Before the borders closed, Michele, 31, earned a modest income buying clothes and electronics in South Africa and reselling them for a profit across the border in Zimbabwe. But when the pandemic halted most traffic between the two countries, she said, her income dried up and she had to try “other ways to make a living”.
Thousands of other cross-border traders in Southern Africa face the same dilemma. For decades, this informal trading network has provided stable work for people, mostly women, in the border areas of the region. The United Nations has estimated that the industry accounts for 40% of the $17 billion trade market between the 16 countries of the Southern African Development Community. But the pandemic has brought down this essential economic pillar for communities where job opportunities are slim and access to COVID-19 vaccines is limited, triggering a financial downturn with no end in sight.
Almost 70% of traders in Zimbabwe are women, according to the UN, and they have had to find other sources of income. Some have tried to buy and sell goods on the domestic market, for less profit. Some have teamed up with smugglers who sneak across the border to transport goods, taking some of the revenue. Some, like Michele, started selling sex, pension and companionship to truckers blocked in town for weeks due to shipping delays, COVID testing bottlenecks and confusion surrounding changing government policies.
A trucker stayed with Michele in his small home in Beitbridge, Zimbabwe, for two weeks while waiting for permission to get back on the road to transport goods to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a 15-hour drive away. She prepares meals and a hot bath for him every day.
“C’est la vie – what can we do?” said Michele, who requested partial anonymity because she did not want to go public with her current work situation. “I don’t want to anticipate. I work with what I have at the moment. »
Beitbridge, a trucking hub with a busy port along the Limpopo River, and other border towns have long offered opportunities for upward mobility through a vibrant transnational trade network, which has infusion South Africa’s currency, the rand, whose value has been more stable than the Zimbabwean dollar weakened by years of hyperinflation. But with this limited commercial network, the economic engine of these communities is running out of steam.
“The virus and the resulting lockdown happened so quickly that women didn’t have enough time to prepare for possible economic repercussions,” said Ernest Chirume, researcher and member of the Faculty of Science. Human and Social Studies from the Catholic University of Zimbabwe, which wrote a paper on the effects of COVID-19 on informal traders.
Before the borders closed, Marian Siziba, 40, bought large appliances such as fridges, four-plate cookers and solar panels from South Africa to resell to small shops in downtown Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city. For months, she was able to make ends meet through her service of selling foreign exchange and making small loans, providing her with a trickle of payments from clients with outstanding debts. Lately, however, many of his clients have been unable to pay their dues.
Before the coronavirus, “we had already gotten used to economic hardship,” she said. “Only now it’s worse because we can’t work.”
Fadzai Nyamande-Pangeti, spokesperson for Zimbabwe’s International Organization for Migration, noted that the pandemic has hit informal cross-border trade harder than other sectors. But in the absence of government assistance, financial setbacks that once seemed temporary for Michele, Siziba and other cross-border traders now seem indefinite.
Transportation challenges have deepened wealth inequalities. Either people have the means to circumvent border restrictions or they don’t.
Nyasha Chakanyuka runs a popular clothing store in Bulawayo and said road closures haven’t hampered her sales as she has long relied on air travel, which most traders who spoke to BuzzFeed News said. that they couldn’t afford. In fact, the situation presented her with an opportunity to expand her business: she bought stock wholesale in other countries and sold goods to traders unable to get out of Zimbabwe.
Others have turned to carriers that illegally cross the land border. “You can give money to someone you trust to buy goods for you in South Africa, but that requires extraordinary trust because the risks are obvious,” Siziba said.
Those who cannot afford to pay others to move their goods for them have had to find other ways to make ends meet while waiting for a return to the status quo.
Adjusting to the new circumstances, Getrude Mwale, a trader in Bulawayo and mother of five, started selling clothes from the doorstep of her home, although business was so slow it took her a year to empty. the inventory she was once able to clear in a month.
“Selling from doorstep means you only sell to people who know you in the neighborhood,” Mwale said. “It hasn’t been easy.”
Before the pandemic, Sarudzai, who is 33 and requested partial anonymity to keep her professional status private, traveled all the way to Malawi to buy children’s clothes which she sold at a flea market in Masvingo, in Zimbabwe, earning the equivalent of thousands of US dollars each. year.
When the pandemic hit, she suddenly had piles of shirts, pants and socks in her house, but no one to sell to. With her business stalled, she decided to move to Beitbridge.
She sells samosas, fries and soft drinks, but much of her income comes from transactional relationships selling sex and companionship to truckers who stay with her in the one-room wooden house she rents. . She now earns enough money to send her two children back to school in Masvingo, where they stay, nearly 200 miles from their mother.
“I always knew that truckers had money, that’s why I succeeded here,” she says.
The Pulitzer Center helped support the reporting of this story.