THE 585 kilometre Harare-Beitbridge highway, the country’s busiest and most economically strategic, was completed in 1960, with a 20-year lifespan.
By the time Jonah Moyo and Devera Ngwena popularised ‘Masvingo neCarpet’, supposedly extolling the highway through the 1986 Volume 10 album, the road had gone six years over its lifespan.
Nearly two decades were to pass, beyond its lifespan, before government floated a tender, won by Zim Highways – a consortium of 14 local contractors – to rehabilitate the road.
The contract award coincided with the economic upheaval that followed Zimbabwe’s turbulent land reforms.
When it became clear that, after a decade in which the country became the first country to hyperinflate in the 21st century, the local contractors would not be able to see the project through, government sought to re-tender.
This led to a lawsuit, with the Zim Highways consortium taking government to court, citing a breach of contract. The consortium only agreed to drop the lawsuit in 2013, after government undertook to ensure that any subsequent winner of the new tender would subcontract members of the consortium.
Two years ago, government signed a US$1 billion contract with Geiger International, an obscure Austrian firm whose website that looks like a wayback machine screen grab.
Once again, this road led to nowhere, despite a high profile ground-breaking ceremony presided over by former President Robert Mugabe in May 2017.
Earlier this year, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who replaced Mugabe last November, announced the cancellation of the Geiger contract.
China’s Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Group (AFECC) was then lined up to take over the project.
Once AFECC put boots on the ground for some preliminary assessments, it quickly became clear that the numbers did not support a full-on dualisation project for the Beitbridge highway.
On average, the highway sees traffic of about 2,600 vehicles daily, generating just under $800,000 in daily toll fees. With toll fees amounting to no more than $10 million annually, the repayment period for the US$1 billion price tag would certainly extend beyond the envisaged 20-years. Traffic flow of 6,000 vehicles per day, through 7 toll gates, is believed to be what’s required to sustain complete dualisation.
Given these realities, AFECC suggested changes to the scope of the project, from wholesale dualisation, to widening the track.
TAKING THE HIGH ROAD
Faced with the prospect of further delays on fixing a road that has cost so many lives through avoidable accidents while negotiations with AFECC continued, government resolved to get the project going using locally generated funds, including the $300 million per year road fund run by the Zimbabwe National Roads Authority (Zinara).
“In terms of this arrangement, the highway will be upgraded in two phases. Phase 1 entails the rehabilitation and widening of the existing road,” Cabinet said in a statement after its October 30 meeting.
“This will bring the road to the same standard as N1 on the South African side and the Chirundu-Lusaka road on the Zambian side. This phase will be completed in three years.”
Currently, the road is 8m wide, with 2m gravel shoulders. It will be widened to 12.5m, giving it similar configurations to the Beitbridge-Polokwane and Chirundu-Lusaka highways.
It will be dualised for 10km on the entry and exit of each major town along the way, in the second phase of the project.
“The envisaged implementation model will entail utilisation of local contractors, materials and labour, which has the advantage of increasing local employment generation and stimulating greater demand for the overall economy,” Cabinet said.
The impressive N1 highway stretch between Beitbridge and Johannesburg, used by thousands of Zimbabweans daily, is not fully dualised. Only stretches around major towns and cities are.
Apart from resources from the road fund, which raises cash from toll gates and vehicle licencing, government has, over the past year, been issuing debt through Zinara bonds.
Local government minister July Moyo recently told BusinessWeekly that Zinara had borrowed $150 million through a private placement bond issue with Old Mutual.
It is not clear yet, how much the road project would cost under the revised model.
However, it is instructive to note that the 800 kilometre Plumtree-Harare-Mutare highway cost US$206 million, funded by the Development Bank of Southern Africa. Construction started mid-2012 and was completed in May 2015.
The Plumtree-Harare-Mutare project entailed 150km of rehabilitation, 250km of shoulder ceiling widening and 423km of resurfacing. It also included the installation of nine toll plazas at a cost of $3-million each.
In August 2014, the World Bank announced US$81 million funding for the rehabilitation of 100km of the 135km Chirundu-Lusaka highway, whose standards Zimbabwe seeks to match.
Transport minister Joel Biggie Matiza has recently hinted that work on the Beitbridge highway could start before the end of the year.
DO LOCAL CONTRACTORS HAVE CAPACITY?
One of the major criticisms against Chinese-funded infrastructure projects is that they tend to squeeze out local contractors, labour and even materials.
The government says this will be different, at least on the first phase of the Beitbridge project.
Local contractors, including the government’s Department of Roads, Bitumen World, Tencraft, Fossil and Zada, have undertaken the bulk of the work under the government’s emergency road rehabilitation project, partial dualisation of the Harare-Bulawayo and Harare-Mutare roads, as well as the City of Harare’s extensive road upgrades.
Bitumen World, in particular, has been getting positive reviews, not least for its much-debated ‘Wakanda’ traffic circle on Harare Drive and Gaydon Road.