Harare: For Esnath Phiri, a seasoned cross-border trader, proper planning and timekeeping are key elements for success. To keep at pace with the demand of her goods, she and her fellow traders usually travel to South Africa every weekend to buy clothes and electrical goods for resale in Zimbabwe.
“If we catch the 10am bus in Harare, we will be at Beitbridge Border Post at around 7pm This will enable us to reach Johannesburg the following morning so that we can buy our goods and catch the evening bus back home to minimise the time we spend doing nothing,” said the informal trader from Harare.
But due to the constant delays at Beitbridge, Esnath and other travelers have to endure hours of waiting, at the mercy of the sluggish border authorities.
“These days it is getting worse, it is now a routine that we have to spend more than six hours before we can have our goods cleared,” she said, “This badly affects our planning because sometimes we end up reaching Johannesburg at night where we have to spend more money on accommodation and food.”
A visit to Beitbridge by this reporter revealed the chaos that the border post has become. Long, winding queues of weary travelers have become the order of the day on both sides of the border. Since buses have to offload their luggage for inspection by the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority, people face a dilemma of choosing whether to safeguard their goods or process the revenue declaration papers.
“The place is not safe. Imagine we offload our goods for inspection and we have to spend hours waiting for officials to come and sign the declaration forms. If you want to pay duty you must do it before the officials arrive and you will not have anyone to guard the goods,” said a distraught traveler.
Assistant Regional Immigration Officer for the Southern Region, Charles Gwede, attributes the delays to a sharp increase in traffic at the border during month-ends. But immigration staff who spoke to The Zimbabwean said there was a general increase in movement and the department had not increased its capacity to handle the volumes.
“We are understaffed and at times we have to deal with 25 buses at one time. That is why it usually takes time to clear the queues” said a worker, who requested anonymity.
The delays are not only having an impact on individuals - cross border trade is badly affected.
The African Development Bank, which attributed the delays to congestion and inefficiency of the border authorities, estimates that countries transporting their goods through Beitbridge are losing up to $35 million worth of business every year.
“The delays, high congestion and inefficient service delivery experienced on the Beitbridge border, are very costly in terms of waiting time and transaction costs ranging between $29.3 million and $35 million a year. The costs are limiting the prospects for intra-regional trade expansion,” said the bank’s Vice President and chief economist, Mthuli Ncube.
Ncube urged the setting up of a one stop border to ease the congestion and boost the flow of commercial goods and services.
Beitbridge is one of the busiest border posts in Sadc region as it links South Africa to the other countries in and outside the region. A quick survey by The Zimbabwean revealed that other border posts are experiencing similar problems, but Beitbridge is the worst. The recent launch of the Chirundu One-Stop Border Post two years ago increased efficiency and revenue collection, but complaints about service delivery still linger.
An AfDB evaluation report of the Chirundu one stop border post states that the time taken by a truck to cross the border has been reduced from three days to just two hours, and trade between Zambia and Zimbabwe increased, boosting revenues by 30 percent.