In Pictures | The ticking time bomb at Beitbridge

Throngs wait for days to cross the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa as street vendors sell food, water and access to ablutions to desperate travellers.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to long delays in the movement of people and cargo through the Beitbridge border between South Africa and Zimbabwe. 

In addition to valid travel documents, travellers are now required to produce a Covid-19 clearance certificate in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. With limited testing capacity, authorities are battling to clear the huge volumes of people coming through the Southern African Development Community’s busiest inland port of entry.

6 January 2021: Nkosana Dube, 63, was driving from Filabusi in Zimbabwe to Johannesburg when he got delayed at the border. He believes corruption is one reason for the long queues as desperate travellers pay R500 to jump to the front.

In peak periods, officials process about 25 000 people a day, but during December last year and earlier this year, fewer than 6 000 travellers moved through the border daily.

South Africa and Zimbabwe have each imposed curfews, which have not been synchronised. This has only compounded the situation. 

6 January 2021: Women shelter from the heat inside a vehicle at Beitbridge while waiting to cross into South Africa.

In the run-up to the holidays, travellers spent an average of 36 hours being cleared out of South Africa. With the festive season winding up, the same situation is now unfolding on the Zimbabwean side of the border.

To minimise the pressure, South African Department of Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi deployed extra officials between 2 and 14 January to help screen and process travellers. 

6 January 2021: Following a rise in Covid-19 cases, the Zimbabwe government ordered another lockdown, exacerbating the chaos at the Beitbridge border. There is now a three-day backlog to get through to South Africa.

On the Zimbabwean side, authorities have created dedicated lanes for private motorists, buses, pedestrians and commercial cargo, but they are still battling to ease the build-up of motor and foot traffic. Despite these measures, travellers continue to spend days in queues, with some caught waiting in line after curfew.

Between 9pm and 6am, officials at the border focus mostly on road freight and stop processing general travellers. The delays have created a lot of anxiety among those trying to make it across, but it has also presented business opportunities for residents of the Beitbridge town.

6 January 2021: Patience Nyoni, 32, of Beitbridge says she makes an average of R1 500 a day selling food to stranded travellers.

Chaos that benefits some

“I have been in this queue for two days. We have to buy food from local vendors and on ablution facilities, those that still have money are paying to use toilets in the local suburbs. We are paying between R10 and R15 to bath at these houses and R5 for other ablution facilities,” said Livhuhani Mashau.

Those without money must endure long hours without bathing and some use the nearby bushes for toilets, he added. A woman who preferred not to be named said issues of hygiene have become a major concern for most of the travellers.

“We just pray the situation improves. You can’t go for two days without bathing, and this is also affecting those with minor children,” she said.

6 January 2021: Tawanda Dube, 39, set up a mobile bathing booth, charging travellers R15 per bath.

A vendor at the Dulivhadzimu Bus Terminus, Lilian Zhou, said she set up shop along the highway to serve travellers with food. “This chaos – though it’s unacceptable – has created more business for us,” she said. “I am selling an average of 60 plates of pap and meat daily at a cost of R25 per meal. Where I usually conduct my business, a plate is sold for R10.”

Soaring temperatures mean water is also in high demand, Zhou added. A fruit vendor, Everjoy Poterayi, said her daily takings had increased from R70 to R300. 

6 January 2021: After spending two days in the queue, Ernest Murahwa, 36, of Chegutu in Zimbabwe said he ended up having to jump the queue so he could get back to Johannesburg.

According to traveller Thandiwe Mazibuko, the border crisis has meant many people have missed at least three days of work.

“The majority of people here were supposed to have started work on 4 January but we are stuck in long queues,” said Mazibuko. “This creates a lot of anxiety. In addition, some travellers’ Covid-19 clearance certificates are expiring while they are still in queues. Some have run out of money to buy food or to do retests at the border.”

A Beitbridge resident, who identified himself only as Munashe, said the situation was a ticking time bomb as crowds of people around the border risked contracting the coronavirus or water-borne diseases. 

6 January 2021: A woman sells refreshments at Beitbridge border. Vendors are making significantly more money than usual as travellers turn to them for essentials.

The town has one referral hospital, which caters to 200 000 people, and has an isolation centre that can only take up to 30 in a critical condition. “Authorities need to act on this. You will note that the local hospital is already overwhelmed with local cases and we cannot have more transit cases,” said Munashe.

Some border officials in Zimbabwe said they were now making use of the integrated border management committee to troubleshoot bottlenecks and address them on the go. 

“We are alive to the need to clear travellers as fast as we can and hence we are now looking at local solutions. The border managers from both countries are all on the ground pushing traffic in batches. We hope that by Friday, we will have cleared this traffic,” said one official who asked not to be identified.

7 January 2021: Jacque Ngwenya, 32, travelled to Plumtree in Zimbabwe for her mother’s funeral. She got stuck at the border for three days on her way back to Johannesburg.

Labour migration between South Africa and Zimbabwe is not new – the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association, the recruiting body of the South African Chamber of Mines, employed thousands of migrant workers in the 1970s.

Technological advances and the need for more skills and services in the global economy have perpetuated the trend. In terms of regional trade, Zimbabwe imports goods worth billions of rands from its southern neighbour each year.

The border town of Musina has also been growing rapidly because of increased cross-border business between the countries.

7 January 2021: A woman and her children take a break from sitting in the car while waiting in the border queue at Beitbridge.

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