eSwatini is a small country. At 17 400 square kilometres, it is smaller than the Kruger National Park. The kingdom’s economy, outside of the sugar cane industry and forestry, is heavily dependent on its able and sometimes generous neighbour. Of the about 1.2 million citizens, only a few are gainfully employed. As some slave away in factories owned by the Taiwanese, many go searching for bread in South Africa. A small fraction marches through the 11 entry points with passports and permits, while the rest jump over fences (usually with the tacit permission of soldiers on both sides of the border). For decades, this has been the way of things. Then came the plague.
On the night of 15 March, as Covid-19 seeped into the republic, President Cyril Ramaphosa went on television and, among other things, announced a hard lockdown. Almost all entry points on land and at sea would be closed on Thursday 19 March, he said. Only essential services and goods would be allowed through. Fearing that the virus would spread rapidly in South African cities, many scuttled off to their rural and township abodes, in Venda, Pondoland, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and many other places. eSwatini citizens set off for home too. Now, in level 3 of the lockdown, even as South Africans can travel across provinces for certain purposes such as work, school and medical treatment, many in the tiny kingdom are peering through the closed gates, begging to be let in.
Patrick Zulu*, 55, from Motjane in northwestern eSwatini, is a scholar transport driver in Hendrina, Mpumalanga. When the Department of Basic Education closed schools, there was nothing for him to do but idle about. So, on 14 March, he went home to his family. “When Cyril got on the TV to talk about corona, I had long left,” he says. “Everybody was going home, and there was nothing to do but sit and watch the news and worry.”
Motjane is in the highveld, about 4km from the Ngwenya Border Post. It is maize and pumpkin country, and Zulu could not have returned at a better time. His family regaled him with green mealies, boiled. Many a night during March and April he sat in front of the fire with neighbours and roasted the staple crop. Then autumn came. With slashes and sickles they went about harvesting. “In April and May, I got no pay,” he says. “But I hardly noticed because my harvest is good this year. And I am lucky my wife is working.”
Then, on 8 June, the grade 12 class returned to school. Drivers had to return too. “Man, I drive in South Africa but I am not from there. I can’t go to the border gate people and say let me in, I want to return to work. No, man.”
Zulu says he needed the money, so he thought of a plan. “I grew up herding cattle by this border. I know it. I know where the soldiers don’t go.” At dawn, he walked on the crunching frost for 4km until he reached a safe spot on the boundary fence and then crossed. And, because he had been warned of a roadblock at Beeskop Police Station on the N17, he walked on a gravel road towards Glenmore until he bypassed it. By the time he got back on the road again, he says, it was nearing evening. “Luckily, I got to work,” he says. “And I come back [the] same way.”
Paying rent for an empty flat
Qondile Mtetwa, a masters student at the University of Pretoria, has been home since March. She and her brother, also a student, share a flat in Hatfield. When the university closed and Ramaphosa subsequently announced the lockdown, students left Pretoria in droves and returned home. Mtetwa left too, hoping, like many others, that this would be but a temporary situation. Her mother, responsible for their upkeep and fees, continued to pay rent until June.
“Then we wrote a letter to The Fields [their landlord], asking for a break from paying… But we have not received word from them yet. We do not know if their silence means we will no longer pay or we’ll face a mountain of rent debt upon our return,” says Mtetwa. “We’d like to return but can’t because of the border situation.”
It is not just workers and students who have been dealt a bad hand by the closure of border gates. Cross-border taxi owners and drivers have not earned a cent since the entry points into South Africa were closed on 19 March.
“This thing [border closures] has finished us,” says Enoch Dlamini of the Swaziland Interstate Transport Association (Sita). “Those of us paying instalments on the vehicles have seen the worst of it. I won’t even begin to demonstrate to you just how much drivers have suffered from this. These are men with families. They are at home, without any income.”
Dlamini told New Frame that Sita has 94 owners as members, and even more drivers. They ferry passengers from Manzini and Mbabane to major South African towns in Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, North West and Gauteng.
When the association approached the eSwatini government for help, it received none, Dlamini says. It was the South African government that had closed borders and, as such, the kingdom’s government could not help, the association was told.
The Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Trade in eSwatini did not respond to New Frame’s questions.
Simangele Mabuza, a trader at the Mbabane Handicraft Market, says she no longer has wares to sell. She was last in Durban to get stock on 14 March. “I need to return to eThekwini and get beads. We have run out. And it is one of a few things that we sell right now.” With a sweeping gesture of the hand, she points at her stall, carefully wrapped in plastic covers. “We usually sell these wares to tourists, most of them from South Africa. But there are no tourists now. The little that we could sell right now is in eThekwini. And even if we can get permits to cross the border from [the department of] commerce, we still won’t have transport.”
Mabuza says the Mbabane municipality, working with the department of commerce, has however approached them about a grant. She says they are awaiting interviews in the coming days. “I hear we might get E3 000 [R3 000]. It is too small an amount, but better than zero.”
Mining industry has its way
However, eSwatini citizens who earn their dime digging up South Africa’s minerals are in luck. The country’s mining industry has flexed its muscle and managed to bring back some of its workers from Mozambique, Lesotho and eSwatini. By 15 July, over 186 miners had passed through the Ngwenya-Oshoek Border Post. Teba Limited – a company over a century old, formed for the recruitment of cheap labour throughout southern Africa and formerly known as the Native Recruiting Corporation – is taking part in facilitating these workers’ return, led by the Minerals Council South Africa. On 29 July, an undisclosed number of Harmony Gold miners returned to South Africa through Oshoek.
Teba Limited in Mbabane was asked about miners’ return to South Africa, but would not comment without approval from the Johannesburg head office.
The eSwatini Ministry of Home Affairs says the government does not yet know when border gates will reopen. The country’s different departments, including that of immigration and health, remain in talks with their South African counterparts.
“At present, the government is working tirelessly to strategically open certain sectors of the economy to balance livelihoods and the economy. This also includes the opening of border posts for emaSwati working in SA, business people, students, etc. At the appropriate time, borders will be open for everyone after acute information has been gathered to inform such a decision,” said Mlandvo Dlamini, communications officer for the eSwatini government’s home affairs department.
Meanwhile, Covid-19 cases are on the rise in eSwatini. At the time of publishing, 3 309 people had tested positive and 61 had died. The numbers are rapidly increasing. The country, then, is fast becoming a hotspot. South Africa’s metropolitan areas are in bad shape too. In Gauteng alone, where most eSwatini citizens stay and work, over 2 500 people have died from Covid-19 linked illnesses. In light of this, it may be a long time before border gates are flung open.
*Not their real name