Digesting Ramifications of Kazungula Rail Road Project

At 9am last Saturday, President Mnangagwa flew out of Harare to Kasane, Botswana. It is an hour’s flight to that rhino horn tip-like area sandwiched by Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia.

Botswana President Seretse Khama Ian Khama was at Kasane International Airport to welcome his counterpart.

As they walked to the VIP lounge at the state-of-the-art airport situated about 90km from our majestic Victoria Falls and officially opened last month, President Edgar Lungu’s jet hovered in the sky.

The three brothers nestled in the VIP lounge for a briefing, which lasted barely a quarter of an hour.

Their vehicles were to be seen heading for the Kazungula rail road bridge – that mighty infrastructure cutting across the Zambezi River stretching 923 metres.

The bridge awkwardly takes the shape of an over stretched half-moon, with its belly costly and embarrassingly elongating into the Namibian territory as it reluctantly avoids the Zimbabwean territory.

With his safety shoes on – President Mnangagwa and his Motswana and Zambian counterparts walked across the bridge inspecting its construction.

By the way, the brown shoes President Mnangagwa wore during the tour were safety shoes.

Some idle elements were already pointing to a fashion disaster on social media!

Something crossed my mind as we toured the bridge.

Why did its shape take after the stretched half-moon, I asked one official from Botswana government?

“There was a dispute with Zimbabwe, which then was under Robert Mugabe and he refused passage of the bridge through his territory. It was supposed to be 600 metres long, but we had to institute design altercations and have its belly stretch into Namibia, which agreed to the arrangement, before curving into Zambia. The changes to the bridge design saw it stretching to 923 metres,” said the official.

An official from the Zimbabwean delegation was visibly embarrassed.

He later whispered in my ear, “Ah vakomana m’dhara wanga wakaoma uya. Todya sovereignty and territorial integrity here isu? This is time to build beneficial relations.”

The visit by President Mnangagwa to Kasane must be seen in that context.

From a diplomatic perspective, he scored big.

In a matter of a few minutes, President Mnangagwa managed to cleanse our relationship with Botswana, which under the Mugabe regime had been reduced to cross border insults.

This was aptly summarised by President Mnangagwa in an interview on his return from Botswana when he said: “Well, that project has been on for the past 10 years and at the time of its conception, there were three countries – Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia and they agreed on that bridge. Down the line, Zimbabwe pulled out as a result of some dispute at the time about the boundary, but Zambia and Botswana decided to go ahead with the project.

“So, the project has been on for the past 10 years and as you have seen, lots of progress has been made. Now Zimbabwe has decided to come on board and Zambia and Botswana have agreed to have Zimbabwe come on board.”

Secondly, for a country whose foreign policy and economic revival is anchored on the “we are open for business” aphorism, Zimbabwe must be seen being accommodative in its relations with its neighbours.

It must not think of itself and about itself. This kills the argument pushed in some quarters that completion of the Kazungula rail road bridge will divert traffic from Chirundu and Beitbridge ports of entry as the Botswana bridge provides an alternative route to the port of Durban for countries like Zambia, Tanzania and the DRC.

Completion of the Kazungula rail road bridge will in fact see Zimbabwe having a share in revenue from the infrastructure as Botswana and Zambia have agreed that the country must have the same facilities of a one-stop border post as is in their countries.

Zimbabwe will contribute to the $259 million loan for the construction of the bridge in the same manner as Zambia and Botswana.

It must also be noted that the Kazungula rail bridge remains an alternative as the Chirundu-Beitbridge route is an economical track for countries like Zambia and DRC by virtue of it being closer to the port of Durban by 200km when transporting say copper from Zambia’s Kitwe.

Put in other words, it is 200km longer to transport copper from Kitwe to Durban via Kazungula and worse for loads coming as far afield.

What does this mean for Zimbabwe?

Zimbabwe must put its house in order as a matter of urgency. We must urgently attend to our inefficiencies.

Let us speed up the dualisation of the Beitbridge-Chirundu Highway for traffic flowing into Zambia, DRC and Tanzania.

It is also important to dualise the Harare-Nyamapanda Highway for traffic heading for Malawi. Let us dare to dream of a railway line from Beitbridge to Chirundu.

The talk on the dualisation of the Beitbridge-Chirundu road has taken too long and it is time action begins on the ground.

Knowing our great potential by virtue of our geographical location within Sadc, our brothers and sisters are not sleeping.

They are upgrading their infrastructure and this was confirmed by the Zambian Housing and Infrastructure Development Minister Ronald Chitotela on Saturday at a Press conference in Kasane.

He said Zambia was constructing new roads linking it with many other countries in the Southern African Development Community region and beyond as Lusaka was opening up for business. This certainly is call to action for authorities in Harare. The time for cross-border verbal diarrhoea is over.

It is time to explore opportunities that propel Zimbabwe and the Sadc region to another level of social-economic development.

In fact, besides constructing the $259 million Kazungula rail bridge, President Khama last month officially opened an upgraded Kasane International Airport. It cost Botswana $25 million to refurbish the airport, which can now compete with any such facility in the region.

President Khama is on record spelling out the reason for upgrading Kasane International Airport – to form a major network connectivity for tourists to Kasane and throughout the Sadc region. The idea is infrastructure development.

Developing our infrastructure will open us up for business and help bolster the message by President Mnangagwa that we are indeed open for investment.

In fact, the process of putting up infrastructure itself is creation of opportunities for foreign investment into that sector.

We must identify such opportunities and vigorously market them for investment in the same manner we acted on National Railways of Zimbabwe.

Lastly, Zimbabwe must address system deficiencies at ports of entry like Beitbridge, Forbes Border and Chirundu.

The Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) must wake up. The reason why our neighbours are trying to avoid the Chirundu-Beitbridge route is the man-made congestion at these points of entry and exit.

The culture of having haulage trucks stranded at our borders for weeks must end. No sober businessperson would want their cargo regularly delayed by some corrupt official at some border or by the breakdown of the so-called Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA).

Let us go learn how others are doing it and work on our shortcomings as a matter of urgency.

One may also broadly look at the visit to Kasane by President Mnangagwa beyond inspecting the Kazungula rail road bridge.

President Khama has announced plans to step down in April this year and his deputy Mokgweetsi Masisi will take over until elections in 2019.

Before he leaves office, President Khama and his Zimbabwe counterpart have to redefine relations between Harare and Gaborone.

The relations had long been soiled by Mr Mugabe who did not take lightly to President Khama’s advice for him to step down and allow someone to captain Zimbabwe to prosperity.

So far, the process of mending the relations has flowed smoothly as evidenced by the visits the two leaders have exchanged from the moment President Mnangagwa was sworn in last November.

President Khama attended the swearing-in ceremony at the National Sports Stadium in Harare, while President Mnangagwa visited Botswana for the second time on Saturday.

It is not surprising, therefore, to hear that Zimbabwe and Botswana are in talks over the construction of a railway line linking the two countries to Mozambique.

They signed a Memorandum of Understanding some years ago, but the project never took off as political relations were not conducive for the multi-million dollar project to take off.

The re-activation of sober and sound relations between Harare and Gaborone has therefore come at the right moment.

The time for reckless and poisonous political rhetoric that characterised our relations with Botswana under Mr Mugabe must be buried deep under.

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