If all had gone as anticipated with the construction of the multibillion-rand Kazungula Bridge linking Botswana and Zambia, it would now have been completed and travellers would have already experienced days of smooth transit between the two countries.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of tons in import and export goods on freight trucks would also have already reached their destinations at a reduced transit time.
The scenes of, as portrayed in a 2018 story on the African Development Group website, “traders, travellers, fishermen and women crossing the Zambezi River on floating planks, ferries, rickshaw boats and canoes” would be a thing of yesterday.
There appears, however, to be some unexplained delays in the commissioning of the long-awaited bridge two months after the two countries gave an impression that it was ready to be operationalised.
This has left wide speculation that Covid-19 was possibly preventing the presidents of Botswana and Zambia from standing on the iconic $259.3 million (R4.4 billion) bridge straddling the crocodile and hippo-infested Zambezi River to cut the ribbon.
Countries respond to delays
The governments of Botswana and Zambia confidently explained during the final inspection of the bridge in mid-October that the actual bridge structure was 100% complete, with only the construction of the one-stop border posts on both countries being almost 99% complete at the time.
It was further explained by Botswana Transport and Roads Minister Thulaganyo Segokgo and Zambia’s Housing and Infrastructure Development Minister Vincent Mwela that the two countries were yet to hold bilateral meetings and sign legal instruments.
The two ministers spoke during a joint final inspection event seen by City Press in a video published on Facebook by Botswana newspaper The Voice in October. They both agreed that the bridge was completed and that the border post building on the Botswana side was at 99.7% and 99.99% on the Zambian side.
“We are confident that these two packages [the construction of one-stop border posts] will be completed by the end of October 2020. The commissioning of the project by the heads of state [will take place] in the not so distant future,” Segokgo said.
Mwale made an appeal for the “remaining works to be concluded so that the facilities can be operationalised … It is only when this is done that our travelling public will get the full value of the bridge.”
“The Zambian government is keen to make sure the legacy project is operationalised as soon as possible … and I am very sure this is the wish of its counterpart from Botswana. This is a joint final inspection, not a body that makes decision as to when we can operationalise the bridge … There is a bilateral meeting that will make that decision, and we will be able to inform the public when the bridge will be operational after our bilateral meeting,” he said.
Reasons for delay remain unclear
It is not known whether it was indeed the Covid-19 pandemic, the bilateral meetings or the signing of legal instruments that have delayed the opening of the bridge.
Meanwhile, in a recent online article by Zambian publication News Diggers, Mwale rejected local media reports that his government owes the contractor in the joint venture, which may have led to some delays. The Zambian minister dismissed the claims as “not true”, adding that his government was going to meet all its contractual obligations with the contractor.
What is known is that the bridge remains unused and the users who have waited for it for the past six years are losing out on a comfortable and easy transit between the two countries.
Travellers lose out on ease of travel
It was anticipated that freight trucks that would normally wait between three days to almost two weeks before they could cross the Zambezi River into either of the countries were now going to take just a few hours to be processed at border posts and drive over the bridge.
This was going to be somewhat of a sad end to the pontoon fleet known as the Kazungula Ferry, which has been the only mode of crossing the river for decades. These giant flat-bottomed ships with a carrying capacity of 70 tons have been carrying trucks, small vehicles and people across the 400m wide river on 10-minute one-way trips for years.
And for as long as the bridge remains unopened, accidents continue to happen at its feet. The Voice reported last week that there had been accidents last Saturday and Monday, when two freight trucks “sank into the Zambezi River as they attempted to board the Kazungula Ferry”. The drivers of both trucks reportedly escaped unharmed. There were media reports from 2003 that a similar accident happened and at least 18 people were killed after being thrown into the water from the pontoon.
The commissioning of the new bridge was going to see an end to the operations of the pontoons.
Earlier this month would have marked exactly six years since the beginning of the construction of the bridge began in December 2014. Initially anticipated for completion in 2018, the construction has been plagued by delays including being halted at some point due to non-payment of the contractor.
With no much explanation coming from the two countries, pontoons continue to ferry freight trucks and other travellers between the two countries while the majestic bridge towers over them, ready to carry traffic but with no motorists driving over it or pedestrians walking in dedicated lanes.
Having one-stop border posts on each end would have meant that travellers were going to be processed once at the exit point. This was expected to save time when compared with the current practice where travellers make stops in both Botswana and Zambia to be processed by immigration officials. This was meant to enhance intraregional trade in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), with the bridge linking trade from the Durban port to Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The bridge was also expected to ease traffic for those who have been using the Beit Bridge border post from South Africa into Zimbabwe en route to other SADC states.