Haulage truck drivers take up omalayitsha duties

A kilogramme of smooth peanut butter costs R57,95 across the Limpopo while at home, a 375g bottle of the same product costs R53 (£77) at a retail supermarket rate of 14,3. Nan baby formula costs £889, converted to R778 in local shops while it sells for R173 in South Africa. A 66-pack of Huggies disposable nappies are going for £872, translating to R609, while in South Africa, the same product costs about R379.

The trend applies on a number of other products, which has for a long time, forced many to cross into Musina in South Africa and Francistown in Botswana to buy groceries.

For those that could not travel themselves, omalayitsha (informal cross border transporters) provided a useful service of organising the purchase and delivery of the products for a fee. Many others with family in South Africa would receive groceries, among other products, via omalayitsha who somewhat were like an umbilical cord between Zimbabwe and South Africa. The Covid-19 global pandemic has, however, caused a temporary collapse of this life-saving relationship as both Zimbabwe and South Africa imposed travel restrictions to help slow the spread of the virus.

Due to the lockdowns in both countries, omalayitsha have not been able to move freely, forcing enterprising Zimbabweans to make use of drivers of essential cargo trucks instead. Truck drivers are allowed to cross borders, from which other forms of traffic have been banned, in a move meant to ensure that the country has adequate stocks of essential goods. An initially unusual option for many, cross-border truck drivers have become a saving grace for those that need to save an extra dollar by purchasing goods in South Africa, where they are cheaper.

This has also been necessitated by the extension of the initial 21-day lockdown by 14 days, causing further uncertainty in communities supported by omalayitsha. It remains indeterminate what will become of our borders once the date hits May 3, when the lockdown extension expires. "I've been doing the grocery business for a while now.

It has kept my family going. When the country went on lockdown, it came as a big blow because I couldn't think of any other way to keep things moving at my house," said Mrs Cleo Dube, who sells groceries including diapers, baby formula and other essential goods for babies. She said she used to charge a runner fee of 20 percent of the total bill but because omalayitsha have been grounded due to the lockdown, she was forced to increase her rate to 35 percent.
 
"It's now difficult to send money to South Africa.

Before, it was almost effortless but now it's causing me headaches," said Mrs Dube. The young mother of two explained that she works with someone based in South Africa who does the shopping on her behalf and sends the goods to Zimbabwe. "My guy in South Africa would do the running around for me there.

He would then give omalayitsha the parcel and business would go on. But all that came crumbling down due to the lockdown so we really had to think outside the box," she said. "We would starve if I didn't do this," she added.

Mrs Dube said when President Mnangagwa announced the 21-day lockdown, they were grounded for two weeks before discovering the haulage truck drivers' route.

"Now, I send money to my guy via an agent. He does the shopping and gives the truck driver the goods.

The truck driver then delivers the goods to me," she said. Large retail outlets bringing in goods into the country in bulk enlist the services of haulage truck companies. The cross-border truck drivers have established a niche to make extra money by transporting goods for hustlers like Mrs Dube.

"It's a simple transaction if you look at it. I need the extra money and I don't see how I'm putting anyone's life in danger by doing this. People get their groceries cheaper and I make an extra dollar in the process.

It's a win-win situation really," said a cross-border truck driver who could only be identified as Maroza. Maroza said while there may be delays in processing the transaction, it gets done. "Remember I already will be transporting other goods for a bigger client, so I do that first. The runner in South Africa is usually on standby to give me the groceries once I'm ready to drive back to Zimbabwe," he said.

The essential cargo driver said he does not declare the goods at the border as they are clouded by his bigger consignment. "There's no reason for us to look for the legalities of all this. The most important thing is that the ordinary Zimbabwean gets what they want.

I've so far been doing smooth transactions. I guess it will only be good for as long as it can," conceded Maroza who acknowledges his new found side hustle will only be lucrative temporarily. Mrs Sithokozile Nkiwane, who is supported by a daughter based in South Africa said she had over the years depended on omalayitsha to deliver groceries from her daughter.

"They have served me well over the years. When we got news of the lockdown, we were not ready. Actually, no one was ready.

It was actually at the end of the month when the lockdown was announced so we didn't really have the opportunity to stock up on groceries. I'm just glad we're not out of options because some of us depend on our children in South Africa for sustenance," she said. Mrs Nkiwane said she was relieved to discover people like Mrs Dube who have offered relief during trying times.

"I look after my 14-month-old grandson and he needs diapers and formula which I can't access locally.

Diapers (Pampers) and formula (S-26) are usually very expensive or unavailable in our local supermarkets," she said.

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