PBS Wide Angle: 'Border Jumpers'

Peter Hutchens and Ryan Hill
Wednesday, July 27, 2005; 11:00 AM

Along the border between an unstable and destitute Zimbabwe, and a relatively calm and prosperous Botswana, a 300-mile, eight-foot-high electric fence is being erected -- ostensibly to stop the spread of cattle disease. But the fence also blocks the human tide of illegal immigrants who are fleeing poverty and political repression in Zimbabwe. Every night, Botswana's armed soldiers try to stop the border jumpers from climbing over or cutting through the fence, in a desperate search for a better life. Last year alone, Botswana repatriated a total of 36,000 illegal immigrants back to Zimbabwe.

This story involves two dramatically different African nations - one a success story, the other virtually in economic collapse. Wide Angle observes the human drama behind the barbed wire, hearing the stories of those whose lives have become entangled in the fence: illegal immigrants threatened with repeated arrest and deportation, a cattle farmer who strongly favors the fence, and a journalist who reports daily on growing fears among Botswana's citizens that their 1.7 million people could be overrun by Zimbabwe's troubled 12 million.

Producers Peter Hutchens and Ryan Hill were online Wednesday, July 27, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the film, "Border Jumpers," which airs Tuesday, July 26, at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).

PBS Wide Angle: Border Jumpers.

A transcript follows.


Laurel, Md.: Most African borders were drawn by colonialists without regard to the population patterns of the indigenous population.

Do the border jumpers have strong ethnic ties to the people of the neighboring area?

Peter Hutchens: That's a great observation. Some of the Zimbabwean border jumpers do indeed share a common ethnic heritage with their Botswanan neighbors. I believe that one of these groups is the Kalanga people. It's true that colonial borders were often drawn with strategic interests, rather than cultural ones.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Gentlemen, I had the opportunity to view the program last evening here in Los Angeles. It was a very interesting program and I commend you on bringing this plight of the people of Zimbabwe. My question is this: given the state of affairs in Africa with the transition of colonial powers giving control back to African people, do you think that continent will ever take advantage of the aid the Western powers are contributing and really use that to help themselves out of poverty? Or will the nations of Africa continue to fool the world that they truly are committed to helping themselves?

Peter Hutchens: I would say that overall I am hopeful about the future of Africa. It may take time for Africans and African leaders to really begin to work in the best interests of their people, but speaking with people in Botswana and with the Zimbabwean border jumpers gave Ryan and me hope about Africa's future. Many African nations are still young in terms of independence, and as the education system in Africa improves, I think that Africans will begin to take hold of their countries -- and in some instances, begin to hold their leaders accountable.


London, United Kingdom: Obviously, the answer to this problem is not for Botswana to take in Zimbabweans--it is, instead, for Zimbabwe to get rid of Mugabe and restore good governance. What are the prospects for doing so? What explains Mugabe's support when his people are dying? And how can Zimbabwe's neighbor states--Botswana, South Africa, and others--pressure Mugabe to step down? What can the U.S. or the U.N. do?

Ryan Hill: One of the border jumpers who we interviewed made the point that Zimbabweans are too tired to stage an uprising. It also seemed like the MDC has lost some of its support. Some of the Zimbabweans we spoke with told us that when Tsvangirai called for sanctions on Zimbabwe he disenfranchised a lot of the Zimbabweans who were supporting him. As far as the neighboring states, they refuse to criticize Mugabe, and it looks like now China will block the security council from censuring Mugabe.


Raleigh, N.C. Are there any NGOs currently helping the Zimbaweans?

Ryan Hill: There are several, but the lack of fuel, resources, and the government crackdown has made it difficult to work there.


Newton Falls, Ohio: How can I get a copy of the documentary?

Ryan Hill: You can contact Wide Angle directly,


Ottawa, Canada: In your opinion, can the Commonwealth be an effective force against Mugabe? If so, what can the Commonwealth do in order to help the people of Zimbabwe end the rule of this tyrant?

Peter Hutchens: The best thing the Commonwealth can do is to continue to call upon African nations, especially South Africa, to end their policy of "silent diplomacy" towards Zimbabwe. Unless Zimbabwe's neighbors speak out against the injustices in Zimbabwe, Mugabe will continue to take comfort in having silent "allies" on all sides.


Silver Spring, Md.: Hello producers of the show ...I happened to watch the program you aired last night on WETA. It was really a good one. However I, as an African immigrant here in the U.S., have a major thing to comment on. I know it is impossible to present a show that would satisfy all viewers. However, unless major issues pertinent to the matter at hand are discussed and emphasized your show would be one side show/or a one man show.

You have covered most of the problems with your guest, Prof. George from American University. But you failed to raise the issue of "GOOD GOVERNANCE" in relation to the U.S. and British appointed African leaders that are in power for years. To mention a few (Ugandan president Musevine, Ethiopian leader Zenawie, ..) these and other leaders are put and supported by U.S. and British governments. They are called African new democratic leaders ..! I don't know why every body shies away from this issue. The greatest problem in Africa is not poverty or lack of resource or disease; it is the leaders-leaders that are put by western governments, namely the U.S. and U.K., period!

You tell Africans that they have bad leaders and on the side you deal with these leaders, calling them democrats. This is the major problem. Look at the above African leaders I mentioned; they have been in power for the last 15 years. What kind of democratic leader stays in power for so long? How would we like to have Bush for 15 years or Clinton for 15 years? This is all hypocrisy. The western world has no earnest will for third world to get out of its problem. And this is a well founded statement if you are honestly willing to examine what they are actually doing.

There is one other thing that bothers me most too. Now, your show is directed towards understanding the world better- after September 11. You see, it took September 11 incident for even you people to launch such interest . And our biggest concern these days in the "civilized" world is that how can we fight terrorism- or eliminate terrorism ideology. I am afraid in the pattern we are handling the rest of the world I don't think that is possible. It is not a mystery that the western world is trying to change the rest of the world's ideology, values, etc. As long as people are forcefully given appointed leaders, their culture, values are degraded and disrespected they tend to seek every outlet possible to fight back..

I hope you will entertain these issues by probably presenting another concerned officials. Thanks.

Ryan Hill: Thanks for your remarks. As an African immigrant living in the U.S., you obviously have first hand experience with these issues. As far as the point you raise about the other African leaders, Musevine and Zenawie, I don't know their story or why they have stayed in power for so long. Our show was mainly dealing with Zimbabwe and Botswana and it is widely accepted that Mugabe has rigged elections, and he has vowed to stay in power until his death.


Arlington, Tex.: What explains Botswana's success? Did they just get lucky with good rulers or are there more solid foundations like civil or social institutions that promote stability or progress in the country?

Ryan Hill: Botswana has several things going for it. First, the government prides itself on the lack of corruption. Second, the guest on our show, George Ayattey raised an excellent point about how Botswana has taken tribal systems that were in place, and incorporated them into the modern-day democracy. Those factors in addition to the wealth from diamonds have all contributed to Botswana's success.


Los Angeles, Calif.: The interview with Bill Moyers talking to the author or "Africa Unchained" was very insightful. The author was well versed in African history and culture. I was very impressed by his knowledge. Can you discuss in brief you opinion about this author and his interview by Mr. Moyer?

Ryan Hill: Thanks for your comments. As the producers of the show, we thought Bill Moyers did an excellent job interviewing George Ayattey and that his responses were insightful and a great complement to the show.

Peter Hutchens: Our goal in making this film was to spark dialogue about the Zimbabwean situation, and the interview with George Ayattey accomplished just that. Whether one agrees with all of his arguments or not, it is hard to argue that the African people and the international community need to hold African leaders to a higher standard.


Boulder, Colo.: Having just returned from an area in South Africa that borders Zimbabwe, this is all so fresh in my heart. The program is really an eye-opener for those Americans who are not aware of these happenings. If the folks from Zimbabwe that cross the border do get employment in Botswana, how do they get money and things back to their families? In South Africa it seemed very difficult.

Peter Hutchens: It is difficult for the Zimbabwean border jumpers to bring money, food, and clothes back into their country. Many border jumpers cross through the electric fence, others find ways to go through legal checkpoints, and still others send money with Zimbabweans who have made a business out of transporting money back and forth across the border. The problem is that if Zimbabweans are caught and deported in Botswana, they must return home empty-handed.


Alabama: Great film on a tragic situation. Do you know what has happened to Mary or Solomon?

Ryan Hill: Three weeks ago I was in Botswana for some additional shooting on the film, and the day before I left got a call from Mary. She now has a work permit and is working in the home of a Botswanan- which at first seemed like good news, but she's working long hours seven days a week and told me she can't go on. She's not sure what the next step is, but I'm hoping she can find a job where her employers will treat her better. As far as Solomon, when we said goodbye to him after filming we knew we'd never see him again. One of the most difficult parts about making documentaries.


Silver Spring, Md.: Congratulations on a fantastic documentary! We were wondering what kind of challenges you had to overcome in the field while filming? Any funny stories?

Ryan Hill: Thanks for your comments. "Border Jumpers" was a challenging story to shoot because it's such a sensitive issue in Botswana. The government has been burned by journalists who don't care about telling a balanced story, rather- they see the fence, the army patrols, and the deportations, and write a sensational story about the xenophobia. Once we gained a filming permit, the shooting was both fun and challenging, but it was most rewarding to spend time with our characters, namely Solomon and Mary. For more information about the production you can check


Albany, N.Y. : Your movie showed the reality of Zimbabwean life. I wish there were more programs that show what Zimbabweans are experiencing. One would think that the leaders of Botswana and South Africa would put pressure on the Zimbabwean government to help bring about change, instead they continue to handle the Zimbabwean government with kids gloves. They never blame the Zimbabwean president when it matters, when they are in International conferences, e.g the G-8. Mbeki never says a word against Mugabe. I think Botswana and South Africa need to bear the burden of not speaking up to pressure Mugabe to step down. But as you showed in your movie its the little man who bears the brunt of bad governance. Do you make other movies on the region?

Ryan Hill: We haven't yet, but it's a fascinating part of the world and we would both like to do more work there. Thanks for your comments.


Garden City, N.Y.: My family and I lived in Zimbabwe during what were maybe the 'golden years', from 1992-97, when there was so much progress, so much hope, and a growing confidence in the development of good relations between the races. We look with horror and immense sadness at what Mugabe is doing to his people, and feel so helpless. In your talks with the people you met, did you get any sense of what the outside world could do to help, anything?

Ryan Hill: Thanks for your comments. The first time I went to Zimbabwe was in 1998 and I saw what you were talking about. We left with the impression that the biggest thing the outside world could do would be to pressure SADC to put pressure on Mugabe.


Cincinnati, Ohio: I saw the program last night, and thought it was well done. One question that was left lingering in my mind - do you think that, in airing this film, you will inadvertently have endangered any of the Border Jumpers you interviewed?

Peter Hutchens: Coming from a country where journalists can be jailed for up to a year for speaking out against the government, many Zimbabweans were reluctant to be filmed. Others, like Mary and Solomon, welcomed the opportunity to tell their story -- a story that has been lost to the outside world.

Ryan Hill: This was a concern of ours while filming, which is why we changed the names of characters. The outspoken border jumpers at the Center for Illegal Immigrants are currently seeking asylum and have no intention of returning to Zimbabwe while Mugabe is in power.


New York, N.Y.: What is the racial and ethnic composition of the Botswana owning class that employs Zimbabwean workers?

Peter Hutchens: We found that the majority of Botswanans who employ Zimbabwean workers were black Africans. Botswana is quite a racially diverse country, though, and there are also many whites, Indians, Chinese, and other groups represented.


Denver, Colo.: I watched Border Jumpers last night and was very moved by it. Thank you for telling the story. I am a Zimbabwean now living in the U.S. and would like to find out how I can buy a copy of this documentary.

Ryan Hill: You can contact Wide Angle at


Maryland: Who should be in charge of policing Africa in the event of another Rwanda? Can Africans do it themselves yet? It seems that there is always a genocide in Africa.

Peter Hutchens: Recent flashpoints like Sudan and Zimbabwe have given the African Union an opportunity to step up and take responsibility over the affairs of the continent. However, the fact that the African Union continues to ignore the problems in Zimbabwe suggests that the Africa still has a long way to go.


Ryan Hill: Thanks so much for watching WIDE ANGLE and for your interest in the plight of the Zimbabwean border jumpers.


Peter Hutchens: Thanks for watching the show, and for asking such great questions. I hope this dialogue is just one of many to come about the future of Zimbabwe and African leadership.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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