In the interests of assisting private sector organisations like the Federation of East and Southern African Road Transport Associations (Fesarta) in their commitment to facilitate the effective flow of freight across the sub-Saharan region, Freight News has decided to print the following letter by Mike Fitzmaurice, chief executive of Fesarta.
The letter, addressed to South Africa’s minister of health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, is in response to the humanitarian situation that has developed on the Beitbridge border since the Department of Health instituted stringent Covid-curbing measures for all inbound travellers.
Dear Dr Mkhize
I write to you regarding urgent problems at the Beitbridge border which are now being aggravated by the Covid-19 measures that have been gazetted and erratically implemented.
The current chaos has led to approximately 3000 truck drivers being delayed for seven days and living in appalling conditions along the roads and truck parks.
The problem is being greatly aggravated by the Covid control measures.
We wish to bring to your attention the conflicting terms of the Government Gazette Notice Volume 666 dated 3 December 2020 No. 43954, and which refers to the following: “AMENDMENT OF DIRECTIONS ISSUED IN TERMS OF REGULATION 4(1)(a) OF THE REGULATIONS MADE UNDER SECTION 27(2) OF THE DISASTER MANAGEMENT ACT, 2002 (ACT No. 57 OF 2002): MEASURES TO ADDRESS, PREVENT AND COMBAT THE SPREAD OF COVID -19.”
This document is contradictory as it states in paragraph 5 subparagraph (3) (b): A person entering the Republic must on arrival at the point of entry, provide to the port health official the following: (a) A completed Traveller Health Questionnaire; and (b) a valid negative Covid -19 Polymerase Chain Reaction test result, not older than 72 hours from the date of departure from the country of origin. Then in paragraph 5 subparagraph (8) (c) it states: The following category of persons are exempted from provisions of subparagraph (3)(b) but must comply with applicable entry requirements set out by the Department of Home Affairs. (c) cross-border freight operators.
Then again in Paragraph 5 subparagraph (9) it states: Cross-border freight operators referred to in subparagraph (8) must on entry into the country, be subjected to antigen testing at the cost of the employer and such test result shall remain valid for 30 days subject to the employer having medical surveillance plans stipulating routine screening and testing of freight crew.
The regulation therefore states that truck drivers are exempt from PCR tests valid for 72 hours and in the next section it says they must have an antigen test at the border which is valid for 30 days.
But it says nothing about drivers arriving at the border with a valid antigen test done in any other country like Zambia or Zimbabwe. These should also be valid for 30 days.
There are problems with the application of the regulations in that antigen testing at Beitbridge is only being carried out between the hours of 09h30 and 17h00; thereafter they revert to screening (temperatures).
This is totally illogical and raises questions about the necessity of the antigen tests at all, as Beitbridge is a 24/7 border post.
The testing facilities and staffing levels are totally inadequate to cope with the traffic volumes, and the closure of the testing station for 16 hours of the day is totally unsatisfactory at a 24-hour operational border post.
There is only one testing table in place for drivers, with one person to register, test and print the results and one person (a cashier) to collect money and issue receipts. Initially the testing station was located at the entry gate to the Customs Control Zone and alongside the testing table for travellers and bus passengers.
This meant everyone had to disembark from their vehicles at the gate and hand in the completed health questionnaire (or if not completed, fill one in at the testing table, then pay the test fee and wait for a receipt. Once tested they must wait for the printed test results.
This process is far too slow, is causing absolute chaos, and is the cause of the delays and the build up of trucks on the Zimbabwe side.
It was only on Thursday last week, after requests from private sector stakeholders at the border to separate travellers and bus passengers, that they moved them away from the entry gate and relocated the traveller and bus passengers to the stop near the passenger terminal, and the drivers’ testing station to the immigration at sector 3 in the commercial yard.
In addition, it is important to note that South African border posts are archaic in design with a single lane road in and out which is a natural bottleneck for commercial vehicle traffic.
This is further complicated by the gate in and out of South Africa leading directly onto the bridge over the Limpopo River. Therefore, any additional constraints added to the limited passage in and out of the border is a recipe for disaster.
The cost of these delays to the cross-border transport industry and their impact on the economies of both South Africa and Zimbabwe, are staggering, and calculated at a rate of $20 per hour for each hour a vehicle stands, it is horrific. This can be seen from the table and graph below which shows the cost to industry of R190 million just for the seven-day period from December 7 to 13, of which delays of seven days due to queuing amounted to R176 million.
This is totally unacceptable as industry cannot be expected to continue to suffer these kinds of losses after suffering a massive loss in November this year due to a 27-day blockage at Beitbridge on northbound traffic which cost the transport Industry a massive R442 million.
There was no prior consultation with the private sector stakeholders in the cross-border transport industry on the plans for the rollout of this amendment - and due to bad planning and poorly executed implementation by the Department of Health at Beitbridge Border Post, the busiest commercial border post in Africa, it has resulted in absolute chaos at the border on the Zimbabwe side of the border with southbound commercial traffic.
Since its implementation it has systematically resulted in heavy traffic build ups with queues stretching from the border post all the way back through the town of Beitbridge onto both the Bulawayo and Masvingo roads.
The queue on the Masvingo road is 7km from the border but runs double lane all the way down to the Holiday Inn in town, some 3 km from the border, where it develops into four lanes all the way down to the traffic circle about 100 metres from the border gates.
On the Bulawayo road it stretches back 6 km from the border in a single lane from the junction to the back of the queue for 2 km before it becomes a double lane from the junction back down to the Holiday Inn.
All the truck parks in Beitbridge Zimbabwe side are full and trucks in town seeking parking are spilling over into the residential parts of Beitbridge and invading private properties as there is nowhere for them to park safely.
There is no running water or sanitation for drivers parked alongside the roads and they must relieve themselves and defecate in the bush. With the little water they carry in 20-litre drums they must try to wash themselves as best they can in the open and must cook alongside the road or in the cab of their trucks at night on gas cookers.
They cannot sleep at night as they will lose their place in the queue to another truck, so as a result they catnap, relying on the sound of trucks moving to wake them so they can keep their places in the queue.
Due to proximity of the trucks parked one on top of another along the roads and in Beitbridge town, there is no social distancing and nobody to monitor if they are wearing masks - or even if they are sanitising and if they have sufficient sanitiser on them for the duration of their time in the queue. It is currently taking seven days for a driver to reach the border and travel six or seven kilometres from the border.
Those drivers who are parked in the town of Beitbridge mingle freely with the local town residents and there is no social distancing taking place. This situation must be very troubling for health authorities on the Zimbabwe side as it has created an environment for the super spreading of the Covid-19 virus.
Over and above this, after these trucks eventually cross the border and clear into South Africa, we are putting sleep-deprived drivers onto our roads during the festive season with many travellers on the road heading for their holiday destinations.
This is a disaster waiting to happen and will cause carnage on our roads, with the likelihood of many fatalities and disabling injuries to add to our road crash statistics in South Africa over the festive season. It is therefore recommended that to resolve this chaotic mess, the Covid-19 testing for drivers entering South Africa should be suspended with immediate effect to allow for the dismantling of the queue on the Zimbabwe side.
Once normality is reached, a consultation with key private sector stakeholders in the cross-border transport sector such as Fesarta and the SA Association of Freight Forwarders, should take place to plan how best to restart testing without disruption to traffic flows at the Beitbridge Border post.
From experience it is strongly recommended that due consideration be given to relocating the testing to a location away from the border post such as the Sanral Beitbridge Traffic Centre where there are multiple incoming lanes and sufficient space to accommodate the smooth flow of traffic as shown in the aerial picture below.
It is also recommended that drivers do not wait for test results and that testing be done on a track and trace basis i.e. driver is sent an SMS once his results become available and if he does happen to test positive, he is contacted and told to report for 10 days’ quarantine at the nearest quarantine location.
Then the transporter is contacted at the same time to arrange for decontamination of the truck and a replacement driver. If the driver tests negative, his printed test results can be collected on his return to the border for his next northbound trip as the negative test results are valid for 30 days. Aerial view of the Sanral Traffic Centre at Beitbridge with six incoming lanes and plenty of space for traffic to queue and drivers to be tested efficiently without disruption to traffic on the highway or at the border post. Traffic police can safely direct all trucks into the centre from the highway.
I trust our recommendations will receive your urgent consideration, and we look forward to being of assistance to your department to devise satisfactory solutions to this important barrier to control of the virus, and the severe disruption to interstate trade.