Protests turn ugly at Zim-SA border


A warehouse near the Beitbridge border in Zimbabwe burns after it was set on fire by protesters on 1 July 2016.

BEITBRIDGE – Protesters torched a section of the border warehouse in Beitbridge on Friday as they demonstrated against the Zimbabwean government’s decision to “ban” most imports and promote locally manufactured products.

What started as a mere demonstration in the morning turned ugly as the day progressed, following which Beitbridge Border Post had to be shut down – for the first time in over a century.

The situation had been getting tenser with each passing day since the Zimbabwean government announced a blanket “ban” on most import items over a week ago.

On Saturday, the South African Department of Home Affairs said the border was open and calm.

Last week, cross-border traders staged a demonstration at the border after the country’s taxman, the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra), started confiscating their goods before the official ban date.

A Zimra staffer said two warehouses the revenue collector was using had been torched, while information was that a police detail’s house had been stoned as well as a police vehicle.

“They stoned the cop’s house alleging he was troublesome at the border. They allege he would always confiscate their goods each time they crossed the border from South Africa,” the staffer said.

In the melee, over 30 vehicles were set alight, while the town’s major roads were barricaded with burning tyres and huge stones. Riot police were outnumbered but used teargas to disperse the crowds, which stretched for more than a kilometre.

Sources in the border town said heavily armed military personnel had been deployed to assist police quell the growing protests.

Police national spokesperson Senior Assistant Commissioner Charity Charamba confirmed the incident. "Early this morning [Friday], some people on the South African side were barricading roads and denying Zimbabweans entry into that country and exiting,” she claimed.

They were dispersed by the authorities on the South African side. On the Zimbabwean side, the same was also happening, with a number of people being arrested after they started burning tyres. There were reports of a Zimbabwean bus driver being shot by South African police, but that could not be independently verified.

Another source said the situation resembled a war zone as the protesters were fighting running battles with police.

Government last week announced Statutory Instrument (SI 64/2016), which imposes an import permit on most products, thereby putting most cross-border traders out of business. The Beitbridge Cross-Border Transporters’ Association said in a statement police had refused to sanction the demonstration.

“Police in Beitbridge have refused to clear a demonstration planned by residents to protest over the recently introduced ban of importation of a wide range of goods, including groceries and building material, from South Africa without permits,” information and publicity secretary Tapiwa Tabheni said in the statement.

“Beitbridge residents met two days ago and resolved to take to the streets to voice their anger at the move by the government, which is likely to leave thousands of families in the border town without any source of income since survival in the border town is hinged on cross-border activities. Residents have, however, resolved to defy the police and go ahead with the protest.”

Tabheni said the move was not political but a mere reaction by ordinary citizens.

“The Beitbridge Taxi Association (SA), the Mussina Meter Taxi Association, and residents in Mussina have extended an invitation to the Beitbridge Cross-border Transporters’ Association and Beitbridge residents who are being refused their right to protest by the hostile and repressive state machinery (Zimbabwe Republic Police) to join them on the South African side,” the statement said.

It said the association represented more than 500 cross-border transporters in Beitbridge.