Goods destined for Tanzania, Malawi stranded in South Africa

Thursday October 21 2021
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Congestion at the Beitbridge border crossing from South Africa to Zimbabwe currently of the vehicles stuck in the logjam are trucks and pantechnicons carrying goods into Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania. PHOTO | AGENCIES

By Chris Erasmus

Cape Town. Cross-border traders from South Africa to Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe could be counting losses as one of Africa’s most important road routes is again congested at the Beitbridge border crossing from South Africa to Zimbabwe.

This is the second time in just over a year that the bridge gets backlogged.

The latest backlog has seen more than 20kms of traffic backed up from the border crossing over the Limpopo River on the South African side to the nearest town, Musina.

The great majority of the vehicles stuck in the logjam are trucks and pantechnicons carrying goods into Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania, among other destination countries.

Drivers forced to stay with their vehicles, some of them having already been a week in the slow-moving queue to the border post, are concerned that there appears to be no end in sight to their dilemma.

Some complain of being robbed at gunpoint when policing is at a minimum during night-times while others say that they had not planned for the delays and are running out of money to pay for food.

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Enterprising locals have begun moving between the vehicles offering mainly bananas and other fruit as well as some veggies and prepared meals for the drivers who cannot get food and also stay with their vulnerable vehicles.

While Covid-related measures were previously responsible for a major backlog, this time the cause is the implementation on the Zimbabwean side of new systems meant to speed up transit through the border post, but which have not worked as planned.

SA’s Road Freight Association has voiced its concern over the situation at Beitbridge, while SA ministers have weighed in on the problem too.

But in the main there is little the South African authorities can do to ameliorate the increasingly difficult situation of the hundreds of drivers involved in the extensive traffic jam.

The issue lies primarily with a new electronic system on the Zimbabwean side which is apparently very slow and experiencing “teething problems”, as one Zimbabwe official put it.

Without a resolution yet in sight and no indication from the Zimbabweans as to when they might expect their clearance processing system issues to be resolved, there is growing concern that the severe slowdown of traffic through the key site may have a significant knock-on effect on the economies of the region, all of which have been heavily hit by the Covid pandemic.

Problems began two weeks back when the new processing system installed by Zimbabwean authorities experienced issues which dramatically slowed rather than speeded up, as intended, transit through the border post by heavy traffic.

South African transport authorities and private sector interests said that aside from “much finger-pointing” there had been no clear resolution offered nor was there one that might resolve the mounting backlog of waiting trucks any time soon.

Many of the affected trucks are carrying cargo that can endure a wait to cross the border, such as piping and building materials.

But others are carrying spoilable goods and there is growing concern that SA and its neighbouring states will endure another damaging set of delays with impacts on trade, local economies and regional recovery from the pandemic’s lingering economic effects. According to some drivers, the new Zimbabwean system has required that they have additional paperwork to that previously required, another factor slowing down transit through the border post.

With soaring daytime temperatures as the Southern hemisphere enters its summer months, drivers are enduring up to 40 Deg C daytime temperatures and sleepless nights as they guard their cargoes while the column of vehicles inches its way forward.

The situation has become so severe that some drivers encountering the backlog just outside Musina, some 23kms from the border post, have turned around or opted to take a long detour to attempt to cross from SA through its border with Botswana and thereby make their way to their destinations.

But for most, the situation, which was already virtually intolerable, is dragging on past their point of endurance.

One driver is reported to have threatened to block all traffic and take his own life, such is the desperation felt by the drivers who are also losing income while they wait for the situation to eventually, they hope, return to normal.