THE completion of the multi-million-dollar Kazungula River Bridge is certainly sweet music in the ears of Botswana and Zambia, but for Zimbabwe, it presents a headache over loss of transit fees.
by ALFONCE MBIZWO/MTHANDAZO NYONI
The new Kazungula River Bridge, which is expected to be functional by year-end, links Zambia’s Kazungula town with Botswana. It also offers an alternative route to road transporters from South Africa to Zambia and other northern countries in the region.
Currently, the Beitbridge-Chirundu road is a key component of the Trans-African Highway Network Zimbabwean link between South Africa and Zambia. It is also part of the North–South Corridor Project and the Cape to Cairo Road, and a gateway to the common market for Eastern and Southern Africa.
But Zimbabwe has neglected the roads that make up the corridor. The Beitbridge-Harare Highway was built in the 1960s and has far outlived its 20-year lifespan. After haggling over tenders since 2003, government finally started work on the dualisation of the road last year, with different companies working on parts of the project to expedite completion, but this may have come too late to save the situation.
Zimbabwe still needs to address the bottlenecks at its Beitbridge Border Post which often sees haulage trucks stuck for days on end waiting for service. The Beitbridge port is the busiest transit border for cargo from South African ports with destinations in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and often as far as Tanzania.
There are relatively few studies on the financial benefit the corridor brings to Zimbabwe but a situation analysis carried out in 2009 showed that the waiting time at the border was about 33 hours for south-bound traffic while for north bound traffic waiting time was about 45 hours. It was estimated that the cost associated with this waiting time was about US$29.3 million for south bound and US$35 million for north bound traffic per year.
In contrast, the South Africa/Botswana Groblersbrug border post is quicker to process documentation at between eight-10 hours. Botswana roads are better maintained than Zimbabwe’s and fuel costs are lower.
Distance-wise, Johannesburg to Lusaka, Zambia through Beitbridge is 1 525km while via Kazungula, the journey is 1 730km. But with Zimbabwe’s poor road network, congestion and long winding queues at the country’s points of entry, especially Beitbridge, truckers will likely avoid the frustrations of using the Zimbabwe route, losing the southern African nation billions of dollars in potential revenue to the new crossing point.
According to a recent study, delays at Beitbridge are costing transport operators up to US$350 per day per truck, negating the cost benefit of its connectivity to multiple seaports in Durban and Mozambique.
To complement the Kazungula Bridge, Botswana in 2016 said it was building several truck stop facilities for cross-border operators, making the route more attractive to haulage trucks.
“It should be a wake-up call to Zimbabweans that the whole region cannot be held to ransom by the few border posts that exist by dint of history but with time, there is always scope for more such crossing points that should enhance competition efficiencies. So, it’s part of the ease of doing business,” economist Godfrey Kanyeze said.
“We should up our game. Yes, this is a wake-up call and the more the merrier because the idea is to facilitate business and traffic. Can you imagine how much time we spend at Beitbridge, Kazungula and Chirundu border posts?”
“If someone can create a more efficient route then people will choose to use that route. So, the country will have to realise that no one is beholden to us, to our route. We have to earn the right of passage,” he said.
Plans for the 923-metre bridge linking Kazungula in Zambia with Botswana were first announced in 2007 by the governments of Zambia and Botswana to replace ferries connecting the two countries. Construction work started in 2014 and is set to be completed this year.
Zimbabwe was later drafted in to be part of the project in 2018 joining the two countries, but to date, nothing concrete has been done by the government in terms of footing the bill.
Transport minister Joel Biggie Matiza recently told a regional summit on infrastructure that Zimbabwe’s incorporation into the project had a cost factor and the government should pay US$200 million to be part of the project.
The entire project cost US$259,3 million and with funding provided by the Japan International Co-operation Agency and the African Development Bank, so it is unclear why Matiza thought Zimbabwe had to pay almost the entire cost of the venture.
Another economic analyst Eddie Cross said freight transporters would opt for the Kazungula route due to Zimbabwe’s poor road network and inefficiencies at Beitbridge Border Post.
“I think Kazungula has the potential to make a significant impact on transit transport to and from Zambia and Democratic Republic of Congo. At the present time, something like 2 000 trucks a day cross Zimbabwe going to the northern countries, going as far as Rwanda,” he said.
Cross said long delays and queues at Beitbridge Border Post would compound the situation.
An average of 200 000 travellers, 30 000 buses, 100 000 light vehicles, 35 000 commercial trucks use the Beitbridge Border Post monthly.
The port of entry is a gateway from South Africa to much of Sadc, with many using the border post on their way to Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, DRC, Zambia or Tanzania.
“On top of that, we have poor road conditions. The road from Harare to Beitbridge is under construction. The road from Harare to Chirundu is in poor condition. There are many problems with regards to national roads and I think many truck drivers will be tempted to use the Kazungula route,” he said.
In its latest report, Shipping News said the most telling sign that the bridge would become the new transport powerpoint of the region was Zambia’s decision to relocate the Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA)’s headquarters from Livingstone near Zimbabwe, to Kazungula.
ZRA long announced that it would be moving its regional office from Livingstone to the southern Zambian town from which the much-hyped logistical linkage has taken its name.
The announcement comes amid mounting expectation that the bridge will fundamentally alter the movement of road and rail freight across the sub-Saharan region, Shipping News wrote.
Transporters, it said, would also not need much persuasion to divert traffic away from other north-south route border posts such as Beitbridge, considering the shambles it has been of late.
Zimbabwe has been failing over the years to improve the Beitbridge border port which has become a nightmare for transport, shipping and forwarding agents.
There are too many delays and lack of urgency.
Although the shortest route to Lusaka from Johannesburg is through Beitbridge at 1 525km against Kazungula’s 1 730km, hauliers are likely to go the longer route running away from frustrations at Beitbridge.
Namibia, too, with the best road network in Africa according to the World Bank, is making a determined effort to benefit from the bridge by luring freight out of the Copperbelt towards the Port of Walvis Bay.
The bridge is expected to significantly improve trade infrastructure of Sadc and the African continent as a whole. One-stop border facilities will be erected in both countries with a 930-metre-long and 18,5-metre-wide road-rail bridge.
The bridge would provide vital transport infrastructure on that corridor as it would facilitate easy access to intra-regional trade and international markets through connectivity with major sea ports.
For Zimbabwe, two things have to be done to win back truckers. The mess at Beitbridge must be sorted out and government must speed up the refurbishment of the Beitbridge-Harare-Chirundu Highway.
This story was first published by the Weekly Digest, an AMH publication.