‘Zomwe ndinaona ndimalila mpakapano [When I think of what I went through I cry until today]. Imagine – we stayed two days without eating. “We were only given water at 12pm the next day. Honestly, I nearly saw death,” said Foster Chiwawa of his ordeal at the hands of those who abducted him and more than 40 other Malawians at the South African border with Zimbabwe.
“I still think about those people we left behind. There were skulls of dead people there.”
Chiwawa and his fellow travellers were forcibly marched to a temporary camp in the bush near Beit Bridge where they were held hostage. Victims told AmaBhungane they were threatened with death if they or their South African-based relatives failed to pay up to have them released.
Malawian-based “agents”, who book victims on coaches and travel with them, are part of a syndicate who offer seductively discounted fares.
A Malawian woman based in South Africa told a similar tale and paid R5 000 to secure the release of her abducted brother and his family.
Blantyre police spokesperson Elizabeth Divala confirmed they had received reports from “people who have been duped by these agents”.
“We have been receiving many cases. They happen because people want to use the cheapest means of transport. Our appeal is that they should be going to reliable offices and not to anyone they meet at the depot,” Divala said.
Chiwawa, from Blantyre, told amaBhungane he had paid 79 000 Malawian kwacha (R1 425) to an agent at a warehouse close to the city’s Wenela coach station for a return trip to Durban, where he planned to visit his sister.
An agent told him he needed about MK80 000 (R1 440) for transport costs and about MK150 000 (R2 706) to show South African border officials that he had the means to support himself during his visit.
With his passport in hand, Chiwawa had no doubt he would arrive in South Africa safely. He also didn’t become suspicious when he heard the agents on the phone providing updates on the bus’s whereabouts.
“The bus was moving fast but when we were approaching the […] border it reduced its speed. We arrived at Beit Bridge at 7pm and there we were told to get into two Quantum buses parked there. One of the agents said we would meet at Musina,” he said.
But instead of passing through the border post, the two buses turned off and drove into the bush. They stopped and the passengers were told to start walking after a group of six men.
“With our luggage we started following them, crossed the Limpopo River and we walked the whole night till dawn. Then we got to some place where we were bluntly told that both buses we took from Malawi and the two Quantum buses had gone back and that we should provide an extra R1 500 to get to Johannesburg,” he said.
Chiwawa said some people couldn’t come up with the money because relatives they called didn’t believe them.
On the second day, those whose relatives were reluctant to send them money were told to stand in a separate group. Pointing to human skulls, abandoned luggage and shoes on the ground, one of the abductors said: “See your friends here? They also said they couldn’t pay.”
“My sister sent R1 500 to these people. At 11pm that night about 34 of us left, leaving behind those whose relatives had not sent money for their release.” Chiwawa has no idea what happened to them.
Those who paid were herded onto a bus and driven to Johannesburg. They slept in a warehouse overnight and were dropped in the middle of city the next day.
A Malawian woman based in Midrand told amaBhungane a similar story, about how her brother had phoned her, begging her to rescue him, his wife and his child who were kidnapped en route to South Africa and held in the bush.
“I had invited my brother and his family to come and
DARK BUSINESS The offices in Blantyre, Malawi, where at least one of the syndicates kidnapping and extorting money from Malawians travelling to Joburg operate from.PHOTO: