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Botswana-Zimbabwe: Do new fences make good neighbours?
by Rodrick Mukumbira

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Rodrick Mukumbira is a Botswana journalist born in Zimbabwe. His account of recent clashes between both citizens and officials of the two "normally friendly Southern African nations" presents both sides of the dispute. Zimbabweans are fleeing their politically and economically troubled nation in large numbers. The relatively prosperous Botswanans resent this influx as a threat to their livelihoods, especially the possibility of the spread of foot and mouth disease to their cattle, their second largest earner after diamonds. The electrified fence Botswana is building along the border is viewed by one group as a barrier against animals; it is considered an insult to humans by the other.

Bus station fracas

A recent clash at the Gaborone bus station has exposed the growing hostilities between two normally friendly southern African nations, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Witnesses report Botswanans (or Batswana) shouting "We want to kill the Zimbabweans" -- a xenophobic outburst among a usually polite, quiet people who have found themselves overwhelmed by the arrival of large numbers of Zimbabweans every day.

The day after this fracas, the front-page story in the Botswana Guardian drew attention to the fact that it takes a spark to start a fire:

"There were two sides in this war, Zimbabweans and Batswana. Quite naturally, each side had a different story to tell. Christopher Dickson's story (Zimbabwean): 'Five o'clock Tuesday afternoon a Zimbabwean man in taken in by a police officer for drinking alcohol in front of a parked bus. The pair walks away towards Borakalalo Police Station but along the way there are some unpleasant verbal exchanges that result in the police officer getting cross enough to slap the Zim man hard across the face.

"'A scuffle ensued during which Batswana passers-by intervened to assist the officer but the man managed to get away and board a Zimbabwe-bound bus.

"'Three police officers appeared and, assisted by a large mob of Batswana vigilantes, re-arrested the man. The mob was literally baying for the blood of Zimbabweans.

"The mob was literally baying for the blood of Zimbabweans. There were approximately 300 of them, all shouting 'We want to kill the Zimbabweans.'"

"'There were approximately 300 of them, all shouting "We want to kill the Zimbabweans." Soon after the guy was bundled out of the bus, Batswana started hitting him and the police officers just ignored the mob. When other Zimbabweans saw their countryman being brutalised, they came to his rescue. Batswana began throwing stones at Zimbabweans and buses bound for Zimbabwe, and the Zimbabweans retaliated...'

"Seilaneng Keolatlhe, a (Botswanan) vendor at the terminus, confirmed Dickson's account up to the point that the Zimbabwean jumped onto the bus. Keolatlhe, whose vending spot gave her a full view of the incident, said Zimbabweans went berserk when they saw the police officer trying to re-arrest their countryman.

"Around this time, some well-built Zimbabwean bus conductors were, according to Keolatlhe, literally flexing their muscles. 'The Zimbabweans started throwing stones at Batswana who had to defend themselves,' said Keolatlhe."

Official response

A day after the clash, officials from the Botswana Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation met with the Zimbabwean High Commissioner, Phekezela Mphoko, in Selebi-Phikwe, a small mining town in northeastern Botswana. Mphoko said, "It is normal for children from different homes to fight and it is incumbent upon parents to instil discipline and co-operation between their children."

The Zimbabwean diplomat faces growing pressure over claims that his countrymen are being harassed by Botswana's immigration department, the police and the army, and that he must respond. Indeed, Mphoko's predecessor, Zenzo Nsimbi, was recalled in October 2002 after Harare’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused him of being inactive in dealing with the plight of Zimbabweans in Botswana.

Zimbabwean nationals have been making shopping trips to Botswana for almost three decades, but the deteriorating economic situation in their country has attracted thousands, both skilled and unskilled, to Botswana's cities, towns and mines in search of jobs and a higher standard of living.

According to Botswana officials most Zimbabweans enter the country legally using valid visas obtained from the two countries' border posts. When their visas expire, however, they remain in the country evading immigration officials and the police.

"The high costs, stringent conditions and long queues at Zimbabwean passport offices are resulting in more and more Zimbabweans entering Botswana illegally."

Yet tactics are also changing. The high costs, stringent conditions and long queues at Zimbabwean passport offices are resulting in more and more Zimbabweans entering Botswana illegally along secret paths in the dead of night. For Gaborone, this illegal migration is a bone of contention. Indeed, the influx of Zimbabwean nationals is the biggest immigration problem since Botswana's independence from Britain in 1966. In 2002, Botswana repatriated 26,717 illegal Zimbabweans at a cost of US$ 350 000 per month.1

The latest sign of Botwana’s predicament are the mass graves for unclaimed corpses of illegal immigrants. Much publicised in April 2004 was the pauper burial in one day of 27 unclaimed corpses at a cemetery in Francistown, Botswana's second largest city, near the border with Zimbabwe. Sylvia Muzila, the District Administrator of the area, was later quoted in the government-owned Daily News saying that pauper burials for Zimbabweans had become the last resort after authorities in Zimbabwe had failed to repatriate the corpses.

Behind the fracas

While diplomats from the two neighbouring countries say the May bus station incident is minor and isolated, it is nevertheless the arrival of so many Zimbabweans that has created such resentment. As Zimbabwe’s economic problems continue to multiply, caused by the controversial land redistribution programme, drought and poor government policies, it is likely that its nationals will continue to flood Botswana.

Zimbabweans are willing to take on jobs that the citizens of diamond-rich Botswana shun, such as farm labour and domestic work. Moreover, shortages of basic commodities and the strength of the Pula against the Zimbabwean dollar have attracted the more enterprising -- or desperate -- to Botswana, which, alongside South Africa, ranks as the region's most prosperous and stable economy.

The Botswanan situation parallels the xenophobic feelings that arose in South Africa at independence in 1994, when local hawkers and vendors turned on expatriates, attacking them in the streets, accusing them of posing unfair competition and demanding they be deported.

Botswana, with a small population of 1.8 million, feels tiny and vulnerable compared to Zimbabwe's 13 million people. Botswanans are increasingly and openly accusing Zimbabweans of crimes ranging from theft to prostitution and spreading the HIV/AIDS virus. In November 2002, The Mirror newspaper based in Selebi-Phikwe reported that a resident had put up a large banner on his gate, which read, "No Zimbabwean allowed in this yard".

Zimbabweans as scapegoats

Such unconcealed antagonism has not been limited to ordinary people. Politicians have also found the subject irresistible in their attempts to whip up emotions. A number of parliamentarians accuse their northeastern neighbours of taking away jobs at the expense of Botswanans.

A bus station in the White City Suburb of Gaborone, across the road from the Ministry of Finance, is an informal job centre for Zimbabweans seeking employment as housemaids, gardeners and farm workers. From first thing in the morning until dusk, groups of young men and women wait patiently by the roadside hoping to be picked up as casual labourers. This is usually a long and frustrating wait, punctuated by occasional sarcastic comments from passing Botswanan motorists or attempts by the police to enforce anti-loitering laws.

In Tlokweng, a small village east of Gaborone, an upsurge of prostitution and a spate of robberies and burglaries led Botswanan residents to become vigilantes in an effort to expel Zimbabweans.

Botswanan authorities estimate there are up to 100,000 illegal Zimbabweans in the country. Gaborone accuses Ambassador Mphoko of being unaware that many of them are involved in criminal activities and that this has resulted in the upsurge of crime in most of Botswana's urban centres and villages. According to an issue of Daily News in June 2004, the government said that in 2003 alone, 26,214 Zimbabwean nationals were involved in crime in the country and that 681 were being held in Botswana’s prisons.

Botwana is not alone. With the growing emigration of Zimbabweans to neighbouring countries in the region, they are increasingly being stigmatised in countries such as South Africa and Mozambique as well.

Foot and mouth

In addition to crimes such as theft, illegal Zimbabweans have also been blamed for spreading the highly contagious foot and mouth livestock disease (FMD) that broke out in northeastern Botswana along the border with Zimbabwe in January 2003.

Most cattle farmers have not recovered from that outbreak, which saw thousands of cattle being slaughtered, resulting in a loss of jobs and livelihood. Besides diamonds, Botswanans rely on cattle farming for foreign exchange earnings. In 2001, Botswana's beef exports were worth US$72.2 million. But these have been declining since the 2003 detection of FMD in the country. Indeed, after the outbreak, which veterinary authorities clearly attributed to Zimbabweans who entered the country through undesignated points, Botswana lost the International Animal Health Organization's FMD-free status. It was a serious blow to the industry.

Since then, roadblocks manned by police, veterinary and immigration officials have been intensified, especially along routes connecting with the border. These efforts to deter the spread of FMD are in addition to those already established at border posts, where the country's veterinary department ensures that Zimbabweans and their luggage are disinfected from traces of the virulent disease.

The fence

In another, much more controversial effort, Gaborone has been constructing a 500-kilometre electric fence along its northeastern border. This fence, according to Botswanan authorities, is to prevent interaction between the two country’s cattle herds and halt the spread of FMD. Each time Botswanan herds are infected with the disease, export markets for Botswana's successful meat industry are closing, costing the country millions of dollars.

"The Zimbabwean government claims that 'Botswana is trying to create another Gaza Strip.'"

However, these arguments are not accepted in Harare, where the fence has been called Africa's version of Israel's security wall. According to High Commissioner Mphoko, the Zimbabwean government claims that "Botswana is trying to create another Gaza Strip." Indeed, for many in the region, the fence evokes disturbing memories of another electric fence that was erected along the South African border during the apartheid era to stop Mozambican and other desperate refugees from crossing.2

Harare has also found allies in the region's environmentalists, who call the fence a "futile and bizarre move," according to the state-owned daily, The Herald. While other countries in the region are removing fences to create transnational parks and game reserves, such as the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) between South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, Botswana’s new fence will be an obstacle to the free movement and reproduction of wildlife in the zone.

To ordinary Zimbabweans, the 2.4 metre high, 220-volt fence is also seen as a symbol of their growing stigmatisation. They believe the fence is really meant to prevent them from going to Botswana and they are beginning to voice their frustration and to protest the measures taken by their rich, southwestern neighbours. Botswanan immigration officers report increasing acts of sabotage from the Zimbabwean side, including the removal of parts of the fence, according to the daily independent Mmegi newspaper.

In spite of such protests, Botswana has continued building the fence. Over half of it is complete and the government hopes the rest will be finished early next year. It has also continued to insist that the fence is for cattle: it is not shutting its borders to Zimbabwe because visitors can still use designated entry points.

Soured relationship

The electric fence has definitely soured relations between the two countries. At the beginning of the project in 2003, Zimbabwe launched a series of attacks on Botswana questioning its human rights record. The Chronicle, a state-owned daily newspaper in Bulawayo, is at the forefront of these frequent attacks alleging abuse of Zimbabweans by Botswana’s police, army and immigration officials.

At the centre of this human rights controversy is the use of flogging as a mode of punishment for petty crimes at traditional village courts. Zimbabwe accuses Botswana of targeting its nationals for this punishment, but flogging is part Botswana's laws and, as Gaborone puts it, its courts have a mandate to enforce justice in the manner enshrined in its constitution.

Another accusation alleged that Botswana was hosting a Voice of America broadcast station, used to disseminate propaganda against President Robert Mugabe's government. This led to a meeting in Harare between Botswana’s Communication, Science and Information minister, Boyce Sebetela, and his counterpart, Jonathan Moyo, in June 2004. Sebetela promised to investigate the frequency used by the station.

Mugabe has long accused Britain and the US of supporting opposition politics in his country, and says Botswana has allowed the Americans to have an airbase in the country. This allegation is fervently denied by Gaborone, although documented evidence provided for the BBC's Focus On Africa magazine (July-September 2004) by Anneli Botha, a senior researcher on terrorism at the Institute of Security Studies in South Africa, suggests an FBI training institute on intelligence and security in the country.


There is great fear in Botswana that the flood of Zimbabwean immigrants poses a security risk. However, the solution does not lie in tightening the country's immigration laws or relying on an electric fence to fulfil a dual purpose (cattle and people). With no hope in sight for an end to the economic problems in Zimbabwe, its nationals will continue to find ways into Botswana, creating further hostilities.

"The solution would be for the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to play a major role with respect to Zimbabwe."

The solution would be for the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to play a major role with respect to Zimbabwe: to tackle President Robert Mugabe head-on to solve the political impasse between his ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC); to create an atmosphere in which the two parties can collectively solve the problems besieging the nation; to encourage an environment that attracts investors to ease the unemployment rate; and to ensure that Zimbabweans have access to such basics as food, which Mugabe's government has been accused of politicising to benefit his supporters at the expense of the opposition.

If the SADC continues to turn a deaf ear to the economic and political woes in Zimbabwe, it would be unjust to conclude that Botswana should come up with provisions for legitimate refugees from Zimbabwe. In March 2004, Botswana’s foreign affairs minister, Mompati Merafe, was quoted in the Daily News as saying the country’s asylum conditions do not include economic refugees. He was referring to the thousands of Zimbabweans crossing the border.

Zimbabweans are increasingly met with the same attitudes in South Africa and other neighbouring countries, where xenophobia is reported to be on the rise. Most Southern Africans, however, principally question their governments' inability to address the political problems in Zimbabwe.

       1. Figures supplied by Roy Sekogorwane, Chief Immigration Officer of Botswana. The US$350 000 (Pula 1.7 million) per month covered transportation, accommodation, officers and other costs involved.
       2. For details on the apartheid-era fence, see Hugh McCullum, "Wall of razor wire a cruel barrier to freedom", Globe & Mail, January 14, 1992. (Republished in Clyde Sanger, ed., Travels with a Laptop: Canadian Journalists Head South, Ottawa, North-South Institute, pp. 77-80.)

With files from:
       The Botswana Guardian
       The Midweek Sun (Botswana)
       The Voice (Botswana)
       The Mirror (Botswana)
       The Chronicle (Zimbabwe)
       All Africa News Service (Kenya)
       African Business (UK)
       The Ngami Times (Botswana)
       Integrated Regional Information Network
       Agence France Presse
       Kutlwano (Botswana)
       The Botswana Daily News
       BBC's Focus on Africa Magazine
       NewsfromAfrica (Kenya)

Forum Discussion

        "History tells that the Tsar (Russia) would have been saved if his cousin in England had invited him over. Maybe it is not true, maybe it is true, who knows?
        "Your brothers and sisters are facing serious problems, what we need is a proper monitoring system that enables Zimbabweans to come in Botswana and leave when their time is up. What is going on in their country (Zimbabwe) in not their own making, no one wants to leave his/her home for nothing. So be kind, today it is them, who knows where the problem will be tomorrow?
        "We are all Africans,we belong to the same continent. Let us not fight each other. Instead we should give support where necessary and open up forums for discussion. We should also encourage our political leaders to use their position to advise Mugabe."
       — Sandra Miwanda
       Salford, United Kingdom

       "All governments of Africa must hold regular discussions and work to adopt Pan-African laws to reduce all of the factors that lead to clashes and bloodshed. Dictators must be shamed into submission. Democratically elected leaders must also be held accountable to make plans and take action to reduce other factors: poverty, poor health care, hoarding of resources, greed and jealousy.... Otherwise the clashes will go on and on. Peace!"
       — Julie Swan
       New Hampshire, USA

       "As long as civil governance continues to collapse in Zimbabwe and people live in fear of government then the flight will continue and Botswana will be overwhelmed. It is time for SADC to act to end the impasse."
       — Scott Morgan

       "Mass emigration, especially by the poor and desperate, is a sign of failed states. Therefore, what Botswana, and other regional leaders, should be doing is to engage Mugabe fairly and squarely on his failings rather than building a fence along the border. In fact, the future of the region points to more open borders so Botswana should not spend its diamond resources trying to fight the inevitable."
       — Brian Ngoshi
       Harare, Zimbabwe

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Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s) and not do necessarily reflect the views of the AfricaFiles' editors and network members. They are included in our material as a reflection of a diversity of views and a variety of issues. Material written specifically for AfricaFiles may be edited for length, clarity or inaccuracies.

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