According to reports from law enforcement officials conducting roadblocks just north of Musina, and truck drivers stuck in a stagnant queue of vehicles, the traffic backlog leading to Beitbridge ranges between 10km and 15km, across two lanes.
Frustrated freight truck drivers attempting to pass into Zimbabwe report being stuck at the border for more than 24 hours.
Passenger vehicles, taxis, and busses all battle to edge ahead of the slow-creeping queue. Many motorists and travellers caught in the December dash are forced to sleep in their vehicles.
While these scenes aren’t unusual during the busy festive season – in 2019, more than 200,000 travellers crossed into Zimbabwe in the week leading up to Christmas – complications arising from Covid-19 protocols are leading to longer delays even while travel is discouraged.
Although Beitbridge border is regarded as a 24-hour post, curfews in both Zimbabwe and South Africa have stopped operations between 22:00 and 04:00, with only freight-carrying vehicles allowed through during those hours, while passenger vehicles and pedestrians may not cross.
All people passing through the border post are required to present a negative Covid-19 test which is adding further pressure to the already-burgeoning backlog. Thupeyo Muleya of the Beitbridge Bureau reports that travellers caught up in the traffic jam arrive at the border post with “expired” Covid-19 test results.
South African regulations require all persons to present a negative Covid-19 certificate no older than 72 hours. Travellers argue, however, that due to delays on the border, these valid certificates, which were acquired before setting out on their journeys, expire before reaching the actual border checks.
An expired Covid-19 certificate forces travellers to cough up more money for a roadside resampling, or trip back to a public clinic in Musina – and then travellers have to join the back of the queue again.
The consequences could be deadly, with travellers mingling with little sign of social distancing, and without running water.
And although the situation on the South African side of the border has been noted with serious concern as a potential super-spreader event, Covid-19 risks in the small town of Beitbridge have been described as a “humanitarian crisis”.
Mike Fitzmaurice, the executive director of the Federation of East and Southern African Road Transport Associations (Fesarta), described the grim condition in an open letter to health minister Zweli Mkhize.
South African rules do not take into consideration antigen tests done in Zimbabwe, says Fitzmaurice. Truck drivers are required to undergo a test upon entry to South Africa, but these are only conducted between 09:00 and 17:00. Additionally, Fitzmaurice notes that the facilities and staffing levels are hopelessly inadequate to cope with the traffic volumes.
As a result, more than 3,000 truck drivers have been delayed by seven days, living in appalling conditions along the road or at poorly equipped parks. Others have flooded the small town of Beitbridge.
“In every residential street, there are trucks parked all over the place,” Fitzmaurice told Business Insider South Africa about the backlog on the Bulawayo road. “The whole town has been invaded by trucks [but] that’s through no fault of the truckers because they have nowhere else to go.”
Fitzmaurice says there is another dangerous aspect to the situation.
“The bribery and corruption is a huge opportunity [for corrupt officials]… it’s unbelievable what’s going on there right now,” says Fitzmaurice. “They’re even paying health officials to bypass the [Covid-19] test.”
Roadside traders have also started to charge exorbitant prices for goods, knowing that the stuck travellers have few options to acquire food or water, without abandoning their vehicles in search of the nearest store. Fitzmaurice says that motorists, out of desperation, are paying almost R15 for a litre of water.
Taking into account the operating costs of a commercial vehicle – including fuel use, tyre wear, deprecation of the vehicle – Fitzmaurice calculates the dire financial losses incurred by operators as a result of the backlog.
“In ten days [leading up] to Wednesday [16 December, it’s R295 million lost,” says Fitzmaurice. “Where we are now, that cost will be closer to R400 million… and that’s just south bound, [add] the north bound queue and that amount will be double. When this ends, it will be over R1 billion lost.”