- The South African government has responded to calls for changes at the Beitbridge border post following weeks of chaos.
- More health and home affairs officials, immigration law enforcement officers, and mobile Covid-19 testing facilities will be deployed at the crossing to Zimbabwe.
- Blame for the festive season backlog should, however, be placed on reckless truck drivers and freight associations, according to home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi.
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Festive season traffic at the Beitbridge border post, the main link between South Africa and Zimbabwe, has been both chaotic and deadly, with queues of freight trucks, passenger vehicles, and busses extending for 15km in both directions at the height of the traffic jam just before Christmas.
Now the South African government has announced a host of changes to prevent backlogs, before the next spike in traffic expected in January.
Reports of abhorrent conditions at the border were first issued by numerous freight associations. A lack of ablution facilities, no running water, and reckless intermingling between stranded travellers, described as a “humanitarian crisis”, persisted for more than a week.
By Christmas eve, it had turned deadly. According to the Road Freight Association (RFA), five people died while languishing in the long queues. Blame was placed solely on the South African government for failing to deploy additional resources to the border.
But this accusation, and the associated death toll, has been vehemently denied by home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi. Addressing the media on Wednesday, Motsoaledi took direct aim at freight associations and truck drivers.
“The normal arrangement is that trucks park in holding areas or truck stops where they finalise a myriad of documents demanded by SARS [the South African Revenue Service] and various trade protocols,” said Motsoaledi, pointing out that, despite dire accounts of the congestion, traffic at Beitbridge border had decreased by 73% compared to volumes experienced in 2019.
Although regular traffic volumes had decreased significantly, a higher number of trucks were diverted to the Beitbridge border due to closures of crossings into Botswana. Motsoaledi said that truckers panicked and abandoned holding areas in an attempt to secure their spot in the Beitbridge queue.
“The holding areas have parking, water and ablution facilities. When you abandon the holding areas with all these facilities and park on the N1 and then blame the state for not providing water and ablution facilities, you are being disingenuous and dishonest,” he said in lashing out at the department’s detractors.
Motsoaledi did, however, admit that government should have deployed additional traffic officers to direct trucks back into the holding areas. This, he said, was not done due to the transferral of officers to festive season road safety campaigns in other parts of Limpopo.
Despite apportioning most of the blame to unruly truck drivers and freight organisations, Motsoaledi did announce key interventions to ease congestion at Beitbridge and other borders, especially during the latter half of the festive season in January 2021.
And additional 160 home affairs officials will be deployed to South Africa’s busiest land border posts, including Beitbridge, the Lebombo border post with Mozambique, the Oshoek post with eSwatini, Maseru Bridge and Ficksburg with Lesotho, and Kopfontein with Botswana.
South African National Defence Force (SANDF) force operations at high-risk entry points will be bolstered by the deployment of 60 additional immigration law enforcement officers.
A further 259 port health officials, tasked with conducting Covid-19 symptom screenings and verifying PCR test certificates, will be deployed to speed-up authorisation. These officials will be supported by a 278 community service personnel and additional mobile testing facilities provided by the National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS).
Joint provincial operations between departments including police, transport, health, and home affairs, will conduct safety operations in and around points of entry.
The Cross Border Road Transport Agency has also been enlisted to ease congestion by assisting commercial drivers with cross-border permits.
Motsoaledi added that Kosibay Border Post, between KwaZulu-Natal and Mozambique, would reopen on 1 January 2021 and that this was expected to ease the burden on Beitbridge.