A mother and her young child boarded a Zimbabwe-bound bus from Johannesburg in January. With them was the body of her husband, Shingai Ndlovu, carefully wrapped in two blankets and made to sit by the window like a passenger.
On the bus were 16 other people who had no clue that one of their fellow passengers was a dead man.
Ndlovu had no choice but to hide her grief until the body got to its final destination in Checheche, Manicaland, 100km from the border with Mozambique, where a late-night prayer vigil awaited.
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However, health officials decided to screen everyone on the bus for Covid-19. When it was the Ndlovu family’s turn, officials discovered Shingai’s body, believed to have died of Covid-19 the day before.
His wife had to proceed to his vigil without the body.
It’s a common thing. Bodies come in buses, trucks and even trailers, carefully tucked away in groceries or furniture.
-Border post official
This is one of several cases seen by officials at Beitbridge, the busiest border in Southern Africa, which processes an average of 25,000 travellers every day.
“It’s a common thing. Bodies come in buses, trucks and even trailers with omalayitsha (cross-border traffickers), carefully tucked away in groceries or furniture,” said a clearing agent at the border post.
Between March and June 2020, the Zimbabwean government said 700 documented Zimbabweans died in SA from natural causes during the lockdown and they were repatriated under stringent Covid-19 protocols. But many more undocumented pople could have died during the same period and been smuggled back home.
For one to repatriate a corpse from SA to Zimbabwe requires a postmortem report and a non-infectious disease certificate. This is obtained from a doctor at the hospital where the person died. A death certificate, embalming and cremation certificate and an export permit are also required.
The paperwork takes three to four days and repatriation of a body costs at least R15,000 for the whole operation by road and at least R50,000 by air. These costs are steep for many Zimbabweans working in SA and are not covered by funeral policies or burial societies.
Another challenge is that undocumented immigrants are not financially or legally included in the mainstream society and economy, which makes it hard for them to access health care and other social services.
As such, when there’s a death, they resort to the cheaper and faster route – smuggling – at a cost of R5,000 at most.
“Bodies are cleared at the border once a week on Fridays. But smugglers are in and out any time because the body would not have been refrigerated or treated in SA, so it’s a race against time,” said a bus driver who at times transports bodies.
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“On the Zimbabwean side there’s usually a car that moves ahead of the vehicle carrying the corpse. Its job is to clear the way. If there are roadblocks and tollgates, there are people to be paid,” he added.
Matabeleland South police spokesperson Inspector Thabani Mkwananzi warned people who intended to smuggle bodies that they would be met with the long arm of the law.
“There’s a lot of smuggling going on, and from time to time we arrest people. Those that intend to do inhumane acts like smuggling dead bodies will face stiff penalties,” he said.
Body smuggling is also rampant on the Mozambique-Zimbabwe border. In March this year, Jacob Mutanda, with the help of a relative, Tsengai Shate, smuggled his wife’s body into Zimbabwe. They were arrested after they were overheard narrating the incident while at the mortuary preparing for burial.-TimesLive