8 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Beitbridge Chaos - Expedite Free Trade Area

Photo: Dylan Thomas / UKaid / Department for International Development
Barbed fencing lines the South Africa - Zimbabwe border.


Beitbridge is the busiest border post in Southern Africa, being not just the sole border post between South Africa and Zimbabwe, but also the main conduit for traffic between South Africa and Zambia and all points north plus large sections of the movement of people and goods between South Africa and the northern half of Mozambique.

It is set up to cope with the 9 000 people a day who normally move across the Limpopo and, to be fair, normally copes although even small increases in traffic can cause sudden delays and traffic back-ups.

The switch to systems of pre-clearance, ensuring that everyone going through the border posts has the right forms and the like and critically has cleared their vehicle before leaving home for the border, has helped boost efficiencies, but it can be a close run thing at times to get through on the same day.

During holiday periods and especially the Christmas and New Year holiday season, the border post, especially on the South African side, simply cannot cope. There is a sudden surge in movements. In fact three times as many people try to cross each day.

The Zimbabwean authorities, knowing from bitter experience what is likely to happen, have learned to move a lot of temporary staff into the border post to clear the huge surge in traffic. It would be wrong to stop performing all the required checks.

We do not need to make things easier for smugglers, drug traffickers, illegal border jumpers and the like and the surge in international terrorism means that Zimbabwe has to play its part in ensuring regional security. So queues are cleared by having more desks manned, rather than by skimping on the details.

Unfortunately this holiday season the South Africans have not been nearly so well-prepared.

It is clear that they have not added enough manpower to the customs and immigration teams on their side of the border and are simply not coping with the traffic surge.

We have reached the interesting stage whereby the Zimbabwean side, a lot less lavish in facilities, is now considered the efficient end of the bridges and all credit should go to whichever senior officials planned to cope with the surge and to the staff, especially the temporary staff forced to spend their Christmas far from home.

We do not know why the South Africans failed to plan properly. But obviously some action is required. Home Affairs co-Minister Kembo Mohadi wants to see his South African counterpart as soon as possible and is quite happy to visit South Africa to do so, to see if a political decision can be made to staff the southern side of the bridges adequately in the rush periods.

Zimbabwe is not trying to score points, but just get the traffic moving. If nothing else vehicles jammed for 10km from the bridge are a health and traffic hazard.

Some of the potential pressure will go as Southern Africa moves towards a free-trade area and closer political ties. In Europe most border crossings now see people and goods moving freely without checks, although immigration and security officers must be monitoring the movement, if only on closed-circuit television and if they see someone acting suspiciously or who is on a wanted list they will pounce.

We look forward to that day at Beitbridge and hope that the authorities of the two countries will take a lead in ensuring free movement of people and goods. But in the meantime both sides have to follow existing laws and that means they have to boost manpower when more people want to move.

Spending Christmas at dusty towns in the Lowveld is not a dream held by many, but officials are there to serve people as well as Governments and so have to accept some discomfort at times.

We hope the present problem can be quickly sorted out and that we can move faster towards a true one-stop border crossing at our biggest and the region's biggest, border crossing.

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