OFFICIAL discussions about how to manage traffic and people through Africa’s busiest border post — Beitbridge — have been going on for at least a decade. And yet, every major holiday begets horror stories about the experience of trying to move through this border crossing. This past Christmas season was no exception. In fact, with the mass flight of Zimbabweans to SA, the situation has become worse.
Delays of several hours for holiday- makers were commonplace. Cars queued for kilometres from the immigration buildings on either side of the border, touts milled through the crowds soliciting bribes, and the sun beat down on the crowds in one of the hottest places in the region.
In the months leading up to the festive season, officials said plans were being made to avoid the usual problems experienced at this vital border crossing. To no avail, it seems.
Not only is Beitbridge a key link between Zimbabwe and SA, it is also a vital cog in the transport network across southern Africa. Yet trucks can spend up to five days trying to get cleared, at great cost to transporters.
SA’s Department of Home Affairs estimates that about 10000 people use the border a day during normal times, with this rising to 18000 over the holidays. Officials at the border post estimated that 3500 vehicles were passing through the post on an average day over the Christmas period.
Surely the experts could solve the problem relatively easily if they put their minds to it? One problem identified in the recent melee was a lack of parking space in the South African yard, which can accommodate only 80 heavy vehicles, 10 buses and 100 cars. Vehicles in Zimbabwe, cleared to go through, were unable to cross into SA until space became available there for them to park. This is not a new problem, so why have the parking facilities not been expanded?
Trucks also clog up the border post as drivers have to process piles of clearing documents and deal with myriad government agencies . These processes need to rationalised. Government task teams have apparently been established to facilitate this process. But history shows us that bureaucrats generally find it a lot easier to increase bureaucracy than reduce it.
The original bridge across the Zambezi River at Beitbridge remains closed, forcing all traffic on to the newer tolled bridge. The New Limpopo Bridge Company, concessionaire for the new bridge, claims that reopening the old one would not reduce congestion. But in reality this resource remains closed because the company cannot toll users — the Beit Trust, which paid for the bridge to be built in 1929, does not allow users to be charged, in perpetuity.
The mooted longer-term solution to the problem is the creation of a one- stop border post. A pilot one-stop border post was opened at Chirundu, between Zimbabwe and Zambia, before Christmas. Passenger traffic is reportedly moving well through the new one-stop post, though authorities are still ironing out freight problems.
There seems to be little point in speeding up vehicle and freight clearance at Chirundu without smoothing operations at Beitbridge, given that about half of traffic through one goes through the other. A second one-stop border post is scheduled for Ressano Garcia, between SA and Mozambique. However, this project has got bogged down in the planning stages.
Overambitious design features of the new five-storey customs and immigration building mean the project cost has leapt from about R600m, which SA had agreed to pay, to nearly R2bn. Bridging finance will have to found before the project can go ahead.
Sources claim Zimbabwe is eager to have the one-stop border post at Beitbridge but the project is being held up by SA, which is not keen on relinquishing the kind of control that is required by the one-stop model.
Unless sufficient political will is mustered to fast-track solutions to the problems at the border crossing, I would wager that holidaymakers at Christmas this year may be facing more nightmares trying to negotiate their way across this hot hellhole.
There must be simple solutions that are within the power of politicians to implement . Another decade of discussions is not an option.