ON Monday, as on most days, Robert was driving his minibus between Johannesburg, South Africa, and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, slowly eating up the nearly 900 km between the two cities.
With his right hand, he cranks the gears. And with his left, he drips thin Nestlé milk into an infant’s mouth. Christmas is close by and as well as working as a cross-border driver, Robert is also for the moment a ‘road nanny’.
In Johannesburg, there are several single mothers originally from Zimbabwe who struggle to find the time and resources to care for their young children.
Around Christmas therefore, when the border crossings get notoriously congested and hectic, making it easier to sneak things across, some mothers bribe drivers like Robert to smuggle their children back to Zimbabwe where they can be looked after by family or friends.
Thembi Nale, a 21-year-old mother who works as a cleaner at a local restaurant in Johannesburg, did just this, recently persuading an omalayitsha (‘courier’) to take her four-month-old baby to her grandmother in Bulawayo.
“If I stop work to breastfeed, I lose my job and benefits,” she explains, “my employer is nasty.”
Transporting undocumented and unaccompanied children is of course illegal, but for up to R2000 ($200) and a written address of where to deliver the child, it is possible to find drivers willing to take the risk.
The most commonly heard stories of omalayitsha in the news tend to be around cases of drivers being caught trying to smuggle children into South Africa from Zimbabwe, often to be reunited with their parents during the school holidays.
This practice has been particularly prevalent since 2012 when South Africa changed the rules to require travelling children to have more detailed documents than previously. Several omalayitsha have been caught and imprisoned.
However, the less-commonly heard side of the story is of drivers smuggling children – many of them young babies – into Zimbabwe from South Africa.
Although the figures vary, estimates suggest that there may be as many as 2 million Zimbabweans currently living in South Africa; many of these migrants crossed the border in the mid-2000s as Zimbabwe’s economy was collapsing under hyperinflation, including several young women who now work menial jobs in restaurants, day care, and farms.
They not only support themselves through this work, but also often send back money, food and medicine to their relatives in Zimbabwe.
If these women get pregnant, however, they may lack the time to care for their babies – especially under the pressure to keep working to support their dependents – and so, like many young parents around the world, rely on the help of family. This is tricky given that relatives are across the border in Zimbabwe, but this is where the omalayitsha come in.
For bus drivers, smuggling babies across the border is a risky but potentially lucrative side job. Bus owners forbid their drivers from engaging in the practice, but bribes from mothers can make the offers hard to resist.
Child welfare organisations estimate that as many as 200 babies are transported this way between November and January, and these journeys begin just like any other. For 900 km, drivers and their assistants take turns to steer the vehicle and feed the babies along the highway.
“We ply the babies with cushions and lots of tasty porridge when the bus starts moving,” explains Robert, holding a purse full of baby shoes and taxi keys.
When the bus stops to allow passengers to disembark for a short time, drivers like Robert get busy administering pills to diabetic babies, giving orange juice to thirsty ones, and jingling toys to cheer up those crying from fatigue. “It’s easy,” Robert says with a smile, “we just follow the mother’s instructions.”
According to Robert, getting past tolls and police roadblocks is also simpler than it may seem.
Usually if one was smuggling something, the contraband would be well hidden away. But when it comes to babies, omalayitsha do not even try to conceal the children or quieten their tantrums and screams as the buses reach tolls and police roadblocks.
However, things don’t always run smoothly. Sometimes minibuses develop mechanical faults and are grounded on the highway for as much as two days.
“Old passengers I can handle; babies get hysterical,” says Robert. “While mechanics oil my bus, I’m busy freshening nappies for strangers’ babies.”
When there aren't major problems, Robert's minibus trundles its way into the Bulawayo terminal after 14 hours on the road. Ice cream vendors, perfume hawkers, and touts mingle below its windows. Relatives come and hug their family members getting off the bus and shuffle bags onto wobbling rickshaws.
Robert’s journey, however, is not quite over. Now he must find the babies’ relatives and calm nervous grandmothers, who are often seeing their grandchildren for the first time. He studies their identity documents, makes them sign a piece of paper, and hands over the young children.
“Afterwards, I clip off paper addresses and do errands in the suburbs, dropping other babies at their relatives' doorsteps,” he explains.
Robert takes his responsibility seriously and believes his activities are harmless. But many humanitarian agencies don’t take things so lightly. They see the practice as human trafficking and warn that the young children may face emotional abuse.
"The situation is so humiliating,” says Alec Muhoni, a senior child protection officer with Save The Children in Beitbridge, Zimbabwe, “many children are abandoned when taxi drivers are intercepted by South Africa police. Children are not supposed to be transported this way."
Even more worryingly, the most recent report published by the US Embassy in Harare claims that thousands of young boys and girls are trafficked every year between South Africa and Zimbabwe, some being sold into illegal adoptions or ending up as unpaid farm labourers, domestic servants or sexual slaves.
Indeed, the risks associated with the unregulated, unprotected and undercover practice of smuggling babies into Zimbabwe can potentially run very deep indeed.
Nevertheless, with a tried and tested system in place, lubricated by a variety of bribes along the way, hundreds of struggling mothers in South Africa put their trust in omalayitsha each year.They feel they have no choice and believe that these cross-border drivers are providing a service that could improve the lives of their children as well as their own.
And for the omalayitsha like Robert, they just see themselves as doing a job.