In Matsamo, up in the north of Swaziland, and where the Mpumalanga province begins, there are two kinds of border gates: official and unofficial. This past Saturday I had time enough to use them both. Well, not exactly.

You know how official border gates work, don’t you? A bespectacled official tells you to throw your passport into that open hole on the table, as she looks at you from across the glass partition. She picks it up, looks at your picture, at you, at the picture again, then she laughs. If she’s in a good mood, she asks for your boots’ registration number. 

And you say, “The ones I’m wearing?” to which she says, “You have another pair?” But you say you’re wearing your last pair and she lets you go. So to the zealous bag searchers you go; and you’re relieved when they find no grass in your stuff. Shit, you know, whether you packed crap or not, it may be found in there.

Now, you’re in Mpumalanga province, and you’re seeing the same Acacia trees that adorn the Matsamo you just left in Mswati’s country, and it’s still 10:00am. Who wants to leave for Gauteng cities at so early an hour? No. Not me. So some pebbles you kick. And, hands thrust deep into shallow denim pockets, you proceed to stroll, and to surreptitiously make faces at the children perched on their mothers’ backs. You smile, they smile. You frown, they cry. Jesus Christ! You may as well leave.

Having fastened your boots’ shoelaces you trek, going towards Jeppes Reef. 500 meters into your journey, what do you see? What? Yup. That’s right, an EXODUS. Vans — that is, very old models of Isuzus, Toyotas, Datsuns, etc. — heavy with people, delivering them at the station so they can get onto some taxi going to Driekoppies, Malelane, Schoemansdal, or some other nearby hamlet or town. You know you’re not a cat but you’re curious, so as one of the vans picks up a load going the other way, going to Swaziland, you jump up. 

But the perspiring driver, wearing his Nike cap, tells you that the fare is R15. You jump up because you have more than that. And to good old sovereign Swaziland you return. Because you’re a fool. And because you’re not as prudent as a cat. You’re just curious. The people you’re riding with, you learn, are Swazis going home for the holidays. Poor Swazis. Very poor. But a tad better off now. Pleasantries you exchange and your surname you share. 

One guy suggests that you may be a cousin. Don’t you know Fanyana Mbuyisa? Nope. I never saw the fellow. You really should look him up. You have his nose, you know? No thanks, this one is mine. No. That’s not what I mean. Huh? Never mind. Anyway, eventually you do reach the South Africa/Swaziland boundary line.

Change of tone: Upon reaching the ‘jump-over’ (Es’cancweni) place, one finds that there is a rank there. And there is trade: people selling water, others begging you to get biscuits and chips, as one helps you exchange Swazi notes for South African ones. And there are people everywhere. It’s difficult to estimate, but I imagine over 2000 people enter South Africa at Matsamo’s unofficial border every day. In the busy season. Many don’t have passports. Some were banned by South Africa’s customs office for not fulfilling certain Visa requirements. And then there are many, many kids. New visa laws make it almost impossible for children to get into South Africa with their parents. It’s all a load of crap, I tell you.

It’s not without significance that the people jumping into South Africa, and a few back into Swaziland, are Swazis, not South Africans. One doesn’t need to see a study to know what it is they are escaping. Poverty. And a whole lot of other bullshit troubles. Many have become residents of the many settlements along the N4 route. One woman with beautiful hair told me that she prefers the Shongwe Hospital in Jeppes Reef to the Swaziland Govt health facility in Piggs Peak. 

The men are employed as labourers in many of the farms around Malelane, and in construction sites all over Mpumalanga. One Babe Mashaba, eating his boiled free-range chicken and crushing its bones with his teeth to suck in the juice, told me of his mining job in Witbank. And I told him of my uncle who has a family there. He was a teenager when he left Swaziland in the 80s.

But some of the stories are too personal and too harrowing to repeat. Over a 430 km boundary line, Swaziland shares about 11 border gates with South Africa. I’ve only used two: Oshoek and Matsamo. The latter for the first time this past Saturday. Every day, people cross over into South Africa, and back into Swaziland, illegally. Some are captured and beaten to a pulp by Swazi soldiers. And since I stay near the border, I’ve seen many such cases. They’re tortured and made to march all over Oshoek, Nkhungu, and Ka-Dake. Made to sing. And to dance.

It’s better at Matsamo. It’s the soldiers who monitor the people moving in and out of the country. No one is ever turned back. Except for Oshoek, I don’t know about the other places.

Jesus, I’m rambling. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Swaziland is different things to different people. To some it’s heaven. To many, it is what it is. It’s good old Swaziland. With an economic and political system that’s neither capitalistic nor socialistic. It’s just corruption here and corruption there. And foreign aid everywhere.

There is a Border Restoration Committee in the kingdom. They want to extend Swaziland’s boundary by reclaiming parts of Mpumalanga. The history says the old South Africa stole our land. They seem to be serious about it. The committee members draw a salary every month too. I believe a prince chairs it. Think about that, will ya.

I should go ahead and state that I don’t know what the point of this piece is. I conceived it as a rant. In studying, or just merely observing, Swaziland troubles, I often come out feeling a hopelessness that leaves me confused. I also despair. One often hopes, you know, that things, eventually, will get better in Swaziland. That the king, if he doesn’t abdicate, will at least initiate measures that’ll lead to the fair sharing of power. 

And that such power sharing — or democracy, if you like — will somehow lead to Swaziland having a better performing economy. Such that people won’t be compelled to flee. They are leaving in droves: those who, with their qualifications, would be valuable to the country’s upliftment; and those who are abjectly poor and desperate. But waiting and hoping that reforms will be initiated, I’ve come to feel, is really like waiting for Jesus Christ of Nazareth to return.

There are so many people with interests who are fine with things the way they are. Traditionalists. Business people. Etc., etc. It’s this impulse, really, that often leads me to thinking that the country’s incorporation into South Africa wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all. But I am not naive. There’s a great deal of nationalism in Swaziland. Steeped, deeply, in tradition. Swazis back home are fine with being in their own country. 

Despite the troubles. And those who flee dream of returning there. They find the idea of having a home in Swaziland appealing. The advantages of incorporation — so many of them — are never really considered.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind incorporation. This despite that I argued with vehemence, in the past, with South African law students at school, telling them that incorporation is a NO-NO. Pointing out that incorporation also means adopting South Africa’s problems. It is true. Incorporation means that as well. But it’s very cynical a defense. 

The advantages far outweigh the troubles. And, anyway, doing away with the borders will mean many great opportunities for Swazis, young and old, who can never amount to anything in Swaziland’s hidden class system. South Africa will gain about 17 400 square kilometres of land, and a population of about 1.2 million. Plus a whole lot more.

Back to initial tone: I often think of tossing my Swaziland Identity card and passport out the window. But the trouble is that a tramp may find it and look at my picture. I don’t want people — tramp or dandy — laughing at my official photograph. I’m too solemn in there to be laughed at.

NB: This article first appeared on The Medium