Since the 1970s, Zimbabwe’s eastern border with Mozambique has been a volatile terrain with fighting forces made up of liberation/rebel fighters and bandits seeking to destabilize both countries. These contestations for power and control of territory have had long-lasting implications (both physical and psychological) for borderland communities. Much more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has added yet another dimension to this long history of conflict. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly severe on communities that are still recovering from the vagaries of protracted civil war and low-intensity conflict within Mozambique, particularly in the borderlands. In the Mozambican Civil War (1976–1992) and the low-intensity conflict since 2013, both Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO) insurgents and Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) government forces have deployed unconventional stratagems that violate international statutes on armed conflict and do not differentiate combatants from noncombatants. As a result, unarmed civilians residing along the border continue to live under the shadow of violence even though the Mozambican Civil War officially ended in 1992.
Life in the borderland communities along Zimbabwe’s eastern border likewise continues to be characterized by fear and uncertainty. Anxieties within these border communities have been heightened by the activities of a jihadist militia group affiliated with the Islamic State (IS), operating under the name Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah (ASWJ), in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado Province. The emergence of this group as a major threat to both Mozambican and regional stability in the summer of 2019 was closely followed by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in China.1“Zimbabwe’s Deployment of Troops in Mozambique Not Only Illegal but Foolish and Costly – Biti,” Pindula, May 20, 2020, https://news.pindula.co.zw/2020/05/02/zimbabwes-deployment-of-troops-in-mozambique-not-only-illegal-but-foolish-and-costly-biti/. Since then, the ASWJ has pledged allegiance to and become part of the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province (IS-CAP). Anxieties generated by military conflict, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the emergence of this jihadist militia have destabilized Honde Valley transborder communities’ modes of coexistence, which have been based on a long history of kinship as well as economic and political connections. Local patterns of life; transnational marriages, kinships, and friendships; and overlapping geographies of economic and political life shape how Mozambican and Zimbabwean communities living contiguously deal with calamities and pandemics alike.
Identity and Border Politics in the Honde Valley
Although historically separated by the border, Honde Valley inhabitants (borderlanders) share common ethnic, kinship, and linguistic ties and cultural identities, as well as economic and political traits that transcend contemporary national boundaries. These ties influence how they enact their local sovereignty and everyday lives in ways that sometimes contradict national governance and security regimes. Thus, while the Mozambican and Zimbabwean states assume power over these borderlands, these communities have local systems of sociopolitical power that often go against state policies. However, these local systems also provide opportunities for civilians, combatants, and members of security forces to benefit from crossborder flows and transactions. This has turned these borderlands into “proto-state peripheries,”2I. William Zartman, ed., Understanding Life in the Borderlands: Boundaries in Depth and Motion, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010). areas where residents have their local ways of doing things that may or may not coincide with national policy and territorial jurisdictions. Given the fluidity of cross- and transborder relations, combatting the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic is a complicated matter that deserves a more nuanced understanding and interventions that go beyond the imposition of restrictions on movement and the practicing of social distancing.
As Judah Marombedza, a Zimbabwean national who lives in Pandagoma on the Mozambican side of the border, revealed:
In my life, growing up in this area, people always had good relationships. My father was a village-head, people from both Mozambique and Zimbabwe would come to our home. There is no physical boundary between us. The relationships have always been good. The people intermarry. I studied at St Paul in Mashena in Zimbabwe. We do not think about the border, we are relatives, and we share resources. We only know that so and so stay at this area and come from this area.
Marombedza’s testimony reveals the way borderland residents think about the border as a non-existent barrier, and how their relationships are not restricted by the border, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic notwithstanding. Also, Benedito Daimon Samwaya Njonda, a Mozambican villager, emphasized that, “due to our intermarriages, we do not have borders between our family. My son is across the border [in Zimbabwe]. My daughter is also across the border [in Zimbabwe]. We will not see the border because of our marriages.”
Nonetheless, the Mozambican Civil War somewhat altered the parameters of socioeconomic interactions between borderlanders, especially borderless family connections. At the peak of the war, particularly in the late 1980s, state authorities imposed their version of nationality and narrowly labelled citizenship on borderlanders as either Zimbabweans or Mozambicans and discouraged crossborder movement. Although the Zimbabwean government assisted people moving into protected villages (Keeps) in the Honde Valley on its side of the border, Mozambican refugees had a much more difficult experience and were often harshly interrogated. While some people exploited the border to their own advantage by tapping into business opportunities and paying for their personal protection, others had terrible experiences, including severe torture or death at the hands of armed rebels or security forces. Issues of being and belonging for individuals in the Honde Valley continue to require tactical, flexible, and creative means to survive by tapping into enduring solidarities and comradeships in the face of challenges from both conflict and Covid-19.
Given its long history as a highly contested and conflict-affected space since the 1970s, when the Zimbabwean liberation struggle and Mozambican Civil War ravaged the region, the Honde Valley remains an important site for examining the measures aimed at reining in the Covid-19 pandemic. This region’s experiences naturally raise questions as to the costs of the lockdown on poor and marginalized borderland communities. More importantly, the lingering question is: What kinds of intervention mechanisms can be forged in border communities ravaged by conflict and disease to achieve sustainable peace and development?
Anti-Covid-19 Mechanisms and the Plight of Honde Valley Border Communities
In Zimbabwe, lockdown measures were first announced by President Emmerson Mnangagwa on March 30, 2020, and were subsequently extended numerous times when the number of Covid-19 cases continued to rise across the country. The stringent lockdown measures included the closure of all official points of entry into the country except for returning residents. No transborder movements were allowed for borderland communities. Within Zimbabwe, lockdown measures were heavily enforced. These policies severely affected Honde Valley border communities that rely on local agricultural markets, especially those of bananas and yams, as producers were left hanging on to produce with no market for their goods. Starting from July 21, 2020, the government gradually eased the lockdown restrictions, announcing that supermarkets, restaurants, and vegetables markets could operate from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.3Vine Mutyasira, “How is COVID-19 Shaping Agricultural Production and Commodity Marketing among Smallholders in Zimbabwe?,” Future Agricultures, September 17, 2020, https://www.future-agricultures.org/blog/how-is-covid-19-shaping-agricultural-production-and-commodity-marketing-among-smallholders-in-zimbabwe/.
Movement across the border in Honde Valley has historically been easy, as there are no physical barriers such as big rivers, fences, or difficult terrain. However, although the state has no capacity to restrict movement in most borderland communities, it nonetheless imposed a system of official permits to control crossborder travel during the pandemic. Such anti-Covid-19 measures in Zimbabwe had deleterious implications for marginalized border communities. Regulations requiring travelers to produce valid Covid-19 test certiﬁcates on arrival were established at official points of entry, while those without these certiﬁcates were transferred to provincial centers to be tested and granted certification if their results were negative. Migrants that tested positive remained in isolation centers, while those that tested negative were quarantined. Therefore, traveling out of the Honde Valley during the pandemic without a permit was difficult, as one had to prove that their travel was essential. Although one could get a permit from Agritex (an agricultural extension service) locally for agriculture-related movement, he/she would have to contend with security operatives. As revealed by scholar Ian Scoones:
There are so many police out – they are everywhere! There is no public transport these days. If you travel in your private vehicle, you can only have two people. All the private Kombis and buses are grounded. ZUPCO (a government-owned company) operates buses, which are disinfected after each trip, but there are very few.4Ian Scoones, “COVID-19 Lockdown in Zimbabwe: A disaster for Farmers,” Future Agricultures, April 30, 2020, https://www.future-agricultures.org/blog/covid-19-lockdown-in-zimbabwe-a-disaster-for-farmers/.
Produce markets across the country were shut down, and reopening them turned out to be a serious challenge because traders and consumers tended to stick together or operate in groups and, in the process, violated lockdown restrictions. Borders are the lifeline of the Honde Valley communities, so efforts to control crossborde movement to prevent the spread of Covid-19 have negatively affected their economic and social interactions. The Honde Valley has no designated crossing point for communities living contiguously, so the smuggling of goods has increased as people try to make ends meet amid conflict and pandemic restrictions. The closure of supermarkets, boarding schools, universities, hotels, restaurants, and churches led to a decline in demand for food items, a disaster for farmers in Zimbabwe. In Honde Valley, people crossing the border from Mozambique into Zimbabwe to get agricultural/food supplies for resale in Mozambique risked spreading the virus. Also, migrant or transit farm workers from Mozambique working on the Zimbabwe side have faced challenges posed by movement restrictions as well as the risk of being infected. For example, Chipinge border estates—such as Jersey, Zona, Ratelshoek, Southdown, Katiyo, and Aberfoyle estates—depend on labor from Mozambique.5Owen Mangiza and Joshua Chakawa, “The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Border Communities: The Case of Chipinge, Zimbabwe,” The African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, December 18, 2020, https://www.accord.org.za/analysis/the-impact-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-on-border-communities-the-case-of-chipinge-zimbabwe/. In spite of these challenges, farm workers have continued to clandestinely return home to their families in Mozambique with all the attendant implications. In the absence of robust testing and screening mechanisms, it remains difficult to know the rates of Covid-19 infection or mortality in this area.
As the foregoing illustrates, Covid-19-related restrictions have seriously affected social life in the Honde Valley. Even funerals and burials need to be supervised by a health worker and require a permit; only a maximum of fifty persons can attend such ceremonies while observing social distancing rules. In the borderlands, the absence of local health-care facilities, understaffed clinics, and inadequate supplies of medicine have resulted in locally available traditional remedies becoming the immediate source of health security.
The Zimbabwean state’s response to the security threats posed by the Covid-19 pandemic has been restricted to reinforcing surveillance, contact tracing, community hygiene practices, and health promotion, especially for border communities (those close to official border entry points). The activities of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Zimbabwe also betray its narrow focus on those crossing at legal entry points. The IOM provides support for health personnel at border isolation facilities in the main points of entry, including Beitbridge, Plumtree, Forbes Chirundu, and Nyamapanda, to ensure real-time separation of Covid-19 symptomatic travelers during entry screening at these point of entry.6‘Zimbabwe (Discontinued as of 31 Dec 2020),” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, last modified February 17, 2021, https://reports.unocha.org/en/country/zimbabwe/card/1awr9hz6lJ/. In addition, the organization renders assistance in terms of cash-based interventions, distribution of nonfood items, hygiene kits, or agricultural kits to cover borderlanders’ basic needs and livelihoods, which have been severely impacted by the pandemic.
The Honde Valley borderlands are a microcosm of the serious gaps in community surveillance and detection of crossborder traders using informal channels. The Covid-19 pandemic has added another layer to a conflict scenario that has been ongoing for decades. The majority of people in the Honde Valley depend on agricultural production, seasonal jobs in agriculture, and informal crossborder trade. Covid-19 measures have restricted borderlanders from working their land and accessing markets to sell or buy produce. The pandemic and its attendant control mechanisms have further weakened local survival networks that are already stressed by low-intensity conflict fueled by RENAMO bandits who operate in contiguous Mozambican and Zimbabwean villages. Local resilience has been stretched to the limit. For these communities to be self-reliant again, social protection schemes by government, nongovernmental, and local organizations are paramount. One key way to stabilize Honde Valley communities and to avoid a situation in which locals sell their household property to meet existential needs will be through cash injections. There is also a serious need to resuscitate health-care facilities and build the capacity of village health technicians in borderland communities so they can provide adequate Covid-19 health checks and screening. In a community where national identities are fluid and change depending on the communities’ needs and the conflict situation, good health-care systems can provide important health information to the state and other stakeholders on how the spread of Covid-19 can be prevented or controlled. Systematic testing of border communities alongside the provision of subsistence support will remain critical in the Honde Valley for some time to come.
- 1“Zimbabwe’s Deployment of Troops in Mozambique Not Only Illegal but Foolish and Costly – Biti,” Pindula, May 20, 2020, https://news.pindula.co.zw/2020/05/02/zimbabwes-deployment-of-troops-in-mozambique-not-only-illegal-but-foolish-and-costly-biti/.
- 2I. William Zartman, ed., Understanding Life in the Borderlands: Boundaries in Depth and Motion, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010).
- 3Vine Mutyasira, “How is COVID-19 Shaping Agricultural Production and Commodity Marketing among Smallholders in Zimbabwe?,” Future Agricultures, September 17, 2020, https://www.future-agricultures.org/blog/how-is-covid-19-shaping-agricultural-production-and-commodity-marketing-among-smallholders-in-zimbabwe/.
- 4Ian Scoones, “COVID-19 Lockdown in Zimbabwe: A disaster for Farmers,” Future Agricultures, April 30, 2020, https://www.future-agricultures.org/blog/covid-19-lockdown-in-zimbabwe-a-disaster-for-farmers/.
- 5Owen Mangiza and Joshua Chakawa, “The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Border Communities: The Case of Chipinge, Zimbabwe,” The African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, December 18, 2020, https://www.accord.org.za/analysis/the-impact-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-on-border-communities-the-case-of-chipinge-zimbabwe/.
- 6‘Zimbabwe (Discontinued as of 31 Dec 2020),” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, last modified February 17, 2021, https://reports.unocha.org/en/country/zimbabwe/card/1awr9hz6lJ/.