ANC Daily News Briefing/AFP/Sapa, 26 March 2008

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A group of pickup trucks tears off into the coal black Limpopo night -their flashing green lights warning criminals and Zimbabwean immigrants that the farm patrol is on duty. The South African farmers' voices crackle over the CB radio as they tip each other off about suspicious sightings on their property. The trespassers are usually desperate Zimbabweans whose search for greener pastures in South Africa is swiftly halted by the Green Light Patrol, which takes any illegal immigrants they pick up to the police who then deport them. Desperate to escape grinding poverty and hunger, they are flooding across South Africa's porous border, damaging the delicate symbiosis between these farmers and Zimbabweans. For years Zimbabweans were the only labour available to the farmers, since black South Africans were confined to the former Venda homeland on the other side of the Soutpansberg mountains under the apartheid racial segregation system. Here in the northernmost part of South Africa there is little but farmland and harsh bushveld stretching hundreds of kilometres south of the muddy Limpopo river that thousands of Zimbabweans risk their lives to cross. Desperate to reach Johannesburg 540 kilometers (335 miles) further south, the border jumpers venture into this unforgiving landscape of olive-green scrub and baobab trees; dirty, exhausted, hungry and parched. Driven to steal clothes, blankets and food - breaking through farm fences, cutting waterpipes to get water - the sheer numbers of illegal immigrants have exasperated farmers. Local farmer Stephen Hoffman said farmers have felt increasingly vulnerable since the disbanding of the commandos - rural policing forums that used to assist police - and the authorities did nothing to stop the cross-border flow. "You have to protect your property if the government is failing to do so," he said. Immigrants are also highly vulnerable, often falling prey to exploitation by farmers after managing to dodge the army and border police. For many Zimbabweans, South Africa - the continent's economic powerhouse - is the land of plenty their own country was before hyperinflation and mass unemployment took hold at the start of the decade. "The life there is so difficult to enjoy, I am happy to work here," says Alex Gondo, who works at an organic vegetable farm outside Lousi Trichardt. He made the treacherous crossing across the Limpopo river after his former boss lost his farm during Zimbabwe's land reform programme. "They have money, but there is nothing to buy there," he says of his country where supermarket shelves are often bare. Some farmers take advantage of the immigrants who arrive at their gates begging for work, paying abysmal salaries, and reporting them to police if they complain. At a farm in Waterpoort, some 90 kilometers south of the border, Tereerai Molambo explains how her employer tried to get her deported after she broke her leg. Standing in a tiny room on the compound of a neighbouring farm where friends took her in - paying her to look after their children while they work - Molambo says she was packing potatoes when she fell. "The wheel of the tractor drove over my leg and one thigh was broken. I was taken to the hospital. My boss just left me - he didn't give me any help," she tells AFP. Instead, he called the police to report her as an illegal immigrant. A group of farmworkers canvassed on the farm where Molambo sought refuge, while happy with their own working conditions, tell stories of abuse of workers being beaten and paid as little as two rand an hour. According to South Africa's minimum wage laws, farm labourers should earn five rand and seven cents an hour or 1,090 rand (133 US dollars, 87 euros) a month. Recently South Africa's labour department has stepped up pressure on farmers to comply with regulations allowing them to get permits for their workers, holding raids to check up on working conditions. No one knows exactly how many Zimbabweans are in South Africa, with estimates ranging up to four million. Some 22,000 are deported a month, only to return.