The state of the Beitbridge-Harare highway is now a cause for concern as the number of human fatalities grows by each day due to deadly accidents in the narrow strip that links Zimbabwe and South Africa. The latest accident along the busy highway being the collision of a commuter omnibus and a heavy duty truck that claimed 19 lives at Featherstone, 108km from Harare.
Last year, Zimbabwe recorded an increase in road traffic deaths from 1 828 recorded in 2017 to 1 986 in 2018. The number of people injured went up from 10 584 to 11 924. Of the 1 986 deaths recorded in 2018, more than 600 perished along the Beitbridge-Harare highway.
Lengthy portions of the highway have become narrower than the standard design of seven metres on most local highways, which makes overtaking a real nightmare. Many accidents have occurred on the road as vehicles side-swipe each other, overturn as they struggle for space or collide in fatal head on collisions while overtaking. The stretch from Mvuma to Harare is also crumbling as the weak soil underneath buckles to traffic loads and excessive use. Demarcation lines are no longer visible on most parts and the road virtually has no yellow lanes.
The 570km highway forms the vital connection for trade worth over US$6 billion annually between Zimbabwe and its southern neighbour, South Africa. It also facilitates movement of commodities to and from Zimbabwe's northern counterparts Zambia, Malawi and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Over three decades of neglect, poor planning, mismanagement of tolling funds, corruption and red tape have left the road in a sorry state that reflects poorly on the government. The road has also suffered from lack of alternative transportation in the form of a railway line connecting South Africa to the north and as a result road haulage is the only viable means to transport bulky goods in the region.
The Zimbabwe National Road Administration (Zinara), which is tasked with maintaining the country's road network, is embroiled in unending corruption reports that has claimed millions of dollars in public funds and successive management teams in the past 10 years.
Dualisation of the Beitbridge-Chirundu highway was first planned in the late 1980s, but the tender was only awarded to ZimHighways, a consortium of local construction companies, in 2002. The company failed to implement the project for over a decade after hyperinflation rendered the Zimbabwean dollar quotations worthless. The tender was cancelled, but the parties had to fight it in court till 2013.
After three years of bickering, the government awarded the US$985 million tender to Geiger International (An Austrian-registered company based in China) in December 2016. The tender was revalued over time to US$2,7 billion and the road was divided into three sections, namely, the Beitbridge-Harare road which is 570km long (eight toll plazas); Harare-Chirundu, 342km (six toll plazas) and the Harare-Ring Road, 59km (three toll plazas).
After three years of dualisation headlines in the local press with no progress on the ground, the government withdrew the tender in April 2018 and awarded it to another Chinese company called Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Corporation (Afecc).
Early this year, the government announced that it was dividing the Beitbridge-Harare highway into nine sections to be constructed by local companies and that US$150 million had been secured to construct detours on three sections of the busy road. Work on the three detours has been completed despite the disappearance of 23 000 litres of tar at a government deport in Chivhu in March.
The government communicated that it is still scouting for partners for the Harare-Chirundu stretch. Key concerns from Afecc in late 2018 were that the traffic volumes along the highway were not sufficient to recoup the investment cost over a specified period of time. Feasibility studies had indicated the entire highway required 6 000 vehicles daily, paying toll fees at each of the planned eight tollgates and this was deemed impossible.
Traffic volumes on the Beitbridge-Harare highway are under 2 600 vehicles per day currently, while on the Harare-Chirundu Highway, an estimated 1 050 vehicles ply the road per day.
The Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA), which funded the resurfacing of the 820km Plumtree-Mutare Highway for US$206 million, was willing to release US$1,1 billion in 2013 for the Beitbridge-Chirundu Highway upgrade, but the government was unwilling to award the tender to Group Five (A South African company which was the bank's lead contractor). The project would have focussed on constructing climbing lanes and widening the road to 12,5 metres to match the N1 South African standards and the Chirundu-Lusaka Road on the Zambian side.
After years of costly neglect on the Beitbridge-Harare highway, Zambia and Botswana planned the Kazungula Bridge project that will allow traffic to use the Botswana route thereby bypassing Zimbabwe.
The 923-metre-long bridge will give an alternative to traffic currently paying transit fees to use the local highway to connect to South Africa, Zambia, DRC and Namibia. The US$253 million bridge is set to be opened any time this year
Even though there has been notable progress to construct the road using local resources, key concerns remain on the speed of implementation considering the critical condition the highway is in and the growing daily casualties that are costing the nation. Key challenges with such a big project emanate from the start-stop nature of implementation that speaks to the funding constraints from the local market and the overall time it will take to complete the whole project.
It is inevitable that the project will experience budget overruns due to the number of parties involved in funding and implementing the project. It may be sensible for the government to re-engage DBSA early and push the bank to involve local construction companies on the nine sections agreed on so as to speed up implementation.
It is worth pointing out that the model of raising funds and repayment remain the same as its all debt and toll plazas provide the income to repay that debt. Timely implementation of the project leaves all the key parties involved happy with local contractors getting orders, government delivering an overdue infrastructure project on time, financiers getting interest on their capital, motorists and the public feeling safe upon using the highway.
Considering the volume of trade between Sadc countries and the centrality of Zimbabwe in the north-to-south corridor, the government now needs to look at long-term alternatives to road so as to facilitate trade. A 570km railway link from Beitbridge to Harare will be key in reducing transport costs for the local economy and Zimbabwe's northern counterparts. The best way to implement such a costly project will be a public-private partnership (PPP) similar to the Beitbridge Bulawayo Railway (BBR) inked in 1999. The railway link will be connected to a dry (inland) port in the outskirts of Harare, which will act as a distribution hub connecting road and rail to other parts of the country. The dry port will facilitate intermodal transfer and processing of international trade inland for Zimbabwe, DRC, Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi.
Instead of transporting containers via individual haulage trucks, a railway link will remarkably reduce the unit cost of transporting commodities for businesses.
The state of the Beitbridge-Harare highway needs urgent attention from government to save lives, improve transportation efficiency for businesses (trade) and maintain transit revenues from regional cargo.
Long-term planning through tendering for a PPP in constructing a railway link can ensure the rehabilitated and busy highway lasts longer by transporting bulk cargo via train.
Victor Bhoroma is business and economic analyst. He is a marketer by profession and holds an MBA from the University of Zimbabwe.