BULAWAYO – South Africa is planning to re-open its land borders – closed for a month – on January 15, the same day that Zimbabwe is expected to ease its Covid-19 lockdown which was extended by a fortnight last week.
The Border Management Agency (BMA) told the Home Affairs Portfolio Committee of the South African parliament on Tuesday that it had put plans in place to ease congestion witnessed in December and early January, particularly at its borders with Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
The measures will include limiting the number of haulage trucks in the exit queue at any given time, deploying additional healthcare workers, and a ticket system for rapid Covid-19 tests.
“We’re going to keep the queue (for trucks) on the N1 at 700 meters,” BMA commissioner Gene Ravele told MPs.
“If the queue becomes more than 700 meters, we will divert trucks to truck stops.”
He said the BMA had engaged trucking associations to ensure compliance.
Additional holding areas provided by the Musina Local Municipality in December will be used to accommodate any overflow from the truck stop nearest to Beitbridge border post.
These additional holding sites will be equipped with ablution facilities and running water, he said.
Covid-19 protocols require all persons entering South Africa from abroad – whether via land or air – to present a negative Covid-19 test conducted within a window of 72 hours.
But the cost of these tests in neighbouring countries – which cost about R800 in Lesotho and US$60 in Zimbabwe – led to travellers opting for on-site testing at South Africa’s border posts. Testing stations managed by South Africa’s National Health Laboratory Services at busy land-entry points offer testing for just R170.
The big demand overwhelmed testing services and resulted in major delays, Ravele said.
The BMA said anxiety over the hard lockdown that Zimbabwe imposed on January 5 caused people to stampede for the Beitbridge border after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, many with fake test certificates.
Ravele claimed Zimbabwean police and soldiers facilitated illegal crossings after taking bribes.
South Africa’s National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) will make the final decision whether to re-open the country’s 20 land borders, but January 15 is the date referenced by the Department of Home Affairs.
The briefing on the readiness of reopening South Africa’s ports of entry highlighted critical problems arising from neighbouring countries’ lockdowns and ill-prepared border processing systems, which ultimately led to closures on January 11.
The congestion at border posts, particularly at Beitbridge and Lebombo which links South Africa with Mozambique was described as a “humanitarian crisis.” At least five people died at Beitbridge while waiting in queues in December, with travellers spending as much as a week in line.
South Africa says the reopening plan includes a crackdown on fake Covid-19 test certificates, as well as increasing personnel and enforcing queue limits.
“We spoke to the service providers and they’ve confirmed that everything will be there by no later than February 14,” said Ravele. “We’re having final discussions with the department of health and National Health Laboratories to look into increased capacity to be deployed.”
Zimbabwe’s latest lockdown extension also expires on February 15. An easing of travel restrictions is expected, allowing non-citizens to enter the country by road. Air travel had not been restricted.