Pick-up trucks are being marketed as the preferred mode of transport for undocumented migrants, referred to as "double-ups", the euphemism for the high fares food parcel couriers charge to bring "illegals" into South Africa from Zimbabwe.
The drivers argue that it easier for them to smuggle people along with goods, but business, which is based on a high level of trust, has been slow to pick up.
"We deliver door-to-door, all along the way from here to Harare [the Zimbabwean capital]," a tall tout calls out, trying to persuade a woman carrying a brightly coloured hold-all not to use the bus to send her parcel. Zimbabwean shoppers with bulging hold-alls are a familiar sight on Johannesburg’s inner-city streets.
"Don’t let relatives go hungry when you can send food home easily," he yells again, but the woman ignores him.
As truck drivers call out the names of Zimbabwean destinations, Leyds Street in Johannesburg’s city centre can easily be mistaken for the main bus terminus in Harare.
Pick-up trucks hug the length of the street, all carrying cardboard notices advertising destinations where Zimbabweans exiled in South Africa’s financial capital can send food parcels to relatives and friends back home. "We deliver door-to-door", echoes a banner pasted on a cab’s window.
Still setting up
"We are still trying to establish a reputation, and to cultivate trust from the people here who want to fend for their relatives, but we face stiff competition from buses," said Freddy Chiwerera.
"Most Zimbabweans who cannot return home – because their ‘papers’ are not in order, or don’t have any at all – prefer buses to us," he adds.
Resting his gaze on the fading letters of his notice, Chiwerera said the customer base was growing in tandem with the rising number of people who have fled economic and political problems back home and find their way into South Africa illegally.
"At first they did not trust us, fearing that if they lost their goods they would not be able to trace them," Chiwerera admitted. "Our major customers are relatives that send urgent medicines and drugs."
The seemingly harmless trade belies a serious people-smuggling practice, which appears to have escaped the notice of law enforcement agencies.
Lots of money
Chiwerera says motorists can charge undocumented immigrants as much as R2,000 (about US$250) for the journey of more than 500km from the Zimbabwean border to Johannesburg. However, most couriers charge R1,500 (about $189) compared to the R300 (about $38) a ticket on an ordinary cross-border bus.
"That is where good business is," he says with a beaming smile. "Carrying ‘double-ups’ and transporting furniture items such as refrigerators, television sets and beds back home is another profitable business."
Zerrubabel Mupinha, another food parcel courier on Leyds Street, told IRIN: "One good trip can give you R15,000 ($1,875)," because "double-ups" don’t mind travelling in vehicles packed to the roof.
"If you can fit as many as 15 people in a double-cab vehicle with a canopy, like mine, you make a killing – but that depends on how much you spend bribing police patrolling the highway. It’s part of the risk," he chuckles. "That is why we choose to travel at night."
Hard to get a passport
Getting a travel document in Zimbabwe has become a nightmare. The Registrar General’s Office can take up to a year to issue a passport, forcing hard-pressed Zimbabweans to travel undocumented.
Mupinha says couriers draw most of their customers from the South African border town of Musina, in northern Limpopo Province. "It is safer to carry those that would have crossed the border [from Zimbabwe] on their own."
The South African media recently reported that hundreds of Zimbabweans were camping outside the refugee offices in Musina, hoping to obtain temporary permits.
South African Home Affairs officials are not sure where the people who queue for the permits are living, "but they arrive very early in the morning to be first in line," said spokeswoman Siobhan McCarthy. She said as many as 800 people, mostly Zimbabwean nationals, queue every day for temporary permits.
Police spokesperson Superintendent Ronel Otto said the asylum seekers were peaceful, despite claims by municipal officials that the border town had experienced an upsurge in criminal activities due to the influx.
However, the political settlement between the rival political parties in Zimbabwe on 15 September could affect Mupinha’s and Chiwerera’s business plans. The agreement calls for policies to be put in place that will attract Zimbabwean migrants to return home.
A dying economy and an unemployment rate of more than 80 percent have forced Zimbabweans to seek jobs outside the country; more than three million are estimated to have left the country in recent years.
Trade unionists and leaders of commerce and industry are optimistic that the agreement will bring about an economic revival.
"A huge millstone has been removed from industry’s neck," said Mara Hativagone, former leader of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce. "The signing of the deal is like a new lease of life for industry that was on its knees."