In remote northern Limpopo, near the Zimbabwean border lies a town. The place is overcrowded. For a while now, ever since the demise of the economic and political situation across the border; Musina has become a sort of safe haven for the Zims. You can’t even tell the difference between South Africans and Zimbabweans anymore. You have to listen attentively to the accent. But even that can’t be measured since many Zimbabweans now speak most South African languages. Instead you have to carry your barcoded ID, or risk being mistaken for an ‘alien’. I had forgotten mine so when the Immigration Police Officers stopped the taxi I was travelling back to Polokwane in, an argument ensued for at least 30 minutes, annoying all of the other passengers. I stopped speaking in English and used Tsonga to prove my authenticity. The officers were unmoved. He asked me where I am from; I mentioned that my father’s homeland is a village called Xigalo in Malamulele but that I currently reside in Polokwane. And then he asked: “why didn’t you say so in the first place?” Only to find out that both officers are also from Malamulele and Giyani. We chuckled for a bit. I was told to be careful next time because I could have been detained for at least three days.
Musina at times feels like a human mine dump. A wasteland. Some buildings have traces of the old South African colonial era. Musina seems to have lost touch with the rest of South Africa and is now, somehow, just a reflection of its former glory. No one talks openly about what is happening there. No one wants to care. That has always been the attitude of South Africans, let Zimbabweans deal with their own issues while we look away and act as if we are not seeing the inhumaneness. The brutality. People are numb to the human sufferings that are taking place across the border. We’re numb to them at home, too. Begging kids are just another way of life on the streets of Musina. Throw a coin and the problem goes away momentarily. We are no longer moved by such things. Poverty, racism and tribalism are a norm.
Zimbabweans have partially been integrated into South African society, but at times with unfriendly reminders from immigration that they don’t belong here. But stay for now until things are cool in your country of origin. And yet the racial lines are visible, if you are South African, you get different and preferential treatment.
Growing up, we use to frequent Musina with my family often. Driving down those sloped roads on trips: the Hendrik Verwoed Tunnel, Misisi and Tshipise. I went back there looking for traces of those memories. Instead I was faced with the hush reality of its current ruin. Tourists used to visit the nearby places in abundance, now no one wants to go near. It’s a refugee camp dressed up like a city. In 2006 Pieter Hugo chronicled the plight and the ordinary mishaps of Musina. Through his photographs of individuals, families, interiors, landscapes and incidental details, Hugo reflected on the wounds and scars of race, class and nationhood. He called it a country in the process of self-destructing.
There was also a special report published about Musina, titled ‘Welcome to Musina: the Crime Town’ which described the ruthless gang called the Guma Guma that prey on desperate people crossing the border in search of that old ANC nugget, ‘the better life’.
And despite all this, there is still hope left for Musina. Life lurches towards normality through a few, new mini-malls. A little capitalistic something to keep the spirit yearning for something to live for. To keep us preoccupied. And beyond the town, the surrounding areas offer a plethora of sensory and cultural adventures. Places like Mapungubwe, Tshipise and Madidzi Watefalls are a haven for travellers.
In Northern Limpopo, there is still the beauty of nature juxtaposed against the chaos of human lives. The baobab trees are still a feast for the eye. The landscapes are captivating. Especially if you don’t see them every day. Musina will rise again, surely.
*All images © Morrel Shilenge.