South Africa’s Busiest Border Closes After Week of Covid Chaos

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South Africa’s decision to shut its land borders was preceded by a week of pandemonium as hundreds of thousands of foreigners tried to return to work after the December holidays.

Beitbridge, the only legal road crossing between Zimbabwe and South Africa -- and southern Africa’s busiest inland border post -- was the worst affected. People waited, not always patiently, for as long as four days in lines of traffic that stretched miles from the border gate with delays caused by the need to produce a certificate showing a negative test for Covid-19.

Without restrooms or restaurants, they relied on unmasked vendors selling homemade traditional street food, while the scrubby roadside bush made do as a communal and unhygienic restroom with little social distancing on the Zimbabwean side of the border.

South Africa’s Busiest Border Closes After Week of Covid Chaos

The chaos was a demonstration of the disruption and economic damage the coronavirus is wreaking as South Africa battles to contain the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 1.2 million people in the country and killed more than 33,000. In addition to delaying people from returning to work, the congestion curbed trade at Beitbridge, a key gateway to the rest of the continent for goods trucked from South Africa or its ports.

“It is on the trade route,” said Trudi Hartzenberg, executive director of the Tralac Trade Law Center in Stellenbosch, South Africa. “The transport and development corridors, going into the region and a single border closure has a knock-on, or a regional impact, which can be quite significant.”

The snarl-up meant that some reached South African immigration authorities after their coronavirus test certificates, which have to be presented within three days of having being taken, had expired. Many had to spend days mingling with unmasked street vendors.

“This is my fourth day in the line and my certificate will have expired even if we get through today,” said Wilson Ncube, 32, a boilermaker driving back to Johannesburg with his wife after visiting family in Zimbabwe. “I’m already late for work, and if I need to wait another 24 hours after being retested my boss is going to be” angry, he said.

Calls to Zimbabwe’s immigration department and South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs weren’t answered.

On average, Beitbridge processes about 25,000 people a day, according to Zimbabwe’s immigration department, but that number rises dramatically in January. Many of the 2 to 3 million Zimbabweans working in South Africa return home in December and the rush back to work in early January sees numbers spike. Adding to the congestion, both countries shut the border to private vehicles soon after nightfall to speed the processing of buses and trucks. Over 1,000 of them cross daily, customs officials said, mostly 40-ton rigs ferrying supplies to and from South African ports.

South Africa’s Busiest Border Closes After Week of Covid Chaos

Trucks were backed up over 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) on the Zimbabwean side of the border on Jan. 8, while four lanes of private vehicles extended in a line for 3 kilometers. Soon after nightfall, movement of private vehicles ground to a standstill after the gates shut. It would take them between 35 and 72 hours to cross the Limpopo River into the South African customs and immigration facility.

South Africa’s main Lebombo border post with Mozambique suffered worse congestion, at least for truckers, after a new coronavirus testing regime saw the operations shut down periodically for sterilization. A line of trucks extended 21 kilometers on both sides of the border.

At Beitbridge, the interminable wait to enter Zimbabwe’s expanded border post ended on entering the gates and encountering a vast and almost empty car park. Travelers were processed rapidly and social distancing and mask wearing enforced. Vehicles then sat on the the 382-meter (1,253-foot) bridge over the Limpopo for as long as an hour as it shook under the weight of heavy trucks rumbling across.

Aside from workers being late for their jobs, truckers spoke of missing shipping deadlines at ports.

“If I’m going to make it, I’ll have to drive through for another 24 hours straight without sleep,” said Jonathan Sando, from the cab of a Freightliner truck hauling 40 tons of granite destined for Italy. “It’s not fun, this job.”

On the night of Jan. 11 South African President Cyril Ramaphosa brought the chaos to a halt by announcing that 20 of South Africa’s land border posts would be closed until Feb. 15 to almost all travelers with the exception of those hauling freight.

In doing so he stranded a substantial portion of South Africa’s workforce.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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