KANGWANE, SOUTH AFRICA -- Hundreds of Mozambicans displaced by civil war are pouring into the South African homeland of Kangwane every month amid reports that some desperate migrants are being bought and sold in a burgeoning "slave trade."
The homeland's chief minister, Enos Mabuza, said in an interview that he believes there is some truth to recent reports published in the Weekly Mail and the Sowetan newspaper that ruthless entrepreneurs have become virtual "slave traders" by exploiting the Mozambicans for safe haven and work in South Africa.
The Weekly Mail alleged that there was "an organized network of slave traders who entice young men and women from war-torn Mozambique across the border by offering them jobs" in South Africa. It said it had talked to three "slave traders" who spoke about their "stock" of refugees.
The Mozambicans are fleeing the 15-year civil war in their homeland, which the South African government helped fuel by supporting the right-wing Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo) with arms and allegedly with guerrilla training. Between 600,000 and 1 million people have died in the war, and 3 million of Mozambique's 15 million people have been driven from their homes by the fighting.
South African officials "created that monster and it's now uncontrollable. We're sitting here with the legacy of the atrocities of the monster they created," Mabuza said in an interview at the homeland's makeshift administrative center at Louieville.
There are now an estimated 22,000 Mozambicans living in Kangwane who have registered with the government, but authorities say unregistered migrants push that total to 60,000.
It is estimated that 75,000 to 80,000 Mozambicans have fled into South Africa, many passing through Kangwane to hide in the black townships around Pretoria and Johannesburg.
Mozambicans continue to pour across the border "at a steady rate of 500 per month," 200 more than the monthly average last year, according to a Kangwane administration report.
The problem has been exacerbated by a Mozambican government offensive, the largest of the war, that began last spring just before peace talks began.
Renamo has charged that the government offensive was launched to force civilian supporters of the rebels out of Renamo-held territory and to create more refugees in an effort to win U.S. aid. The Mozambican government has denied the Renamo charges, saying it must continue to fight until Renamo agrees in the Rome peace talks to discuss a cease-fire.
The South African government refuses to recognize the Mozambicans who have fled here as official refugees or allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to aid them. Instead, it regards them as "illegal immigrants who should be arrested and repatriated on sight," according to Mabuza.
But Pretoria has negotiated a deal allowing Mabuza's administration in Kangwane to issue the refugees "temporary resident permits" allowing them to reside in the homeland, a mostly rocky piece of land adjacent to the Swaziland border that has limited self-governing authority. They are not allowed to live or work in South Africa, Mabuza said.
The soft-spoken Mabuza said he was "afraid" that the reports about the slave trade "might embarrass" Pretoria and prompt it to deport thousands of refugees with residence permits.
So far, however, South African authorities have given no indication that they plan to step up efforts to deport illegal Mozambicans.
Both the South African police and the Kangwane homeland administration have opened investigations into the alleged slave trade.
Mabuza said he did not believe the practice of "selling" refugees was "very common" but said he had long heard rumors that illegal Mozambicans were being exploited by white farmers and black businessmen. "But we've never been able to put our finger on this, the problem being that it's those who don't register with us who are exploited," he said.
According to the Weekly Mail, some of its reporters "bought" two young men for about $80 each from a middleman in a settlement in Kangwane and talked to a 17-year-old woman whom another "slave trader" tried unsuccessfully to "sell" as a concubine for the same price in the townships around Johannesburg after sexually abusing her himself.
Some officials at the Mangweni Refugee Registration Center appeared upset by the slave-trade reports, and barred reporters from interviewing or taking pictures of any refugees.
But others said some refugees were exploited in various ways in their search for a safe haven.
First, the officials said, the refugees are obliged to pay large fees to Mozambican guides to get them safely across the electrified fence along the South African border.
If they register with the Kangwane administration, they must pay village chiefs in the homeland $24 to $32 for a plot of land to put up a shack. Then they are forced to work as "illegals" on white-owned farms for as little as $16 to $24 a month, one-third to one-half of what poorly paid black South African farm workers get.
In some cases, the officials said, white farmers refuse to pay illegal Mozambican refugees for their work and then threaten to have them expelled from the country if they complain to authorities.
About the only good piece of news for Mozambican refugees this year has been the decision of the South African government -- under pressure from the British and U.S. governments -- to turn off the high-voltage electrical fence that runs along much of the border between the two countries.
Charged with 3,200 volts, the 38-mile fence was responsible for the electrocution of 94 refugees between 1986 and 1989, according to the South African Council of Churches. "It's on 'nonlethal' now. It doesn't kill anybody. It just sets off our alarm," said Defense Force spokesman Col. John Rolt.