Photos show contraband smuggled into South Africa from Zimbabwe, not other way round

·2 min read

Photos circulating on social media are being shared alongside claims that Zimbabweans were caught smuggling medication from South Africa back home. The pictures are genuine, taken by the South African army during recent busts. However, it was the other way round: the images show Zimbabweans caught trying to smuggle contraceptives and other goods into South Africa. The misleading claim piggybacks on rising jingoism targeting foreigners, especially Zimbabweans, in South Africa.

“Zimbabweans collecting medication from south African clinics pretending to be sick and smuggling it to zim (sic),” reads a Facebook post published on September 7, 2022.

The post includes three photographs: one of a carry bag filled with blister packs containing medication, and another two showing men and soldiers in the bushveld surrounded by large packages sealed in plastic.

A screenshot of the misleading claim, taken on September 12, 2022


The same claim about the images was retweeted thousands of times on Twitter.

Some social media users believed the claim and expressed support for Phophi Ramathuba, the political head of health in South Africa’s Limpopo province who was filmed ranting at a Zimbabwean patient in a state medical facility, saying foreigners were placing additional pressure on the country’s public healthcare system.

A screenshot of comments on the Facebook post, taken on August 13, 2022

The claim, however, is misleading.

Vice versa

A reverse image search of the picture with the tablets led to a statement posted on Facebook by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) describing recent successes with various anti-smuggling operations, one of which included a seizure of pills ─ the same ones in the picture shared with the misleading claim.

According to the statement,  the pills were being smuggled into South Africa ─ not out.

“At Echo 2 our soldiers confiscated what is called Control L Hormonal Contraceptives pills valued at R423 916.00 (approximately $24,000) which were being smuggled into South Africa from Zimbabwe,” reads the SANDF statement, published on September 5, 2022.

The statement detailed other recent busts of illegal goods, including sneakers and firearms, and included the two photos of large, black packages.

This illicit trade of medication from Zimbabwe to South Africa is not new. An April 2021 report by non-profit news agency GroundUp said it was spurred by demand from Zimbabwean women in South Africa who preferred to use familiar brands rather than local options.

Traders also told GroundUp that women turned to this illegal market to avoid long queues at clinics.

Screenshot from the GroundUp article published in April 2021

The article includes a photo of the packaging for Control contraceptive pills. The box carries the Zimbabwean health ministry’s logo in the bottom left corner.

Photo of the contraceptive pack published by GroundUp

The same pill is listed on the Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council website as a contraceptive.

A comparison of the pills distributed in Zimbabwe (L) and those seized in the bust