11 January 2013

Of Border Posts and Efficient Inefficiency

Dear Honourable Minister,

It’s 4am right now, and more sensible people than me are resting and preparing for the day yet to come. Yet I find myself feeling the urgent need to throw in my two cents on recent comments you uttered about the deplorable state of the Zimbabwe – South Africa border post.

You very rightly pointed out that the border post is in a state that is not befitting what is for many visitors to our country, their first point of contact with Zimbabwe. It is a slow, dusty, dirty, inefficient, bureaucratic nightmare that for many consumes up to seven (and more recently forty-eight)  hours of their lives each time they attempt to navigate its treacherous terrain. This is a state of affairs that I agree with you, cannot and should not be allowed to continue. But that is where my agreement with you ends. I simply do not think that building a new border post will solve the problem we are currently facing. Perhaps I may be wrong, and heaven knows that the view from the top might be very different from my view as an ordinary Zimbabwean citizen who had to navigate the border post over a dozen times in the past year.

My reasoning starts with the fact that I think that the problem with Beitbridge border post is the Beitbridge border post. In over ninety percent of my travels, the problems always occur on the Zimbabwean side of the border and hardly ever on the South African side. If we are to build a second border with South Africa, my imagination somehow seems to think that the Beitbridge border post (along with all its officials, information systems and their attendant problems) will be used as a template and we will have not one but two problems. Allow me to put forward the proposition that two problems are worse than one, and certainly no problem is better than one. So what do I propose as a solution? Getting rid of the one problem we currently have: the Beitbridge border post.

Please bear with me, I am not proposing tipping the entire edifice into the Limpopo (though I confess the thought has occurred to me on several occasions as I stood in what seemed a never ending queue). I am proposing completely rethinking the way the current border post is run, the way it is managed and the way its handles visitors.

As it stands the border post is inefficiently and horribly run; I have seen occasions where only two desks will be manned by Immigration officials yet there is a queue that stretches to the near horizon. In an age where smartphones are talking to their owners, the border post still relies on Immigration officials manually reading visitors passports, there is no system to discriminate Zimbabweans entering Zimbabwe from foreigners (one would assume that would automatically benefit the Zimbabweans who do not have to go through visa checks of any kind from the foreigners, who would also be benefited in not having to queue with the significantly greater volume of citizens) and despite the fact that buses contribute the greatest flow of human traffic there is still no discernible effort to try and fast track their flow through the border post.

The border post is also corruptly run. I have witnessed with mine own eyes bus passengers being made to pay twenty rands each to skip Customs checks. Those buses which refuse to pay are then held up deliberately and in some cases I have seen buses pay off one official then be held up by another official who demanded he be paid off in turn (One memorable standoff which began after we had passed through Immigrations and Customs and theoretically entered Zimbabwe lasted three hours).

At the moment, those are the two problems that stand out to me: inefficiency (both technological and human) and corruption. Here are a few thoughts from my sleep befuddled mind (I am hopeful that the readers of my blog will add their own two cents in the comments section). I propose increasing the manpower at the border post, the money that would be used to build another one would go well to hiring a few hundred extra officials. I propose dividing incoming traffic into distinct groups, Zimbabweans, SADC residents (who one assumes don’t need visas) and the rest of the world (who one assumes need visas and individual diplomatic calculations on the relative amount of time they are allowed into our country. Perhaps we could even go so far as to introduce a system where Zimbabweans who leave the country for less than a week actually don’t have to be ‘processed’ but need just present their ID’s (this is out there but thinking out of the box never hurt anyone methinks). At the very least, we could take a page out of our South African neighbours’ book and put up tents when the border is expecting peak traffic ("Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal" – Steve Jobs).

I propose modernizing the technology used at the border post, after all the trouble the Government takes to collect out fingerprints, would it be too much of an effort to imagine a fingerprint recognition system to scan in returning citizens? Or at the very least, passport readers to ease the strain on the Immigration officials. We have several universities with Computer Science and Electronic Engineering Departments, let them put their heads together to produce the necessary hardware and software needed. Politicians continually tell us about African solutions to African problems, here is a test case to test the efficacy of this mantra.

The corruption one is a bit trickier to negotiate. One would imagine that corruption would be eased if officials were paid better. Again, the millions that would go into a new border post would more than cover a bump in their salaries. And an anonymous tip off line to allow officials to call in their colleagues and a reward for these whistle-blowers? I have seen such strategies being employed by the corporate world, I would hazard a guess and say that this would go a long way in decreasing corruption. And perhaps a hot line that would allow travellers to simply SMS corrupt activity (and perhaps ideas) and the identity of the officials (prominent name badges on the officials perhaps?).

These are just a few of my sleep addled ideas. Perhaps in the light of a new day more ideas will come. But allow me to express my highest sentiments and the fervent hope that my ideas will perhaps start a conversation about the problem sitting at the gate of our beautiful country.

A Concerned Citizen,



  1. I resonate with this piece immensely Zikhali

    Well, the reality of the matter is that it's because of that very corruption that you first- hand witnessed, that the system will not be digitised. It's a long way what with all the red tape to get something simple done, all that bureaucracy simply defeats any noble initiatives presented.

    Till an attitude change is established, we as a nation will only be going two steps back. The long winding queues at the border were a national disgrace that even Senator Coltart took note off.

    Now the intensity of this situation coincides with the amount of human trafficking at illegal points of the border and leaves you wondering, what practically can be done?

    I cry for my country in this respect... What is the way forward?

  2. I cry with you Ernest. What pains me is that some of the ideas needed to make traffic flow need only a spirit of imagination and visionary leadership. I agree with you bureaucracy is the biggest enemy to any endavour to accomplish anything. I try to imagine what I would do if I was tasked with running the border post, or if the border post was a for profit entity what would it do. I am sure thinking out of the box would solve so many of the problems present at that place, even the one of corruption.