For the past six years blind Zimbabweans have been quietly eking out a living by begging for money in the streets of South African cities.
Their plight was not known to many until early last year when the country experienced a sudden influx of blind beggars from a country hit by a severe economic meltdown.
The situation was worsened by serious fuel and food shortages and a high unemployment rate.
A Sowetan investigation has found that blind beggars have been operating on the streets of Johannesburg since 2002. They used 30-day visas to come in and out of the country without raising eyebrows.
It was only in January last year that South Africans realised what was happening.
But it was too late as the blind beggars had already taken over traffic intersections throughout Johannesburg. And they were not prepared to leave. Metro police tried to remove them but they kept on coming back.
Every day police would arrest hundreds of blind beggars for contravening the Streets, Public Places and the Prevention of Nuisances Act. However, this did not discourage them. After some time they would be back at the same spots.
Today, more than 500 blind beggars are believed to be living and operating in Johannesburg and surrounding areas. Most are women and illegal immigrants who live in abandoned flats in the city centre.
Pastor Steven Chiadzwa, of the Zimbabwean Pastors Forum (ZPF) told Sowetan that the organisation had helped hundreds of blind Zimbabweans to obtain asylum papers.
"ZPF assisted 300 blind people seeking asylum in July last year. We had to convince the authorities to grant them asylum even though they were not political refugees. We convinced them that blind beggars only came into this country to flee starvation in Zimbabwe," said Chiadzwa.
For the blind, begging on the streets of Johannesburg is about survival.
Many have risked their lives crossing the Limpopo River and the border illegally in search of a better life.
Although they are helped by other people to cross the border and river, it still remained their responsibility to make it to the other side.
At the Limpopo River other sighted Zimbabweans apparently charge blind people R50 each to help them cross.
A beggar who wished to remain anonymous confirmed that this was a very common practice.
"Some even take you as far as Johannesburg where they introduce you to other Zimbabweans. I paid R100 to a man who helped me and my child cross the border."
She, however, refuted claims that the man could be working with a syndicate to traffic people like her into the country.
Stories abound of a mysterious syndicate behind the influx of blind beggars into South Africa. No one has produced any proof of this.
A Johannesburg metro police investigations into the allegations have yielded nothing.
How did so many people in Zimbabwe become blind?
A study by the British Medical Journal in 1988 showed that 75 percent of the Zimbabwean blind community was not born blind but suffered from a disease called bilateral corneal opacity, which is usually caused by measles.
The outbreak of onchocerciasis, better known as river blindness in the 1960s, was also identified as another cause of blindness in Zimbabwe. River blindness has left many adults blind.