those with dodgy travel documents and those without any documents are ­advised to remain on the bus as the other ­passengers rush out to join the long queue at customs.

An hour later and we are on the ­Zimbabwean side of the border.

It will be another five hours before we board the bus again after freezing in the early morning cold, waiting outside as ­conductors off-load all the luggage on the trailer and officials painstakingly go through each bag. The whole thing leads one to wonder if that R20 paid to “sort out” the officials was worth it.

The Passenger Express hits the road on to Zimbabwean soil just after 8am on ­Sunday morning. Harare gets closer and closer, but Joseph doesn’t speak much. The chatter ­becomes louder and animated again as the Passenger Express powers through a ­landscape dotted with amazingly beautiful baobab trees and tall grass.

Word has somehow spread in the seat ­behind us that I’m a South African.

“Why do you want to beat up ­Zimbabweans?” a woman asks me politely.

The eyes of all those within earshot are suddenly glued to me. I have no answers. I begin to wonder if a lynching is on the cards.

The woman says: “We just want to work, that’s all. You will see for yourself that things are bad here. We are not like you South Africans. You get houses for free and the government gives you money for having children. Anyway, welcome to Zimbabwe.”

People rock with laughter. The tension melts into the bright morning sun and the discussion about xenophobic violence resumes in earnest.

Someone vows to ­return after two weeks, another will wait a month and yet another promises to watch the news and decide if it is safe to return.

The Passenger Express stops over in Masvingo and Rutenga, where delighted ­passengers run into the arms of waiting ­relatives.

On the A4 from the small stop town of Chivu to Harare, the Passenger Express turns into a roadside fast food outlet.

Passengers, already weary from almost 20 hours of travel and anxious to get to Harare before dark, lay into the driver with a tirade of protests.
One woman yells: “Recess? No! Just drive!”

But the Passenger Express stops anyway. It turns out bus drivers and conductors are given free refreshments each time they stop over here as an incentive for bringing ­customers.

Almost 24 hours after leaving ­Johannesburg, the Passenger Express finally reaches the outskirts of Harare after 4pm.

It has been a long journey, but passengers suddenly seem to have a new lease on life as the bus roars past the townships of Highfield and Mbare.
They rise and lift up bags, some laugh merrily while others hurry down the aisle hoping to be first to set foot on home soil.

For a while, the terror of xenophobic ­attacks seems forgotten. And when the ­Passenger Express suddenly stops at the busy Roadport Luxury Coach terminus in ­downtown Harare, people stampede towards the door.

Harare, home at last.

Joseph smiles broadly. At least here he will not be attacked or threatened simply ­because of his nationality.

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