A culture of corruption, entrenched over decades between transporters and border personnel greasing the wheels of cross-border commerce through back-handers, appears to impede change at one of Africa’s most notoriously congested choke-points – Beitbridge.
For more than two months now, the transit has been bottlenecked for kilometres south of the border as northbound trucks try to squeeze into Zimbabwe.
Zimborders Consortium, the concession company tasked running the Zimbabwe side of the border, has been regularly accused by transporters of causing a queue that is almost impossible to deal with. Hauliers allege Zimborders wasn’t ready when it went live with its systems earlier in October.
Problems around the processing of payment persist, they say, are holding up transporters who arrive prepared yet are snagged by the teething issues of a new system.
But this is not the case, says Mike Fitzmaurice of the Federation of East and Southern African Road Transport Associations. The organisation’s chief director, who has been at the border trying to speed up the queue, said there were still some issues regarding non-compliance by transporters.
“It’s the biggest problem at the moment. About 70% of transporters arriving at the border do not have their paperwork in order and are just parking at the border, waiting.”
Efforts are underway to separate non-compliant transporters from those whose drivers have paperwork that’s in order.
Errant drivers and their trucks are moved to an export yard staging area, Fitzmaurice says, until everything is in order for them to proceed through the border.
“The problem is there is an inbred culture at the border post that has been going on for decades, where you have been able to cross with unprocessed documents and a ‘facilitation fee’ that would probably get you anywhere you wanted to go.”
Because the new system was automated and based on incorruptible compliance, it had come as a culture shock to unscrupulous transporters who thought they could arrive at the border and pay their way past any snags, Fitzmaurice explained.
“Everyone is blaming Zimborders at the moment, but it’s not them. It’s also not Korridor” – the entity entrusted with payment facilitation.
“Their payment systems are the only such systems that are working at the moment. Complaints that it’s not working is a lot of nonsense. Drivers are using it as an excuse to keep their bosses happy by saying it’s not their problem.”
Adding to the frustration of unplugging the clogged-up border, Fitzmaurice said, was getting agents and runners to work after hours, ramping up night-time throughput which is far below where it should be.
Zimbabwean drivers, preferring to sleep at the border and continue with their journeys in the morning, thereby optimising the three-day pass they have to pass through their own country, was also not helping, Fitzmaurice said.
To escape such inhumane waiting times, transporters say, they are prepared to pay what Zimborders charges to use its facilities. It’s not good enough though, Fitzmaurice argues.
They must adapt to the new system, arrive with all paperwork in order, and not think they can bribe their way through if they arrive at the border unprepared.
He said: “When you’re supposed to be functioning for 24 hours but you’re only functioning for 10, I don’t care how good you are, you’re still going backwards.”
It costs US$175 for a one-way transit through Zimbabwe’s side of Beitbridge for heavy haul freighters. This is more than the US$100 they pay at Kazungula, the new border across the Zambezi between Botswana and Zambia.
The border was expected to compete with Beitbridge, but delays at the bridge across the Limpopo further south at the Martins Drift-Groblersburg crossing have also clogged up traffic. Truckers also try to avoid Botswana’s strict COVID-19 measures; drivers can be forced to take PCR tests whose results take at least a day.
Kazungula has only recently started resolving its own teething issues that, a month ago, saw trucks taking 30 hours on average to pass through a single-window system.