Where trucks used to queue for kilometres on either side of the border with Zimbabwe, now they are cleared in two to three hours.
The Beitbridge border between South Africa and Zimbabwe was not so long ago reviled as a place of suffering, with queues of truckers and travellers stretching for kilometres on either side waiting to cross.
Summer temperatures here can soar into the 40s, and in 2020, the Road Freight Association reported four truck drivers had died waiting to cross the border. The cause of their deaths is unclear, though lack of access to food and water appears to have had something to do with it, even though this was denied by the Department of Home Affairs, which is responsible for operating the borders.
Hopefully, such events are a thing of the past. Where trucks previously took an average of one to two days to clear the border, now it can be done in three to four hours, following modernisation and upgrade of facilities on the Zimbabwean side.
The South African side is now about to undergo a similar upgrade, which should further accelerate transit times.
Passenger vehicles and pedestrians can now cross in half an hour or less, traffic depending, whereas previously, it could take three or more hours.
The importance of Beitbridge to southern African trade is enormous, with more than 500 trucks and upwards of 14 000 travellers crossing daily. It’s a vital lifeline for exporters from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who have to navigate two to three border crossings to reach the seaports of Durban or Maputo.
That’s a journey of one to two weeks, depending on the starting point, and has been the source of untold frustration among commercial operators and logistics companies.
Choke points removed
The dream of a flourishing regional trade greased by smooth border crossings withered at the Beitbridge border crossing, prompting logistics operators to seek less painful alternatives, such as the Groblersbrug crossing between SA and Botswana.
Those days may be a thing of the past. The revamped Beitbridge border was opened a year ago and removed the choke points that earned it a reputation as the worst border crossing in Africa.
“Now it is the best in Africa, by far,” says Rudolf Fourie, chair of JSE-listed construction group Raubex, which in 2020 was awarded the $172 million (R3.3 billion) public-private partnership (PPP) project to expand, upgrade and improve the border facility on the Zimbabwean side.
It was completed on time and within budget, Covid disruptions notwithstanding, and made a substantial contribution to Raubex’s revenue and profit for the 2023 financial year.
Most of the improvement in border crossing times is due to simple design changes. Trucks, buses and light vehicles, including pedestrians, are split into three traffic streams, where previously there were two streams: one for freight and the other for everyone else.
Each stream has its own immigration terminal and supporting infrastructure. This has thinned out queues on both sides of the border, as they no longer converge in overcrowded customs and immigration rooms, as was the case in the past.
Other improvements have been made in streamlining the process of clearing traffic. Previously, exporters were required to undergo a 19-step process that lasted hours. There was no data exchange between Zimbabwe and SA, something that has now been rectified.
This is still a step short of the ultimate goal of a one-stop border post, which will happen once SA completes its planned upgrade of its own side of the Beitbridge border.
A one-stop border will allow traffic to cross with a single stop rather than having to navigate two sets of customs and immigration checkpoints on both sides of the border.
This is similar to the progress seen in 2009 when Zimbabwe and Zambia created a one-stop border at Chirundu on the Zambezi River, which reportedly dropped wait times for trucks from 72 hours to three hours. That’s a huge saving in transport costs and reduced transit times.
Zimborders was awarded the border modernisation contract by the Zimbabwean government, with Raubex contracted to construct the new border facility buildings, a staff village of 220 houses, an animal quarantine centre, and a town reservoir and oxidation dam.
A new fire station for the town of Beitbridge was also constructed, and the road to the staff village was rehabilitated. Raubex was also awarded a 17.5-year contract to maintain the facilities it has just built.
Border posts are notorious for corruption, and there is ample evidence that illegal immigrants have been able to bribe their way through border posts, even those without passports.
Fourie points out that Beitbridge’s revenue has doubled in the last year, which seems to suggest corruption has significantly decreased since the opening of the border upgrade.
An article in the Southern African Journal of Policy and Development says the biggest constraint to logistics performance is proper border functioning, which is mainly concerned with border delays and standing time. Logistics companies attribute 60% of high and uncompetitive logistics costs to standing time.
What’s perhaps most surprising is that it was the Zimbabwean rather than the SA government that initiated the border modernisation programme, though SA is now following through with similar programmes of its own.
On a media tour of the new Beitbridge border facility, Raubex CEO Felicia Msiza pointed to the success of the Beitbridge border upgrade as a sign of things to come for the group, which plans to tender for some of the six border upgrades recently announced by SA.
“This was the largest project in Raubex’s history, and we’ve proven we can do projects of this scale and complexity,” she says.
Dirk Lourens, chief operating officer at Raubex, says the socio-economic impact of improved border crossing is noticeable not just in reduced transit times but in the broader promotion of intra-African trade.