Sort out this Beitbridge mess

HARARE - At the back of President Robert Mugabe’s recent and historic visit to South Africa (SA) — premised on cementing trade and other bilateral relations — Zimbabweans were starkly reminded about the shameful state of their infrastructure, especially related to the development of border points such as Beitbridge.

From a “speculative line” on private South African broadcaster eTV that this key entry point would come under the spotlight to the mind-blowing R30 billion trade-statistics, which tumbled when official discussions started last Wednesday, one does not need to be a  rocket scientist to see the importance of this southern corridor.

Even, though, the two-way exchange is heavily tilted in SA’s way, the assumption is that the majority of goods are moved by road, especially given that 90 to 98 percent of Africa’s transportation-mode choice is by road.

These include basics such as soap, cooking oil, clothing and various other components for our industries, and socio-economic sectors.

In fact, to buttress the point that Zimbabwe consumes quite a number of goodies from across the Limpopo — and which probably come through Beitbridge — one just needs to see OK Zimbabwe’s periodic results as well as John Moxon’s Pick’n Pay franchise.

And in the midst of all this economic madness, marked needless power struggles, inertia and policy inconsistencies, the country finds itself in a situation where it has continually neglected key and strategic ports like Beitbridge, despite the fact that they have proven to be our economic lifeblood.

And amid serious wails about the dire state of our infrastructure, and especially delays experienced during peak periods such as the just-ended Easter holidays, debate has shifted to just about who is responsible for this endless mess, which is also throttling the country’s economic potential through perennial bottlenecks.

But no one seems to care and if the jockeying or tussle between the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra), and Obert Mpofu’s Transport and Infrastructural Development ministry is anything to go by.

While the former has made a spirited defence that it is the rightful owner and driver of this process — given its strategic position, and occupancy of the hard infrastructure — the latter also has a compelling argument about who must really expand the key entry point.

The disagreement, though, centres around the creation, and need for a Border Ports Authority (BPA) to invest in the improvement of both hard, and soft infrastructure.

Essentially, Gershem Pasi’s revenue agency feels it is better placed to undertake the mission on account of it being the operator of the Beitbridge border post and, therefore, needs to keep control of things down there, and yet Mpofu also wants a piece of the cake by developing the brick, and mortar side of things while Zimra simply concentrates on its revenue-collecting mandate.

And if one really needs to see that bad side of our main border, especially pathways for customs and immigration clearance, and ablution facilities, you just have to go there during peak periods such as Christmas, and when northbound traffic swells up.

It is pathetic and the strong stench from adjacent toilets is one to encourage you that even your Epworth or Hatcliffe squatter is paradise.

Mind you, this is a corridor that not only handles Zimbabwe-bound traffic, but the entire spectrum of countries north of the Limpopo.

As if that was not enough, how do you keep encouraging or nurturing north-south flow of goods and trade when you frustrate an Old Mutual-Standard Bank of SA investment worth $100 million to eliminate delays of up to two weeks, and affecting the prices of basic commodity goodies?

Too, how do you meet and encourage the goals of the private sector-driven Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Social and Economic Transformation (ZimAsset) when there are perennial delays, and bottlenecks at this key border post?

Without a doubt, Beitbridge is sub-Saharan Africa’s busiest inland port of entry, which handles more than 3 500 vehicles and 9 000 people daily — with the numbers soaring to 20 000 around holidays.

According to statistics, Zimra collects an average $60 million in revenue monthly, which is 70 percent of the authority’s income and also translating to 30 percent of government earnings or cash.

But with about 250 officers working at the border — as opposed to 340 people — these public servants are always overwhelmed, thus breeding fertile grounds for corruption and customs fraud.

That is the same situation across all of the countries’ 15 gateways and yet there seems to be no energy to make tangible efforts to not only eliminate this chaos, but somewhat contrived inefficiencies.

Besides the obvious and negative impact on fiscal remittances, how will Mugabe’s government achieve Hospitality minister Walter Mzembi’s $5 billion tourism revenue target in a few years’ time — by encouraging visitor numbers to premier resort towns such as Victoria Falls — when chaos is the order of the day and where people wait up to four hours for clearance.

Attached to this, how many truckloads of goods and especially perishables are being lost to these delays due to a lack of refrigeration facilities, and all?

In a recent report, the South African Institute of International Affairs say that of the 400 trucks that pass through Beitbridge everyday, many face delays of up to three days and thus translating into an extra cost of $400 per driver, and which is eventually passed on to the final consumer.

“Given that the Beitbridge border post is the busiest regional transit link in Eastern and Southern Africa, the fact that most of SA’s road freight to countries to the north is bottle-necked into a single lane is a critical issue,” it said.

The study also noted that crime was rife at the border as transporters often bribe bent cops and other official workers to get the necessary documentation.

But why this inertia when other progressive nations such as America have even roped in the Dubai Ports World to run busier airports like John F. Kennedy in New York and, so, why not try the BPA when the quasi-government entity can prove to be a self-financing venture?

By creating this animal, the country can simply reinvent itself again like it did with the roads and simply refinance through a toll arrangement or ring-fenced facility, which can help other sectors of the economy and have a multiplier effect on communities such as Beitbridge.

Like all massive and public sector infrastructural projects, funds are always limited and there is massive competition from health, water and other government activities, but someone has to bite the bullet and see what is in Zimbabwe’s best interests.

Regrettably, no one seems to care even when the African Development Bank says the country’s poor infrastructure is slowing down economic growth.

“Infrastructure services in road transport and communications… are now more expensive than in neighbouring countries, reflecting in part the economic costs of the deterioration,” the continental lender said in a report titled “Infrastructure and Growth in Zimbabwe: An Action Plan for Strengthened Recovery”.

And no one could have put it any better than the Infrastructure Development Bank of Zimbabwe (IDBZ)’s Desmond Matete, who said the country needs $33 billion-plus to upgrade and maintain its existing infrastructure over the next 10 years.

“…we need to dedicate $1,65 billion per annum (as) transport and energy are key economic enablers, and… they assist in the promotion of trade, social cohesion and eradication of social isolation,” he said.

And as the charade goes between various government departments, Harare is even at the risk of missing the New Partnership for Africa’s Economic Development’s $68 billion infrastructure fund or honey pot due to this lack of vision.

As the economy also continues to bleed under “self-imposed sanctions”, why is this Beitbridge mess not being sorted out or someone, somewhere is benefitting from this “organised chaos?”

With tales of corruption long and thick, why can’t these clearance or work flow processes be rearranged like we did with Tobaiwa Mudede’s passport office?

And in the absence of a serious political effort, and will to tackle this problem, one gets a feeling that there is a deliberate attempt by certain elements to get more money into some people’s pockets than government coffers.

Frankly, there are some busier international borders than Beitbridge and where respective countries or custodians have taken a decision to reform them by franchising such services to more competent people or managers.

And as the economy continues to bleed — and yet it greatly relies on entry points like Beitbridge — this argument is being made on the basis that there is really a business case to upgrade this vital entry point due to the volumes of traffic continously passing through Beitbridge everyday — and in the future.

Just to further demonstrate this, our key exports such as platinum go out through this route, while 90 percent of goods consumed in this largely informal economy and forming part of this R30 billion exchange pass through this key point, but yet nothing seems to be happening to improve it.

Comments (1)

I agree with you 100% mr writer.

I agree - 17 July 2015

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