Globally, Christmas is generally associated with families coming together and breaking bread. In the Christian tradition, this is because of the religious and spiritual significance of the day when Jesus was born.
Secular societies that embraced the tradition use it as a time to come together and reflect on the year that was while planning for the coming year.
However, Christmas has a much deeper significance in southern African countries such as South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Malawi, Namibia, Eswatini, Zambia and Zimbabwe. They all experienced settler colonialism and the discovery of gold in Johannesburg changed their societies for good.
Gold discovery, coupled with hut tax, led to forced migration to the mines in and around Johannesburg. The migrant labour system destroyed families and its effects are still being felt today.
Most people in these countries still take the long trek to Johannesburg in search of greener pastures. At the end of the year they go back to their countries to be with their families.
In this regard, Christmas has a painful yet healing significance in the region. The labour migration patterns have not gone but they have also mutated.
The chaotic scenes that played out recently at the Beitbridge border post and Vhembe river – as the Limpopo is known by the Vavenda, remind us of this painful history. The congestion is an indictment on South Africa, Zimbabwe and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region in general for failing to devise a sustainable framework of easing the pain on those who have to travel, some without passports, risking their lives and limbs.
The untenable humanitarian situation at the Beitbridge border post and the river was also amplified by the SABC’s Phalaphala FM radio station report of people drowning in the Vhembe river on their way to buy Christmas groceries in Musina.
Those caught up in the flooded Vhembe river included undocumented Zimbabweans making their way back home to spend the holidays with their loved ones.
These people, who had already been victims of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, now faced another danger from the flooded river.
In normal times, the Zimbabwean, Malawian and Zambian migrants – marooned on rickety boats, risked being mauled by crocodiles, drowning, being raped or murdered by trafficking gangs along the Vhembe river – bribed their way into Zimbabwe.
However, these are not normal times and the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has meant that a more stringent regime exists on the bridge that links the two countries.
The restrictions and the unusually wet season led to a bitter cocktail for the migrants. They were forced to choose between a perilous journey through the Limpopo or an almost impervious patrolled border post on the bridge.
The unsung heroes in South Africa are the members of the SA National Defence Force. The defence force is generally ridiculed by the populace when the issue of the South Africa/Zimbabwe border is brought up.
This is because the army has the ultimate responsibility of defending the nation’s borders. The porous nature of the border is attributed to the army’s inefficiencies. However, the reality is more complex. When South Africa emerged from apartheid in 1994, and the shoot to kill policy that was common at its borders was abolished, a new defence force emerged.
The reconstituted force has assumed a role of a diplomatic player. However, unlike suited diplomats communicating through cables and notes, the defence force is a master of people to people diplomacy. Having boots on the ground, its members interact with migrants on a daily basis along the Vhembe river.
This co-existence involves facilitating movement or a benign approach to an equally unthreatening movement of people across the countries’ boundaries. One thing the army quickly realised was that much of the migration into South Africa through Beitbridge was circular. It was basically people coming to buy groceries and medicines for their families.
Over time, a relationship of trust and respect has developed between the members and the circular migrants.
It can be rightly argued that this is not the role of the army. And that such a relationship, in a different space and time, may compromise state security and sovereignty. But the its role is one borne of realism. On the contrary, the approach could be credited for the stability between the two neighbours. Most importantly, the army as a diplomatic player, fills a vacuum caused by a paralysed foreign and migration management policy in Pretoria.
The country’s foreign and migration management policy has been caught up in some sort of paralysis. Pretoria’s policy on Zimbabwe vacillates from quiet diplomacy, non-diplomacy to liberation movement-inspired diplomacy.
The common theme of all these diplomatic engagements is that they are elitist. As a result, they serve no purpose to the common person on the street. Pretoria and Harare’s engagements are nothing but nostalgic conversations about revolutions that never were.
To illustrate the elitist nature of Pretoria’s diplomacy on Zimbabwe, when the Harare regime was persecuting democracy activists, South Africa was generally silent.
The ANC sent a delegation that was rejected by Harare. Later, when xenophobic attacks flared up in KwaZulu-Natal and truck drivers were targeted, none of the SADC countries affected, including Zimbabwe, expressed outrage.
The congestion at the Beitbridge border post and the dangerous situations in which migrants from countries north of the Vhembe river found themselves in reflects a deeper national and regional problem.
However, South Africa should take the lead in finding a lasting solution.
In the short-term, an annual two-week amnesty at the Beitbridge border to allow undocumented migrants to exit South Africa, could help. If the economic situation in Zimbabwe prevails, people should be allowed to buy their basic needs in Musina.
The envisaged amnesty should start now, considering that the Vhembe river is flooded and that there is almost no social distancing for those who take the dangerous route across the river.
In the long-term, Pretoria should take diplomatic and political measures that will deepen democracy in Zimbabwe, in a way that safeguards South Africa’s stability and economic interests.
. Azwimpheleli Langalanga is a trade and investment law and policy adviser.