Braving the river, risking death just to get to SA

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By ‘Majirata Latela

As it becomes more and more difficult to get to South Africa through legal channels, many Basotho are resorting to entering the neighbouring country illegally out of desperation and fear for losing their jobs. And some have drowned attempting to cross Mohokare River, the boundary between the two countries.

Maputsoe in Leribe is a hot spot for illegal cross border entries. Among the many reasons for running the gauntlet of drowning are lack of work permits, lack of Covid-19 certification and simple impatience.

theReporter took an excursion to one such illegal entry point at Ha Moholisa last Sunday, where people were using inflatable matrasses to float across the river with the assistance of young men from neighbouring villages.

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No less than 50 people cross the river in an hour, paying M100 for the ‘cross border transportation’.

One of the returning migrant workers who did not want to be named for safety reason, said he has been working in SA for more than three years without a work permit as he was not able to get one when they were being issued in 2019.

“I am scared I might not get clearance to cross into SA after the minister of home affairs announced that only people with valid work permits will be cleared to cross and receive free testing.

“I decided not to even attempt going the legal route because I knew I would not be allowed to cross. I am one of the people that crossed into Lesotho after the minister announced that we will receive a waiver even if our temporary visas to stay in SA have expired.”

His home is at Hlotse, the administrative capital of Leribe, and works in Kwazulu-Natal. He had to report on duty on Monday, January 4 2021.

A woman travelling with her two minor sons said her sons do not have passports but she had to travel to SA with them because she has a permanent job in SA. She wants her kids to stay with her since their grandmother passed away just before the lockdown and she was not even present to bury due to travel restrictions.

One of the young men, Thabiso mosiuoa* who operate the ‘cross border transportation’ said they have been doing that illegal job since SA announced the lockdown. He said even though they are doing an illegal job, the money they get from there is enough to feed their families and clothe their kids.

“Due to unemployment, we have seen an opportunity to get money by helping people cross the river because we have realised that many people cannot swim.

“We charge these people pay M100 which we sometimes share with other guys as we work as a network. Some bring these people to us to help them across the river, so we split the money.

“On a good day, when the coast is clear and the South African security agents patrolling the border are not watching, I still make over M500. I support my two siblings and my kid. I am aware of the dangers of crossing the river especially during the rainy season but at the same time I cannot sit back and do nothing while waiting to get a job.

He added that they have on several occasions been caught by Lesotho Defence Force soldiers who beat them up and release them with a warning that if they catch them again, they will hand them over to the police.

However, that never deters them as they continue with their business in spite of reports of drownings. 

According to police spokesperson Senior Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli, at least 11 people are reported to have drowned attempting to cross Mohokare River in the past few weeks. Only 8 bodies have been recovered.