/ 14 January 2021

Life and death at the Beitbridge border post

Cross Border Runners Brave Borders With Bribery In Zimbabwe
Long wait: Vehicles loaded with all kinds of goods queue for days at Beitbridge to enter Zimbabwe. (Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

It is raining in Musina in December 2020, just days before Christmas. The showers hail the end of a devastating drought. The landscape is lush with this burst of life. But that other drought, the economic barrenness of Zimbabwe, remains. 

Border towns everywhere share particular dynamics. Whether it’s El Chuy in Uruguay, Trabzon in Turkey or Musina in Limpopo. And each has its own flavour. The endless bazaars in Trabzon with that medieval Silk Route vibe. In El Chuy, the main road through the city is the border. Depending on the exchange rate and economic conditions, one sidewalk flourishes while the other withers. 

The common theme is that they depend on some form of imbalance. One side has more of this, and the other has more of that. That’s where the magic happens — the magic of trade. Trade stripped to its essentials. Buy to sell. Make money. Buy more. Sell more. The most basic of economic equations: buy for less, sell for more. And, as in any economic equation, there is risk. 

In Musina, everything is geared to supplying neighbouring Zimbabwe with essential goods. The main road through town is the national N1 itself. 

The town centre is filled with all forms of trade. Bulk, wholesale, retail. And from there to smaller outlets and to individuals carrying bags and buckets. Shops owned by South Africans, Somalis, Pakistanis and Indians cater to an endless stream of shoppers from “the other side”.

Bakkies, taxis and trailers are loaded way more than one would have thought possible with anything from furniture, fridges, bicycles, buckets, old rusty chicken mesh to those tubes of brandless NikNak-type chips. And then there are the traders who perpetually buy in Musina to supply the Zimbabwean consumer.

Everything on sale in Musina finds its way to the busiest border of Africa 14km away. 

The Beitbridge border post connects South Africa with Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Mozambique. And whenever the millions of Zimbabweans who live and work in South Africa want to go home, they also pass through here. 

Takawera is driving his truck from Johannesburg to Harare. This time his load consists of piping for the mines, some kind of cables and toilet seats.

Zimbabwe may be poor, but trade doesn’t stop. Says Takawera: “Our trucks are never empty.”

His truck is his home. There’s a cooler box, a gas burner as well as a comfortable bed behind the driver’s seat. And a chess board to kill time during the long wait at the border. 

The Christmas queue to the border is 10km. It moves at about 1.5km a day. And it grows longer at about 2km a day. The Covid-19 curfew does not help: instead of working 24/7, the border now closes at 10pm. 

At the last padstal before Musina, Takawera buys meat and sausages. “I’m probably going to take three, four days in the queue. I need to be prepared. The pap I cook myself.”

Bodha-bodhas drive people to and from the border. They have carved out a parallel road on the gravel next to the highway. By now, the border is so congested that the closest they can get is to the weighbridge. The last 4km you walk. 

The queue of vehicles is an ecosystem in itself. Every 20 minutes or so, it may move 50m. Families “camp” on the shadow side of taxis, cooking food and changing nappies. Drivers nap in or under their trucks. Salesmen offer their wares. Gunshots remind everyone of preying tsotsis, this time apparently on a group of women relieving themselves in the bushes. 

And then of course there are the overheated cars, the broken down trucks and the fender-benders. 

The exciting moments happen when someone tries to switch lanes — and all the complications that go with it. Trucks manoeuvre with millimetric precision. 

A man had some kind of fit in the scorching heat. He is lying next to the road, foam coming out of his mouth. Some guys have taken off his shoes, another is throwing water on his chest. He seems to be breathing. We all walk on.

There are various projects to improve the flow of traffic to and from the border. The foundations for a ring road around Musina are in place and waiting for further construction. For now, locals have brought the project to a standstill.

Then there is that more ambitious project by public-private partnership Zimborders Mauritius. Banking on the prospects of the African continental free trade area, the project aims to modernise both sides of the border in a record time of 24 months. 

Harith, an infrastructure-focused private equity fund manager, has acquired a stake in Zimborders Mauritius. Pembani Remgro Infrastructure Fund, an equity investor in infrastructure in Africa, is a co-investor in improving the Beitbridge border post. 

This project promises to improve infrastructure and bring in the latest technologies to speed up the inspection and clearing of cargo. 

But right now, the queue is not moving. It’s a gridlock. The traffic to Zimbabwe takes most lanes of the highway. 

The trucks and cars that have managed to cross into South Africa — after a nine-day wait on the Zimbabwean side — get stuck because they can’t move through the oncoming flow of vehicles to Zimbabwe.

Traffic signs seem nonsensical: “Don’t Stop — High Crime Area”, “Slow Down — Stop Ahead”. A brave robot insists on jumping from red to green and back to orange. 

As packed as it is, officials still find ways to clear a space for their “preferential customers”, moving them ahead so they can remove a day or two from their wait. 

Takawera observes it with resignation: “Everyone is chowing. The cops chow, customs chow. Those Covid tests also must have somebody chowing.” 

Just before the border, the clearing agents run their businesses from a complex of small buildings and fitted shipping containers. 

They walk to and from customs with stacks of paper, crossing a large parking lot filled with trucks from Zimbabwe waiting to be cleared. 

No movement here either.

On the far fence of this parking lot, two young men sit under a makeshift shade roof. A part of the fence is held closed with chains. Every few minutes, a group of people comes either from the bush behind the fence or through the parking lot. 

The people from the bush carry empty cans and bags. Those crossing the parking to Zimbabwe have cans filled with petrol and carry bags and buckets loaded with an assortment of wares.

Thumelo stands up from his old car seat under the shade. He haggles with the leader of the group. It’s R10 a person to go through the gate. 

I ask Thumelo if he feels like an alternative border guard. He laughs — for the first time. He has perfected the grumpiness and why-are-you-bothering-me attitude of border guards everywhere in the world. 

The bush and the river behind the fence are filled with danger, from border patrol to robbers to crocodiles. There are many reports of people being robbed and women being raped by bandits and military patrol guards.

People risk their lives for the most basic commodities. Some women come every day to stock up their spaza shops. 

The path to the river leads past a military base. Everyone is aware of what is happening. To cross the river, people climb over the old bridge — in plain sight. A ladder leads up the pillar of the bridge. 

The cost of doing business here is high. Every step of the way there

are fees to pay — to Thumelo at the gate, to the guide, to the carriers; to those wanting bribes. The price may suddenly go up en route. The guides, for example, may decide that they need more money. Then there is the cost of wares being stolen or confiscated. 

But, in this twisted reality it seems to make economic sense. 

Imagine a country that doesn’t produce — not even NikNaks. Where does it get the money to buy goods? It’s so ironic that the billions of rands sent home by Zimbabweans working in South Africa are mostly spent on buying goods from South Africa.

Watching all this is a classic lesson in economic resilience. Just like water, trade will find a way. It will wear out the rock to make a stream through the poverty, the corruption and the risks. 

In this light, Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille’s R40-million blown on what was to be a 37km border fence is not only a tale of bad procurement and management. The economic pressure from bankrupt Zimbabwe cannot be stopped by diamond mesh. 

At the border, the mobile Covid-19 testing clinic has two people trying to test hundreds of travellers. This is not a queue; it’s a mass of people trying to push themselves ahead. If anything, it looks like a perfect Covid superspreader situation.

By now, the traffic queue has grown to 16km, starting before Musina. Many of the people will spend their Christmas in it. A woman has died. False rumours of dead truck drivers persist. 

As I walk back from the border, there is movement. The queue is rapidly reorganising itself. A 16km snake of vehicles sets into motion. Drivers are hooting. People are clambering from under trucks, grabbing their belongings, jumping into vehicles to fill up the new space. Suddenly there is life, sound and movement. 

Africa is resilient and energetic. Even when all we see is stagnation, we are always ready to spring into action at the first opportunity.

Camilo Ramada is a former journalist who now assists European companies do business in Africa. This article first appeared on the Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader website, thoughtleader.co.za