Thupeyo Muleya, Beitbridge Bureau
WHEN one looks at Beitbridge border town, year-after-year, life has mainly been swinging from one end to another, but proffering no significant improvement in terms of service delivery and general development.
In short, this has been a tale of many good intentions, without action. The town has been growing rapidly at the instigation of Government through the National Economic Development Priority Programme in 2006, which gave birth to the Beitbridge Redevelopment Programme.
The Government at that time spent millions of dollars in face-lifting the port into a modern urban centre. The port was granted town status in the same year. The programme included the construction of a total of 16 blocks of flats to house 64 families mainly middle class civil servants, 250 core houses (for home ownership), 52 F14 houses for civil servants, road dualisation, upgrading water supply and sewer infrastructure in the town.
Other institutional facilities are a hospital, primary school, secondary school, civic centre, Government composite office block, modern truck inn, shopping complex, a five star hotel, an aerodrome and the upgrading of the current border post to meet world class standards.
This ambitious project has raised hope among Beitbridge residents and other people across the country and the continent. Two thirds of these projects are nearing completion, while others have been completed and some are at various stages of construction and Government needs a further $10 732 200 to complete the outstanding civil works.
According to the 2012 population census, the town had a population of 50 000 and a daily transit population of 10 000 people. A total of 170 000 people, 2 100 buses, 25 000 private cars and 15 000 trucks pass through the town every month. One of the major highlights of the redevelopment project has been the opening of the 136-roomed Rainbow Beitbridge Hotel, which brought hope of uplifting the town’s accommodation facilities. The $50 million hotel was constructed by the National Social Security Authority (NSSA). A decade later the Government’s ambitious programme has started folding and Beitbridge’s economic development plans have started falling again owing to a number of factors. These include the negative economic climate and human induced inefficiency by some Government departments at the border post where harassment of travellers has become an acceptable tradition. In 2016 alone two major hotels were closed, one run by Africa Sun (Beitbridge Express Hotel) and Rainbow Tourism Group (Rainbow Beitbridge) after making losses of between $500 000 and $2 million in the last three years respectively. The situation was also worsened by the fall of the occupancy rates to around 20 percent in the years under review.
In the same year, key infrastructure such as roads, vehicles and several buildings and traffic lights were destroyed by a mob, during violent protests over the introduction of a new import law removing listed goods from the open general import licence (OGIL).
The chaotic situation at the border post, where travellers and importers/exporters spend between five and six hours to get their goods cleared by the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) and other line Government departments, has contributed to the collapse of hotel industry in the town. The delays have reportedly seen an average of $200 million being lost in production, tourism traffic and revenue annually.
About 95 percent of cargo transported in the region is by road transport, with a delay of three days at the border increasing transport costs by about $500 per truck per day which is passed on to the importer. In other terms some unscrupulous officials have turned the port of entry and the entire town into a danger zone for travellers and transit population. Beitbridge border post, used to be the port of choice for many travellers in the last few years, with importers or travellers in transit opting to put up in local hotels in the town, soon after getting their goods or vehicles cleared at the border.
However, that has changed as a result of the mercenary attitude mainly by border officials. Travellers and other importers now prefer leaving the town as soon as they are done with the business at the border, for fear of further harassment by unscrupulous border officials. The willy-nilly waylaying of cross border traders and travellers in the town by unscrupulous border officials carrying out private stop and search operations where they extort money from people outside the border arena, has become an acceptable abnormality.
Those bearing the brunt are car and commercial importers/exporters and cross border traders. Such groups of people feel safe outside the town the moment they leave the border post. It boggles the mind why customs or border officials, (at times those who will be off duty) are allowed to follow on people, whom they would have harassed for long periods at the border, to conduct similar checks. These follow up checks are done at lodges or hotels and the bus terminus and hiking spots.
Recently, two Beitbridge based detectives were fined $400 each, for demanding a $2 000 bribe from a man they had intercepted while importing a truck load of unrefrigerated apples from South Africa to Zimbabwe. The duo reportedly intercepted the truck in the industrial site soon after it had entered the country through Beitbridge border post.
Apart from the poor service at the port of entry, the mushrooming of check points around the town and along the major highways leading to either Harare or Bulawayo has caused a lot of frustration among travellers who find it easy to travel during the night. However, this has resulted in a number of road accidents. For instance the volume of travellers who accessed the country through Beitbridge border post in December last year has dropped by 42 percent in comparison to the same period in 2014.
This is attributed to the poor performance of the South African rand against the dollar and that other travellers now opt to fly or use the less busy Plumtree, Maitengwe and Mphoengs border posts where services are relatively humane. Hotels and other businesses will continue folding in Beitbridge as long as the border post is not made user friendly.
The Government needs to rein in on the chaotic situation at the border post to rescue the town of Beitbridge from further collapse. It is important for Government to centralise the collection of revenue at the ports of entry. Zimra has the capacity to collect and all the money should be directed to Treasury.
The situation where every Government department or parastatal is collecting money as they please must stop.
Zimra should also open more payment points within the border. The idea of importers hopping from office to office for payments which can be collected from one point must stop. In addition, the big-brother attitude among other border officials has created a lot of problems than solutions. For example, Zimra as revenue specialists may clear cargo in line with the laws of the land; but somewhere along the lines security agents would want to duplicate the same role and this causes unnecessary delays. The checking of anomalies should be done at one point by all stakeholders if they so wish like what is happening across, at the South African component of the border.
It is also understood that the RTG was paying obscene monthly rentals of between $30 000 and $40 000 to NSSA. As a parastatal NSSA must review its position on exorbitant rentals otherwise the Beitbridge hotel will remain one of its bad investments. In fact they should stop this over-charging when they are failing to pay pensioners on time or when they do they pay paltry allowances. — Feedback: email@example.com