Beitbridge closure: Cross-border traders in a scramble for livelihoods

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The Limpopo river which separates South Africa and Zimbabwe at the Beitbridge border post.
The Limpopo river which separates South Africa and Zimbabwe at the Beitbridge border post.
News24/Alex Mitchley
  • Single trucks will be used for imports across the border between SA and Zimbabwe
  • A local business body claims the economic impact will be minimal.
  • Cross-border traders, however, say they will not be able to "fend for themselves".

The closure of the Beitbridge border post for general entry and departure will not have much of an impact on the Zimbabwean economy as the transportation of fuel, cargo and goods will still be allowed, the head of a local business body said on Tuesday.

This, however, is not the case for small businesses operating in both South Africa and Zimbabwe, who will likely bear the brunt as the new arrangements leave cross-border traders scrambling to work around a lack of flexibility. 

Late on Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that South Africa would close 20 land border posts until 15 February to curb the spread of Covid-19. 

South Africa is Zimbabwe's biggest trading partner, with the southern African country exporting goods worth US$1.57 billion to South Africa for the 11 months to November 2020.

In turn, Zimbabwe, which is the gateway to other regional countries up north, imported goods worth US$2.2 billion from South Africa, according to data released by the Zimbabwe Statistics Agency on Tuesday. 

Ramaphosa said congestion at border posts had exposed many people to Covid-19 infections as they waited to be processed.

Beitbridge is one of the busiest ports of entry and its closure could hurt businesses, especially in border towns like Musina in South Africa and Beitbridge in Zimbabwe.

'We have to live with it'

But Beitbridge Business Association chairman Nkululeko Milidi said the impact would be minimal as the commercial side would be allowed to continue operating. 

Some people would still be allowed to enter or depart the country for certain reasons, including the transportation of fuel, cargo and goods, according to Ramaphosa.

Milidi said the business community had trucks that were allowed to buy groceries across the border.

"In any case, the Zimbabwean side had already stopped general departures to South Africa, so this makes sense, it is for our safety. We, however, still have trucks that bring in commercial cargo."

He admitted, however, it would not be business as usual.

"Of course, businesses will be affected in one way or the other, but we have to live with it, what can we do, it is a worldwide problem."

Cross-border traders

Cross-border trader Luvhuno Mohadi said they would have to come up with new ways to order goods in South Africa, like combining orders in single trucks, although it did not give them the flexibility they were accustomed to.

"We need to be on the ground to see what we are buying, there are price and quality issues that need to be considered. Sending someone does not give you much of a choice, or an opportunity to negotiate," he added. 

Zimbabwe Cross-Border Traders Association (ZCBTA) secretary-general Augustine Tawanda said the move would affect "livelihoods".

"There is nothing much we can say but the evidence is there that cross-border traders will not be able to fend for themselves."

Economic analyst Walter Mandeya, however, said that since Zimbabwe was also under lockdown, most cross-border traders, with exception of those providing essential services, would still not be able to operate. 

Under the lockdown measures announced by Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, non-essential formal businesses and registered informal traders would be suspended from Tuesday 5 January 2021 for 30 days.

An official with the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA), who declined to be named, said in normal times, Beitbridge processes 120 buses every day, carrying mostly cross-border traders to Musina as well as Johannesburg.

While International Cross-Border Traders Association (ICTA) president Denis Juru had not responded to questions by the time of publishing, ICTA wrote to Ramaphosa in September 2020 pleading for the reopening of South Africa's borders to the public, especially traders.

ICTA has more than 1 000 traders who cross into South Africa to buy and/or sell products using Beitbridge daily.

Musina is also likely to feel the impact as much of its business comes from Zimbabwe.

In July, business operators in the town told News24 they were losing out because their Zimbabwean customers were not being allowed to enter South Africa

There are more than 15 car dealers on the South African side of the border that sell second hand vehicles from Asia, and they are also likely to feel the impact for the next five weeks.

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