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The border town of Musina is at the coalface of a humanitarian crisis, as residents and aid organisations battle to deal with a flood of sick, broke and hungry Zimbabweans.
More than a 1000 Zimbabweans are living on the streets of the Limpopo town, scrounging for food and looking for work, just kilometres from their home country.
They are living in deplorable conditions and are dependent on food aid from organisations such as the United Nations, Save the Children and the South African Red Cross, while Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) provides them with medical care.
And despite the Christmas and New Year holidays being days away, Zimbabwe’s desperate keep streaming in.
Those with no money to head to Joburg immediately end up at the Musina showgrounds, where non-profit organisations provide them with meals.
Most sleep in the open field with no shelter or mattresses, and have turned the area into a refugee camp.
Nine portable toilets and four taps service the nearly 1 000 people.
Musina mayor Caroline Mahasela told The Star that the steady flow of people into her town was putting pressure on the municipality’s resources.
“We never expected to care for more than a 1 000 people, so there are challenges. We are currently in the process of finding a suitable place for the people to stay, where there will be sufficient toilets,” she said.
While the conditions are terrible, people like Kufandaedzoa Mudzoriwa, from Bulawayo, don’t care.
“I would rather be here than in Zimbabwe,” said the salesman, who left his country a week ago.
“It is terrible back there. At least here in South Africa I have a chance to find a job so that I can send money home. Right now in Zimbabwe, even if you have a job, it is not worth it,” he said.
While many in the camp talk openly about the hard- ship back in Zimbabwe, others whisper, as rumours are rife that some among them are agents of Robert Mugabe’s feared Central Intelligence Organisation.
Said refugee said Charles Mashindi: “There are too many of them (intelligence agents) here. But I don’t care because my only concern is to get to Joburg. As soon as I get money I am going to Joburg.”
A parish priest at the St Martin’s Catholic Church in Musina said the situation was dire as they were handing out between 300 and 350 food parcels every day to the most vulnerable people.
“In April we were only handing out between 30 and 40 food parcels every day. That alone just shows how the situation in Zimbabwe has turned,” he said.
To deal with the influx of people, the Department of Home Affairs has set up a mobile office at the showgrounds where people can apply for asylum.
Officials say that since July last year, they have been processing up to 300 applications every weekday at the mobile offices, with more new faces turning up every day.
The asylum-seeker documents are valid for only three months and must be renewed until officials decide whether to grant the applicant asylum.
In addition to the influx of people, Musina has in recent weeks also had to deal with an outbreak of cholera brought into the town by Zimbabweans crossing the border in search for a health system that works properly.
By Monday, health officials said they had contained the waterborne disease and were now treating only eight people for cholera at Musina Hospital.
Zimbabwe has been battling its worst cholera outbreak in decades, and the disease has claimed the lives of more than 1 200 people.
Limpopo MEC for Transport Cassel Mathale visited Musina yesterday as chairperson of the ANC in Limpopo, and called on Zimbabwe’s political rivals to resolve their “petty differences”.
“This is a man-made crisis which the MDC and Zanu-PF must resolve for the sake of people’s lives. The two parties must find a solution to their problems. What is happening here could have been avoided,” he said.
While the death toll remains at eight in the province, Musina has recorded 15 cases since Sunday, bringing the total number of suspected cases treated to 909, with five patients still in hospital, said department spokesperson Phuti Seloba.
Botlokwa, near Musina, has reported 18 new cases and 11 were recorded in Madimbo.
A total of 23 cases were also reported in Dilokong, with 42 people being treated in hospital. The town of Knobel had three new cases, which brings the number of suspected cases in this area to 49.
This article was originally published in the Star December 23, 2008