Travelling by bus from Malawi to Johannesburg, South Africa can be both adventurous and frustrating. For the past eight or so months Malawian small-scale cross border traders have been talking of more frustrations than joys.
Having heard different versions of stories from relatives and friends who frequent the "land of opportunity" for business, I decided to be a little adventurous and two weeks ago bought a return ticket to Johannesburg. We left Lilongwe on a chilly Saturday morning. The coach was almost filled to capacity. We were at Dedza border post before 8.30am.
"Please, let us quickly get out and have the passports stamped," the steward announced. Within minutes we formed a queue at the tiny immigration office on the Malawi side.
"Don't be in a rush otherwise things will not work for you," I heard someone whisper to his colleague.
We entered the room. A man in front of me presented his passport to the immigration officer. Within seconds the officer threw the passport back to him. "You were told not to use this passport again and you have brought it back," he said, ordering him to get out.
"Sir, please stamp it," the man tried in vain to plead with the officer who had extended his hand to get my passport. I nearly approached the man outside the office to find out what had gone wrong with the passport. But the situation did not allow. Minutes later I saw him place a few bank notes in the passport and got back onto the queue.
I was the first passenger to enter the Mozambican immigration office on the other side of the border. With confidence I presented my passport to a dark, fat officer. He looked at me and then opened the passport. He closed it and said with a straight face: "One thousand five hundred Kwacha." "For what?" I asked.
He tossed the passport back at me without saying a thing.was lost for words. I looked around and realized the other passengers had not started entering the room. I stared at him, dumb founded. "Where are you going?" he asked me in Chichewa. "South Africa."
"And you think you can go to South Africa without spending any money on the way," he said.
"Give me the money." I searched my pockets. I had K700 only. A new K500 and an old K200 note, respectively.
"That's too little my friend," the officer said when I offered him the money. I pulled out a 20 Rand note from my wallet, collected the K700 and gave him the South African money.
"Give me that as well. This is not enough," he collected both currencies and my passport got stamped.
Almost half the passengers paid. Some of them had inserted the money in the passport on their own and the officer simply pocketed the money and stamped the passport without saying a thing.
"When you are traveling to South Africa or Zimbabwe, make sure you have a lot of small notes for bribes along the way. Don't argue with the police or immigration officers," a frequent cross border trader advised me outside the office.
When we got into the coach, on the Mozambican side, another passenger came panting from the Malawi side of the border. "Sir," he said to the driver. "The police officers are refusing to give me my passport and 3000 Rand."
Only Malawian passport holders are supposed to have a minimum of 3000 Rand cash and proof that the money was obtained from a bank or forex bureau to enter South Africa. Those who have the cash but without an authentic supporting document are told to pay a bribe.
"They want you to give them K1,500," the driver advised the passenger, who honestly admitted he bought the Rand from the black market. Eventually we left the border post. The man who was in front of me at the Malawi immigration office also managed to have his passport stamped. The Mozambican police stopped us after crossing the Zambezi River, for a random passport check. Then we had a tyre puncture two hours later.
We arrived at Cuchamano border post, the exit of Mozambique, a few minutes before 6pm and similar events unfolded. I felt sorry for some passengers who were told in the face to pay 50 Rand to board the coach after they had paid another 50 Rand to have the passport stamped by the immigration officer for lack of a bank certificate to support the 3000 Rand they showed.
"Ndipatse 50 iwe. Utsikatu basi (give me 50 Rand or you will not board the coach)," demanded a police officer who was checking our passports as we got back into the coach after immigration procedures. We found two other buses at Nyamapanda border post, Zimbabwe. However, the process there was faster.
"Anyone who knows has issues should keep 50 Rand before entering that door," an officer kept announcing to new arrivals. We travelled throughout the night and by 6am the following day we had hit Beit Bridge, South Africa.
A tall razor-wire fence on both sides of the road linking South Africa and Zimbabwe was manifestation we were entering a land whose owners strictly prohibit illegal immigrants. But the two hours I spent there revealed that there are people who still pass the border without proper travel documents. If our political leaders think human trafficking is a fallacy, then they have another thing coming.
Like OR Tambo International airport in Johannesburg, Beit Bridge border post is equally busy round the clock. In the heat of the hustle and bustle many things happen. Besides the cross border traders there are also job seekers.
Many of the job seekers, I learnt, usually do not prepare well for the trip. Either they have the 3000 Rand but without the bank document. Or they have less than 3000 Rand. As a result they pay K1,500 at the Malawi border post and 50 Rand at each subsequent border post. Sometimes they pay more.
"I refused to pay 50 Rand at Beit Bridge and I asked the officer in charge to intervene," said Mahommed Rajabu, a businessman from Mangochi, who shared a seat with me on the return trip three days later.
Rajabu had an equivalent of US$2,000 in a cash passport and a bank slip. But an immigration officer still insisted that he was supposed to show 300 Rand cash or give him 50 Rand to stamp the passport. Each bank note was marked to prevent us from passing on the same money to others.
"If this is not your money then I am afraid the owner will not present it here again," a female officer who stamped my passport cautioned me.
Issues of immigration in the country fall under the Ministry of Home Affairs. However, Home Affairs Minister Uladi Mussa said he was not aware Malawian passport holders are required to have 3000 Rand to enter South Africa.
"Ministry of Foreign Affairs should know why that is the ase," he said when contacted to clarify why only Malawi faces this requirement. Both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and South African High Commission in Lilongwe could not comment on the matter.
Hassles lessened on the return trip. We arrived at Beit Bridge in the evening and only one passenger failed to cross the border. He had overstayed in South Africa. His passport had also expired.
"We told him what to do but he didn't want to listen. He could have crossed the border," said another Malawian returnee.
I was surprised the following morning to hear of another returnee who had overstayed in Jo'burg having been fined at Cuchamano, Mozambique yet he was only in transit. No receipt was issued.
Actually, when the coaches get to Cuchamano passengers are warned against changing money there. Most of the young men who sell different currencies are said to be tricksters.
When a passenger complains to the police, they either arrest the complainant for illegal transaction or they tell the passenger to be more careful next time. A young man leaned against the Mozambican flag pole as we were waiting for others outside the immigration office. He got arrested.
"The police man told me to take off my shoes and follow him into a room. I knew I would be locked up and gave him 100 Rand," he reported.
President Joyce Banda has repeatedly said that she wants to see more Malawians venturing into businesses and that her administration would create a conducive environment for such "kutakata". But this may remain political rhetoric if what happens at the border is anything to go by.
The business people develop fever the moment they arrive at Malawi border on the return trip. Not because they do not want to return home. But because of how Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) officers calculate tax.
"Some of us continue going to South Africa to buy goods because we have no other option.But the taxes we pay are not realistic most of the time," lamented Rajabu adding that for over a year Malawian business people are not allowed to claim VAT refund from South Africa as they return.
"We have to pay duty in Malawi first, get a certificate from MRA and go back to South Africa to claim the VAT refund," he explained.
A Lilongwe based business man who refused to be named said at Dedza border that sometimes the vendors are forced to present forged receipts and invoices to try to avoid heavy taxes.
"You can go bankrupt if you try to be honest," he added.
We arrived at Dedza border post around 3pm and left six hours later as some vendors and MRA officers kept arguing over the real value of the good declared.
"Inu mukufuna amayi azilamula alibe ndalama (do you want the president to rule without money)," remarked a female MRA officer when some vendors complained they had been overcharged.