III Along and beyond the border

Lived experiences of cross-border traders: the case of Kariba

Joshua Matanzima


This chapter focuses on cross-border trading occurring along the Zimbabwe-Zambia border (specifically at the Kariba border post), in north-western Zimbabwe. It examines the everyday experiences of traders from Kariba town, the majority of whom arc women. In doing so, it focuses on the challenges, which these traders face as well as the coping strategics they pursue in their daily trading activities in trying to ensure some level of profitability of their economic activities. Notably, these traders encounter a series of problems each time they commute and cross the border into Siavonga (in Zambia) for trading, as well as along each stage of the trading process, from purchasing their goods to selling them.

The major socio-economic challenges noted by the traders are classified into four categories in terms of stages in the trading cycle. Firstly, there arc issues they face in Kariba town that includes the shortage of commodities, cash shortages and high inflation rates. Secondly, there are problems existing at the border which includes harassment from Immigration Officers and exorbitant customs duty fees. Thirdly, there arc problems they experience when they arc in Zambia selling their goods, such as intimidation by Zambian police officers and lack of proper marketing centres. Lastly, there are further hassles when returning home from Zambia. Such challenges throughout the entire trading cycle, as also shown in a study of Namibian cross-border traders (Zata 2016), arc bound to complicate the lives and livelihoods of traders, as each stage in the cycle has a knock-on effect on subsequent stages. In terms of responding to these problems and coping with them, the Kariba traders often turn these adversities into opportunities; constantly finding solutions and ways of dealing with their problems, such as engaging in smuggling and other illegal activities. Thus, cross-border trading continues to thrive, despite the numerous obstacles which act as barriers to the trading cycle (Chikanda and Tawodzera 2017).


Cross-border trade can be generally defined as an economic practice of buying commodities in one country and selling them in another country. It involves the flow of products from one country into another, where they arc often in high demand, potentially bringing about high returns (and profits). Operations of these traders arc at times, if not normally, informal in character and the commodities involved are usually small in size (Dhliwayo 2017).

However, cross-border traders make a major contribution to the growth of economics in Southern Africa (Chiliya ct al. 2012; Dhliwayo 2017; Gumpo 2012; Muruviwa and Dube 2016). For instance, in the case of Zimbabwe, cross-border traders played a key role in supplying basic necessities, such as soap, cooking oil and flour, when these goods were unavailable in formal stores at the height of the Zimbabwean crisis in 2008 (Bamu 2017). In fact, since then, traders continue to play this role. As well, cross-border trading is a major source of livelihoods for many poor people, especially women (Chiliya ct al. 2012). As Muzvidziwa argues, it is a “strategy for climbing out of poverty” (Muzvidziwa 1998:30). In this way, cross-border trading accords people with an income which in turn contributes to household food security, access to education, and sometimes asset accumulation (Gumpo 2012).

A significant rise in Zimbabwean cross-border trading took place in the second half of the 1990s because of the neo-libcral macro-economic programme known as the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme. However, cross-border trading received a further impetus after the year 2000, in large part because of the adverse economic effects of the Zimbabwean state’s Fast-Track Land Reform Programme (Chikanda and Tawodzera 2017; Kachere 2017; Muruviwa and Dube 2016). Fast track had devastating consequences for the Zimbabwean national economy, leading to deindustrialisation and the significant loss of formal employment, which pushed people into the informal economy, including by way of cross-border trading. Hence, as a result of economic deterioration and widespread unemployment, cross-border trading has become a survival strategy (Kachere 2017).

Historically, for Zimbabwe and indeed elsewhere, cross-border trading has to be understood with reference to processes of continuity and change from the colonial to the post-colonial period. In this context, cross-border trading in Zimbabwe can be traced back to the colonial period, as it is argued that “modem [post-colonial] cross-border trading evolved in the context of the colonial boundaries which introduced new formalities and restrictions on the movement of people and goods across the borders” (Bamu 2017:130). Early reports of significant levels of informal cross-border trade date as far back as the 1970s, when women (in then Rhodesia) travelled to neighbouring countries, including South Africa and Zambia (Bamu 2017). However, cross-border movements of different people, for trading and other purposes, were happening long before then (Mlambo 2017), including between colonial Zimbabwe and colonial Zambia and colonial Zimbabwe and colonial Mozambique.

During colonialism, women tended to dominate cross-border trading, due to the socio-economic and patriarchal policies and practices of the colonial governments which confined women to the private spheres, with formal employment in the public spheres and productive sectors restricted largely to men (Bamu 2017). Women engaged in cross-border trade to supplement the wages of their husbands who were also underpaid by white colonial capital. In the postindependence dispensation, the government of Zimbabwe initially supported cross-border traders in different ways, as they were seen as a major contributor to the economy of the country as well as urban livelihoods. For example, during the 1990s, when the economy was crippled by the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme, “the government used to run programmes of supporting cross-border traders by providing the local state-owned ZUPCO buses in all provinces in the 1990s” (Mupoto 2010:475). No such support has existed in the post-2000 period. As Mupoto (2010) adds: “As the Zimbabwean crisis intensified in 2002, the programme was stopped owing to financial upheavals” (Mupoto 2010:475).

While cross-border trading in Zimbabwe has been dominated by people living in the immediate vicinities of the borders, it has also attracted people from towns further away from the borders. Pophiwa (2017) notes, for instance, that people living some distance away from the Mozambique-Zimbabwe border, traded across the border. Coming from towns in Zimbabwe, such as Bulawayo, Gwcru and Harare, they would cross the Mozambican border to sell goods as well as to buy clothes, soap and cooking oil for resale in Zimbabwe. In doing so, they would resort to border jumping (illegal border crossings) since they did not have official identification documentation and visas in many cases. The Zimbabwe-Mozambique border, just like other borders (including Zambia and South Africa), proved crucial during the so-called crisis decade in Zimbabwe between 2000 and 2010, when many basic commodities were in short supply. Even those not trading commuted across borders for such goods as bakayawo (dried) fish, cooking oil and rice (Daimon 2016). Currently, under the presidency of Emmerson Mnangagwa, cross-border trading is nourishing because of the systemic economic crisis, including shortages of cash, unemployment and high inflation rates.

The existence of women as cross-borders in Zimbabwe has led to the emergence of specific discourses about the character of these women. Studies indicate that these women have been subjected to serious stereotypes from different quarters. During the 1980s and later in the 1990s when cross-border trading increased significantly, women traders were labelled as prostitutes and witches in the media (Muzvidziwa 1998). With regards to witchcraft, for example, news reports linked cross-border trading to the sale of human parts as “muti” (i.e. medicine) used to bring luck to amass wealth in South Africa. Though repeated stories of this kind were later reported to be baseless, they managed to fan that fear and hatred of women cross-border traders as anti-social humans, including in cities, such as Masvingo, Harare, Mutarc and Bulawayo (Muzvidziwa 1998). In the case of the Kariba women traders, I never came across the accusation that they were witches. But they arc regularly labelled as prostitutes and carriers of diseases from one country to another. Such stereotypes, particularly the claim about their involvement in sex work, has led to some men denying their wives the opportunity of engaging in trading across the Zimbabwe-Zambia border.

Research methods

The study employed a qualitative research paradigm which sought a grounded understanding of the everyday narratives and practices of mainly female traders. The use of in-depth interviews, participant observation and documentary analysis provided important insights into the lived experiences of these cross-border traders. The research was conducted from January to December 2019 in Kariba.

I was living in Kariba town and interacting with the traders during the research period. In addition to that, I was born and grew up in Kariba, and I had developed close relationships with many of the traders. This largely helped me to obtain rapport from my informants. Establishment of rapport was particularly important during the time period of this research, when the political climate and atmosphere in Zimbabwe was very unstable; coupled with street protests and demonstrations, and the brutal police and army clamp down of these. Making any negative comment about the ZANU-PF government would lead to incarceration or state-sponsored abductions and, for such reasons, people had reservations regarding their participation in any form of interview sessions, let alone being recorded.

In the end, though, 25 semi-structured interviews were conducted in Nyam-hunga suburb in Kariba town, including 5 men and 20 women actively involved in trading at the time of the research. This gender distribution reflects the fact that the vast majority of Kariba traders arc women. Purposive sampling was used in identifying the traders. The duration of each interview was 45 -60 minutes per informant. The study also employed participant observation. In July 2019,1 visited Siavonga which is a town in Zambia where most of the traders sell their products. The aim was to observe the experiences and challenges encountered by the cross-border traders in travelling across the border, in Siavonga town and the journey back across the border to Kariba. In Siavonga, my observation concentrated on two markets: one where traders sell fish and the other one locally known as “green house” where they sell other products, such as bread, bananas and cooking oil. Furthermore, at different occasions, I witnessed traders buying commodities in local shops in Kariba that they were then going to sell in Zambia, as they were easily recognised by the trolleys of groceries they were seen pushing.

Cross-border trade: reasons and benefits

Though cross-border traders are often only in survivalist mode, their intention is certainly to generate and maximise profit (Gumpo 2012; Daimon 2016; Moyo 2017). As Pcbcrdy (2000:207) found, cross-border traders often cite survival as the key motive behind their involvement, making comments, such as “I need to survive”, “my mother needs help”, “to earn a living” and “it is just a means for survival”. One of the Kariba traders thus argued that, “when we go to Siavonga on a daily basis, we arc looking for survival. We sell our products in Siavonga because profits arc more in Zambia than in Zimbabwe”. This is not to deny that those participating in cross-border trading may have other hidden motives as well,

Lived experiences of cross-border traders 147 such as using their regular movement across-bordcrs as a way of masking illegal activities.

Through their cross-border activities, both men and women traders seek to build important social networks (in both the countries of origin and destination) as a basis for enhancing trading activities. Commenting on the value of social networks in cross-border trading, one young male trader indicated that: “Due to the friends I have created in Siavonga, my business is going on well. I do not even stay the whole day in Zambia as other traders do. I just supply my friends. I cross the border early in the morning and by 10 a.m. I will be back at home”. This illustrates the likely disparities between traders regarding time spent in Zambia, as well as the effort involving in selling their goods. Though some literature indicates that traders also use these networks as avenues to venture into other opportunities (such as employment and other business opportunities) (Muzvidziwa 2001), this was not readily apparent amongst the Kariba traders.

In obtaining some level of profit, the traders arc able to ensure that the basic needs of their households in Kariba are financed, including funding their school children’s education, food, rentals and bills, amongst other items of consumption. Some traders highlighted that even after paying for basic needs, they arc left with savings. One female trader from Nyamhunga mentioned that: “I am obtaining good profits from this business. The money I obtain I use to buy food and cover my bills ... I save the remainder”. She went on to highlight that she also used the time in Zambia to buy food for personal consumption (such as soya mince) at home in Kariba, because foodstuffs are cheaper and more readily available in Zambia when compared to Zimbabwe. It is because of these benefits (and other opportunities) made possible by cross-border trading that people show resilience and continue with their trading activities despite all the challenges involved, as discussed later.

The benefits and opportunities associated with cross-border trading can also be understood from a gendered perspective. In a changing economic situation such as that in Zimbabwe, the gender roles of men and women are being redefined, resulting in marked changes in gender relations. Below, I narrate a case of one family (from my field notes) in which the wife is playing a significant role in sustaining the family in Nyamhunga suburb in Kariba:

Husband and wife have three children. The husband is unemployed since 2017. Since then it is the wife who is a bread winner. The wife goes to Zambia every day for trade so that she can sustain the family. The husband spends the whole day sleeping and sometimes he is unavailable at home. . . . The family is solely relying on the wife’s income from cross-border trading.

Married women are forced by dire circumstances to participate increasingly in the public economic sphere to augment dwindling salaries earned by their husbands (Muruviwa and Dube 2016). The dwindling opportunities for formal employment amongst men, given the massive unemployment rate in the country, almost compel wives to escape - at least temporally - from the domestic sphere by engagingin trading. Whether this has led to changes in the gendered decision-making processes within households remains unclear. But men themselves also experience the necessity of entering the informal economy for purposes of household survival. One male trader explained why and how he joined cross-border trading, in the following words: “I started going to Zambia at the end of May 2019. The reason why I started going to Zambia is because things were no longer viable in the graphic and design business that I was doing. As a bread winner I had to look for more lucrative business to do”.

Challenges of sourcing products to trade

The traders encounter a scries of challenges in seeking to acquire commodities in Kariba town to trade across the border in Siavonga. These challenges need to be understood with reference to the ongoing and deep economic crisis characterising contemporary Zimbabwe, as the crisis directly impacts on the sourcing of products, such as fish, bread, bananas, tomatoes and peanut butter. The traders tend to specialise in a few products, and this is often based on market demands in Siavonga. Explaining why she specialises in fish, one female trader stated that:

I specialise in fish because fish is not seasonal. They arc on demand throughout the year and they are also caught throughout the year. To obtain profits, one must cross the border with more kilogrammes such as three buckets i.e. 30 kilogrammes. Other products such as bananas and bread they take time to sell, so no wonder why I do not specialise in these products.

This trader’s sentiment was also echoed by other Kariba traders. Some specialised in bananas and often mentioned the advantages of bananas over fish. One woman mentioned that: “I sell bananas because they do not require huge amounts of capital compared to fish. I do not have sufficient money to buy fish, so I rely mainly on bananas and, out of these bananas, I make profits. Usually I spend 2 days in Zambia”. Though bananas took time to sell and there was stiff competition between traders in selling them, this trader still found advantages given the low capital base required to purchase the bananas. If possible, though, as in the case of the fish seller, traders often seek to develop their own niche market across the border in Zambia.

One major challenge these traders face is acquiring commodities, or what they label as “stuff”, to trade in Zambia. The fact that cross-border trading has become a crucial option for so many struggling Zimbabweans, including those living in Kariba, means that sourcing commodities to sell (in this study, in Zambia) has become increasingly difficult because of the high demand for supplies. For example, around June to July 2019, fish was in high demand not only due to the general increase in the number of traders, but also because it was winter season when fish catches drop due to weather conditions. These lower catches have far-reaching consequences. As articulated by one woman, “the scarcity of fish resulted in the increase in its price which further affected its profitability when selling it in

Zambia. Some people who had focused on fish trading looked for other options -like selling vegetables - that were not as profitable as fish trading”. Due to the scarcity of certain commodities, some traders would not follow their everyday routine of crossing the border for trading, and this significantly impacted on the profitability of their trading business. By staying several days at home at a stretch, traders would have to draw on their savings for purposes of household consumption. I interviewed some women who, after spending time at home, could take up to a week looking for working capital to resume their regular routine of crossing the border, and for many this involved looking for loans that they would repay after they earned profits.

High inflation and unstable foreign currency exchange rates were also a serious problem. Due to the economic instability and currency devaluation in Zimbabwe, prices of commodities constantly change. In 2019 in particular, prices of commodities were changing dramatically causing serious uncertainty amongst cross-border traders. For example, between May and June 2019, the unit price of fish at the harbours increased from, in the local currency, RTGSS5.50 to RTGSS8.00. Even drastic overnight changes in prices took place, thereby affecting traders negatively. It meant, for instance, that they had to reduce the quantity of goods for resale in Siavonga, resulting in reduced daily profits. Further, while price increases of goods in Zimbabwe were taking place, the selling price in Zambia remained stagnant. Traders also risked losing clients in Siavonga, who would look for other suppliers if their daily suppliers from Kariba failed to provide fish (or other products) in time or whenever they needed it. One man involved in cross-border trading bemoaned that:

Though we sometimes obtain profits in this trade, these profits arc uncertain and not always satisfactory because of high inflation rates in Zimbabwe. Changes in prices of fish here at home, make for the most uncertainties in this business. . . . During the days when fish prices arc high, I do not go for fishing because it will not be that profitable given the transport costs we pay.

Another problem related to drastic changes in prices is unstable foreign currency exchange rates and the sheer complexities of money in Zimbabwe. When traders return from Zambia, they change some of their profits into RTGS dollars or US dollars (both used in Zimbabwe at the time of research), which they use to purchase other products to sell the next day. These transactions normally occur either at the border or at Nyamhunga Shopping Centre in Kariba. During the times when the US dollar rate shifts upwards compared to the Kwacha (the Zambian currency), the traders experience a loss in profit. In addition, when changing from the US dollar to the local RTGS (bond note) currency, there arc different rates for cash and for electronic transfers (mainly in mobile money wallets). Due to the scarcity of hard cash in Zimbabwe, when traders have electronic money and want to convert it to hard cash, they are charged a 50 per cent premium. However, the traders need cash on a regular basis as many shops from which they purchase “stuff” require cash (bond notes).

Adversities of crossing the Kariba border post

In crossing the Zambian border, the traders arc faced with further challenges and adversities. In fact, traders narrate the different problems that they encounter on both the Zimbabwean and Zambian sides of the border on route to Siavonga. The border posts, on their own, are characterised by various procedural features which cause difficulties for the traders.

In 2019, people were using their passports to cross the border. Passports expire after ten years but they need to be renewed once their pages arc exhausted or fully stamped. Given that women crossed the border daily, this meant that their passport pages would be fully stamped in a very short period. One trader bemoaned that, “we want border passes because passports quickly end pages [become filled with border stamps], which is the main disadvantage. Border passes are good because they arc just pieces of paper and, previously, they used to expire after 3 months”.

Furthermore, at the border post on the Zimbabwean side, traders arc often harassed by customs officials and Zimbabwe national parks officials. National parks officials require fish traders to hold a valid fish trading permit. The charges for these permits are exorbitant, and they change over time; for example, in June 2019, the cost per permit was RTGSS50, and traders often complained that it was excessive and impacted on their profits. One male trader highlighted that: “I cross the border with three buckets offish. Ifl sell all of it, I obtain RTGSS141.00 profit and ifl pay RTGS$50.00 for the permit, I remain with little money to look after my family and buy other foodstuffs at home. I am the bread the winner, my wife is unemployed”. Failure to provide a fish permit results in confiscation of the fish, which leads to dramatic trading losses. Traders are also forced to have proper licences to export foodstuffs, and the failure to produce one may result in their arrest at the border. For example, in mid-August 2019, a group of women were arrested and stood before the magistrate’s court for selling fish without proper licences and were fined. After this incident, people stopped trading fish for a while in fear of being arrested, but they later resumed fish trading. Though the need for proper licences for trading in foodstuffs may be important, it is clear that traders lack the required resources needed to process papers in order to hold a licence.

Due to the lack of the required permits, traders end up smuggling their goods through the border posts. Smuggling is generally carried out in ways that avoid forms of taxation (Daimon 2016; MacGaffey 1983; Pophiwa 2010a; Pophiwa 2010b), with sophisticated systems of struggling often involving communication by mobile phone (Husken 2017). In the case of the Kariba traders, smuggling is carried out to avoid paying of permits and avoiding restrictions on the export of certain commodities in certain quantities; and it entails person-to-person negotiation. With regards to goods restrictions, one woman explained how her large quantities of sugar arc smuggled across the border. She said that, “if one has huge quantities of sugar or beer, you deal with the soldiers. I deal with soldiers - I pay them money so that they transport my sugar cases”. Security officials including soldiers and central intelligence officers based in Kariba, facilitate the smuggling of goods at the border. They demand incentives from traders presumably to supplement their low salaries.

Huskcn (2017) found in North Africa that smugglers, soldiers, customs officers, police officers and ordinary citizens and traders arc closely intertwined actors for whom smuggling is a field of economic cooperation and social networking. At Kariba, soldiers and customs officials become involved in smuggling activities, cither by turning a blind eye to what is happening around them or as active participants. Either way, their act of omission or commission with reference to smuggling at the Kariba border tends to normalise and legitimise illegal activities. A similar situation exists in the Chad basin, such that cross-border smuggling may be “illegal” but it remains “licit” for those engaged in it (Roitman 2006). In the end, the Kariba traders’ informal networking with soldiers and other security officials at the border post facilitates their movement into Zambia without the payment of permits and other charges, thus doing away with a cost which would otherwise reduce their profit margins.

Marketing challenges across the border

Once safely across the border, the traders face problems in Siavonga, particularly in relation to marketing their commodities. In Siavonga, there is a centralised market centre designated for Zimbabweans to sell their commodities. The Zimbabwean traders pay a table fee each. As of July 2019, this was five Kwacha (Zambian currency) (at that time, the equivalent of RTGS $2.00). This fee also changes over time causing uncertainties amongst the traders.

Further, the market centre designated to them is not strategically placed to facilitate the selling of their commodities. When I visited the area, I discovered that though it is in Siavonga town, it is highly insulated, making it difficult for some potential buyers to locate it. It seems likely that the market was situated in an insulated area to control the movement of Zimbabweans in Zambia, who would also end up competing with local Zambians by selling the same products, which in turn would cause possible friction.

Beyond this, there is stiff competition with Zambian-based traders who arc also involved in cross-border trading. They come to Kariba and buy commodities in bulk which they then sell back in Siavonga. They arc in fact often selling the same products traded by Zimbabweans in Zambia. Zambians have a home advantage in Siavonga, since they are trading in their country of origin. They arc able to freely sell their goods anywhere, unlike Zimbabweans who arc compelled to use the designated market space. For Zimbabweans, selling outside of the designated market is a risky venture, as Zambian town council policemen harass traders. Though many interviewees mentioned that the trading atmosphere in Siavonga is generally conducive, even indicating the friendliness of many Zambians, hints of a general dislike towards Zimbabweans is also observable. While not at the scale of xenophobia like in South Africa, it is still probably engendered by the fear of competition on the part of Zambians. One female trader said that “Zambians do not want Zimbabweans to move around homesteads selling their products because they will lose their customers. They want us [Zimbabweans] to remain in the market which is far removed from the people’s homesteads”. It is reported that Zambian traders speak about Zimbabweans “stealing” their customers.

Challenges faced in returning from Zambia

Before returning to Zambia, the traders would have bought foodstuffs and other items (e.g. fishing nets) for resale, as well as consumption goods for their families in Kariba. One trader listed the following goods that arc imported back home for consumption as “cooking oil, soap, lotions, cabbages, chicken, sausages, eggs, biscuits, sweets etc. These products arc expensive in Zimbabwe, so people buy them from Zambia. But these Zambian goods arc of poor quality, we just buy them because they arc cheaper.” Some of the commodities like fish arc not allowed to cross the border into Zimbabwe, so traders again smuggle them in with the help of security officials. As one trader complained: “We cannot freely cross the border with our goods. Officials at the Zimbabwean side of the border deny entry of some commodities that we buy from Zambia for survival. They do not want us people to survive. Things arc expensive back home. Many people now rely on Zambian products”.

As well, the border does not operate 24 hours a day, as it opens at 6 a.m. and closes at 8 p.m. This does not allow for easy and flexible movement of traders out of Zambia, particularly when they arc finding it difficult to sell all their goods before returning to Zimbabwe, as well as to purchase commodities for resale or home consumption. Sometimes they simply limit their time in Zambia and make sure they arc across the border by eight pm. But there arc cases of some women spending two to three nights in Zambia struggling to have their “stuff’ bought because of low demand and marketing restrictions in Zambia. This means spending extended periods without their families. One woman stated that:

I sell bananas and bread, and these take time to sell, and sometimes the products arc bought at night towards 8 p.m. when the border closes. So, I end up sleeping here in Zambia in the verandas of some stores. I leave the school children at home alone and I know this is risky for my children but there is nothing that I can do. We need to survive ... My husband lives in rural areas.

The plea of many of these cross-border traders is that the border operates 24 hours, like many other borders, to allow for their free movement in a manner which acts as an enabling condition for their trading activities.


The chapter has examined the lives of Kariba cross-border traders as they move back and forth on a daily basis between Zimbabwe and Zambia to trade in Siavonga town. Existing under conditions of extreme economic vulnerability, they nevertheless seek to undertake their daily lives and pursue livelihoods if

Lived experiences of cross-border traders 153 only in survivalist mode. In doing so, they encounter a range of inter-entangled challenges, with each of these challenges (at different stages in the trading process) having knock-on effects for later stages, often of a negative kind. Despite these challenges, they continue unabated in their trading activities, suffering losses along the way. In this context, they turn some adversities into opportunities and arc thus able to minimise or recuperate losses. As they go about their everyday lives as traders, they arc constantly negotiating their way through problems as and when they arise, and sometimes even proactively preparing for an expected eventuality, such as manoeuvring their way across the Zimbabwean-Zambian border without incurring significant costs. Though trapped within the macro-economic crisis in Zimbabwe, the Kariba traders somehow rise above it, even finding and opening up gaps within the system of border control to their advantage. Though the traders’ escape from the crisis is partial, they nevertheless show how Zimbabweans “manage” the crisis in their everyday lives.


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12 Trust and the Zimbabwean diaspora

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