With xenophobia rising, electrified border fence hailed

The word "Zimbabwean" gets Motswana traditional leader Jackson Ofentse hot under the collar.

"Please don't ever mention to me the criminals from across the border," he told IRIN. His village of Changate in northern Botswana is only 5 km from the frontier, and he has nothing good to say about his neighbours.

"Our women can no longer gather firewood in the bush for fear of being raped; our houses are not safe any more, and even our livestock find their way across the border," he complained.

Ofentse is looking forward to the day when the Botswana government flicks the switch on a four-metre high electrified border fence that snakes across the scrubland, ostensibly to control the spread of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) from Zimbabwe.

Two outbreaks of FMD in two years, which hit Botswana's lucrative beef exports to the European Union, were sourced to Zimbabwe. Jobs were lost and thousands of cattle slaughtered.

While the 500-km long fence officially aims to block the mixing of herds on common pasture, Ofentse and many other Batswana hope it will also keep out the thousands of Zimbabweans escaping poverty at home, who sneak cross the border looking for work in more prosperous Botswana.

An estimated 36,000 illegal migrants were deported last year alone and, with xenophobia now firmly on the rise, Zimbabweans have become the target of a growing vigilante movement.

The solar-powered fence, which will deliver a nasty but not fatal 220-volt shock, is due to become operational in June, and will be patrolled 24 hours a day by the security forces. A survey by the Southern African Migration Project found that a majority of Batswana supported its construction.

The villagers of Changate, 140 km northeast of Botswana's second city Francistown, may feel more secure behind the new barrier, but they have lost the perks of proximity to Zimbabwe. Gone are the cheap shopping trips across the border, and easy access to relatives on the Zimbabwean side.

"We had relied on labour from Zimbabwe for a long time. It was also nearer to travel to Plumtree in Zimbabwe to do your shopping than travel to Francistown," explained local journalist Khumbulani Kholi.

Residents in the border villages used to buy cheap Zimbabwean livestock, and enjoyed an easy supply of fruit and vegetables. "When I was growing up, my brothers even went across the border to have a drink in the Nswazi village [in Zimbabwe]," said Kholi.

Now, getting to Zimbabwe entails a two-hour walk to the nearest border post at Maitengwe, and for those who don't have passports, a 140-km journey to the immigration office in Tutume.

"We don't hate Zimbabweans here," said Kholi. "We are only tired of elements that come to steal from us."