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Three Men, A Fence & A Dead Body

Sean O’Toole travels to the northern reaches of Limpopo where South Africa meets Zimbabwe. The border fence, once dubbed the snake of fire because of its lethal charge, is no longer live but remains a living monument that delineates ‘here from there’.


The fence #1

You forget the heat. I am back in Musina to look at a forgotten apartheid monument, a 330km length of lethal electric fencing erected along the Zimbabwe and Mozambique borders in the 1980s. Okay, to speak of the fence as a monument is a bit of a stretch, but only just.

Unlike the extensive wild almond hedge grown by Dutch colonists to keep Khoikhoi out of their new settlement in the late 1650s, a barrier system still partially visible in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden southeast of Cape Town’s city centre, the border fence has not lapsed into historical fact.

It has not been assimilated by the landscape, superseded by a different way of being. It continues to live, albeit without electrical current – there are still routine troop deployments and patrols. Now, as then, the fence continues to delineate here from there.

Photo by Sean O'Toole

Photos by Sean O’Toole

It is not much to look at, this fence, particularly if you’re familiar with the 6-metre high razor wire fence that quarantines Morocco (and the rest of Africa) from Melilla, a Spanish coastal city located on mainland Africa. It is also far less persuasive or totalitarian than the West Bank barrier, an 8-metre high concrete monolith that prompted Tracey Rose, the South African artist, to fly to Israel in 2005 and urinate on it in protest. Compared with these two illegitimate children of the Berlin Wall, the South African structure is visually far more modest.

Measuring roughly 5m in width, the total structure comprises an electrified pyramidal core flanked by two barrier fences to prevent wildlife from touching the electrified centre. It is about 3m at its highest and spans two distinct topographies.

The older fence follows a 62km route along the southern Mozambique border, from Komatipoort, at the Kruger Park border, to Jeppe’s Reef near Swaziland. The Zimbabwe fence is four times longer. It originates on a farm known as Eendvogelpan, 20km west of the Pontdrift border post on the Botswana border, and meanders 268km in a westerly direction to the northern Kruger Park border with Zimbabwe.

I spent a whole afternoon looking for the western starting point of the Zimbabwean fence, because seeing is proof and often contradicts what you read. It was almost night by the time I found the underwhelming origin of the fence at a stony outcrop in the middle of nowhere, between two small hills, near a farm gate. You can hear the Limpopo River gurgling in the distance at this nowhere place.

Before they built the fence, the apartheid military employed a more primitive security barrier, a wall of sisal plants. Monkeys and elephants liked the taste of the organic barrier. ”


Colonel Tol Snyman

He must be in his mid-forties, I reckon. I am looking at Colonel Tol Snyman’s portrait, installed in the lobby of the SANDF’s Soutpansberg military base just south of Musina. Snyman is the base’s commanding officer. In his colour photograph, he wears a lopsided beret and lacklustre moustache.

When he stands up from behind his desk, he reveals something the photograph does not, cannot say – he is a tall man. The paunch also suggests that Snyman is a soldier transitioning into a bureaucrat.

Photo by Sean O'Toole

There are 15 echo stations positioned at 10-kilometre intervals along the 268km fence between South Africa and Zimbabwe, he tells me. Each station is home to between four and six soldiers, who sleep in brown tents and walk 5km patrols to either side, east and west. The army’s role is simply to detain people caught illegally crossing the border, and then to hand them over to the police for processing. It is a daily routine.

Most of the immigrants arrested tell Snyman’s soldiers that they are headed for Gauteng, Johannesburg, even though very few of them have any clue where it is. “There is lots of milk and honey flowing there,” says Snyman.



Phillip Chikumbo # 1

The rules are simple: he phones me. Whenever I try the same, a female voice will tell me that the user is not available. Currently I have two numbers on my phone for Phillip Chikumbo. Had I kept all the others, the list would run to 10, 12, possibly more numbers. Phillip usually calls at night, also on weekends. “It’s me Phillip,” he will say. Mostly he phones just to say hello, to ask how I am, then he’ll press me for money, maybe old clothes.

Once Phillip called to say he’d read a piece I’d written about the slain musician Lucky Dube, who was shot by Sifiso Mhlanga in 2007. Initial news reports suggested that most of the perpetrators in the hijacking were Mozambican. It later turned out that only one of the three perpetrators, Ludwa Gxowa, was Mozambican.

I recently asked a photographer friend to make a portrait of Phillip. I want to remember him. Stuff happens. He might stop calling me. Just the other day, Phillip called to say he loved me, also that he was terrified. People, he said, Zimbabweans and other foreigners living on the East Rand, were being butchered. He didn’t know what to do. Neither did I.

The fence # 2 Variously known as the “kaftan”, “nabob” and “Norex” fence, and reportedly once nicknamed “snake of fire” by Mozambicans, the border fence was the product of a general culture of fear and security innovation that characterised apartheid’s last decade.

Somewhat ironically, it was the power utility Eskom that pioneered the use and deployment of lethal electric fences in South Africa. In 1980, responding to sabotage operations by the ANC and enabled by the new Key Points Act, security legislation aimed at protecting strategic state assets, Eskom developed and installed 30km of lethal electrified fences at various facilities.

Initially all the hardware (poles, insulators and barbed wire coils) came from France, but as demand grew, Eskom refined a locally manufactured alternative. In an unpublished 1992 masters thesis buried in the University of South Africa library in Pretoria, business economics student Brian Barnes records the existence of 14 government-administered lethal electrical systems, 91 systems operated by parastatals, and one large system in use at a private industrial concern.

Asked about their objections to the use of this radical security feature, the majority of respondents told Barnes that their main concerns related to safety and legal considerations. Moral grounds were described as “less important”. Public opinion quickly shifted. In 1993 the two border fences, which caused 89 deaths in a threeyear period ending August 1989 – 47 less than the total number of fatalities linked to the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989 – were switched to non-lethal alarm-mode. They are now entirely lacking current.


Phillip Chikumbo # 2

I met Phillip on September 8, 2003. It was a Monday. He was 24 at the time. He wore a blue-and-white check shirt and squatted on his haunches among a tangle of roots from the wild fig that prospered in the middle of the prison courtyard at the Musina police station. His dark eyes were bloodshot.

Photo by Sean O'Toole

“I haven’t eaten for two days,” he told me. “They do not have food for us because we are unexpected visitors.”

Later that day Phillip and I met outside the Beit Bridge Inn & Casino. It is on the other side of the sump-oil green Limpopo River, in Zimbabwe.

Together we walked to Dulibadzimo, a township on the outskirts of the town, where we chartered a sky blue Datsun 120Y and headed east. The landscape alongside the dusty road was arid and overgrazed. Sometime later we stopped. The sun was just setting.

Guided by moonlight, we started walking, following the footpaths – or desire lines as architects call them – carved into the earth by cigarette smugglers and locals who wish to bypass the ‘administration’ at Beit Bridge. Our destination: the bubble of light on the horizon. Musina. South Africa.

We talked about a lot of things as we walked: family, politics, the crocodiles waiting for us up ahead, the electric fence (which we would later crawl beneath on our bellies, like warthogs), interracial sex, the untimely death of the Pirates striker Lesley “Slow Poison” Manyathela, and also Hustler magazine.

Phillip said the first thing he would do when he got to Johannesburg – he worked as a diesel mechanic in Thohoyandou at the time – would be to buy a copy of the skin mag.


Emmanuel Muthlare

“I used to work as a coal miner but I was injured in a rock fall,” says this father of two. “I couldn’t do manual labour anymore and had to look for office work. That is why I ended up doing this kind of shit.”

Emmanuel Muthlare is the general manager of the Mussina branch of Cross Border Funeral Directors. He joined the company, founded by Reverend Rerani of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, in 1991. The company, situated next to a settlement on the northern edge of Musina referred to as Rwanda, does exactly what its name suggests: it transports dead people from South Africa to neighbouring countries. “Working with bodies of people with HIV is very dangerous,” cautions Emmanuel. “To my knowledge, when a person dies, the virus will look for warm blood: it will jump from the dead body to a new host.”

It is expensive to die as a foreigner in South Africa, Emmanuel tells me. A typed note pasted on the wall of the reception area corroborates his assertion. The note lists the requirements for transporting a body out of the country:
– Burial order from exporting country
– Embalming order from exporting country (this service is offered by CBFD)
– Death certificate from exporting country
– Non-infectious/infectious diseases certificate from medical practitioner who last attended deceased
– Proof of Zimbabwean citizenship, if the body is destined for that country
– Zinc-lined sealed coffin in case of infectious diseases (the cost of hiring such a coffin in 2006 was R3,000)
– Cause of death should be clearly stated on funeral documents
Because of the stigma attached to dying from an HIV/Aids-related illness, relatives will often insist that the certificate state ‘natural causes’, to which Emmanuel responds, “natural causes is not a disease.”
Unclaimed bodies, he says after showing me a refrigerator filled with dead bodies, are buried in the municipal cemetery after a few months, usually six.

Photo by Sean O'Toole


The fence # 3

Before they built the fence, the apartheid military employed a more primitive security barrier, a wall of sisal plants. This was 1980. It was a poor defence. Monkeys and elephants liked the taste of the organic barrier. A tall, voluble farmer who grows sugar in the Komatipoort region confirmed all this. The Mozambican electric fence, which cost R12.7-million to erect, runs across the eastern border of his farm. He remembers the sisal plants and also the man he found slumped on his knees beside the new electric fence in 1984. The man had tried to lift the wire with a pen, but it had slipped onto his thumb, killing him instantly.


Phillip Chikumbo # 3

Once, it was relayed in passing, casually, but with a knowing laugh, that Phillip’s family had read the article I had written about our first meeting. That time in the prison courtyard. The article had been picked up by Zimbabwean media and republished locally. “It’s very obvious: I can’t live in that place of Mugabe anymore,” I quoted Phillip. It hurt and angered his father, Phillip’s mother told him – that certainty of youth, his resolve not to return home. Phillip says he wants to go home, but just for a visit.



Sean O’Toole’s report features in the Boundaries & Territorialities section of Chimurenga Vol. 16: The Chimurenga Chronic (available here).

Set in the week 18-24 May 2008, the Chronic, imagines the newspaper as a producer of time – a time-machine – which travels backwards and forwards, to place these events within a broader context and thereby to challenge the logic of emergencies and immediate needs that characterise contemporary African media.

Buy the Chronic

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