Officials from the countries involved prefer to focus on the ‘brotherhood’ and the ‘regional good’, but the opening of the Kazungula Bridge is expected to dramatically alter the balance of power in the region’s economic corridors. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports
No one is willing to go on the record, but late Zimbabwe president, Robert Mugabe appears to have been a stumbling block in the early days of the Kazungula Bridge.
The project, which involves building a 930-metre road and rail bridge over the Zambezi River near the quadripoint between Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, was envisaged decades ago to replace the inefficient and even dangerous pontoon being used.
Listed amongst SADC’s priority projects for the region, studies by Japanese consultants began in 2001 and showed that not only was the bridge feasible, but it could generate total project revenues of $360 to $605 million over a period of 30 years, looking at the anticipated volumes of traffic at the proposed bridge.
SADC had long been eager to ease regional trade as part of boosting economies and this, amongst other ways, could be achieved by a smoother crossing of the Zambezi River, a major obstacle to and from the economic hubs in Durban and Gauteng to the northern part of the region.
At present, the major north-south economic corridor within SADC follows the old Cape to Cairo vision, with Durban, Cape Town and Gauteng threading through Beitbridge in southern Zimbabwe to the Chirundu and Victoria Falls bridges, which cross the Zambezi. From there, goods travel to countries such as Zambia, Tanzania, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The existing route is not only congested, with long waiting times at Beitbridge and Chirundu, but the road infrastructure is problematic, while issues with corruption and demand for bribes have frustrated cross-border truckers. In addition, the steep, winding route to Chirundu has been described as a death trap by drivers, with a high incidence of accidents.
In 2012, Botswana and Zambia signed an agreement to fund the construction and operation of the Kazungula Bridge, with work beginning two years later. The two countries shared the $260 million cost.
But before that, at least starting from around 2006, Zimbabwe had been approached to partner in the mega-project. Reports indicate that then leader, Mugabe smarting from a soured relationship with former president Ian Khama, snubbed Botswana and Zambia’s proposals to engage in the Kazungula Bridge project.
While at some point, Mugabe appeared to jump on board the project, he later quietly pulled his country out, meaning when the African Development Bank (AfDB) began its technical studies into the bridge, the only two countries fully committed were Botswana and Zambia.
On Wednesday, Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was at pains to explain how Zimbabwe exited the project.
“Initially, it was a three-state bridge, but for some reasons which cannot be made public, it became a two-nation bridge,” he said, during a ceremony to commission road works near Chirundu.
Mnangagwa’s comments highlight the regional debates going on ahead of Kazungula’s official opening. What seemed like a far off pipe dream some decades ago, is now the game changer for regional trade and geopolitics.
While the Kazungula Bridge represents a
Botswana promises smoother roads, up to a point, lower corruption and demand for bribes, as well as easier navigability through a country renowned for peace, which puts a premium on the new economic corridor being opened up by Kazungula. In addition, the shiny new one-stop border post means traffic in and out of Botswana and Zambia over the Zambezi will have only one stop to make, a brief one at that.
According to the BURS, vehicles travelling out of Botswana over the bridge will only stop at the Zambia side, while those from Zambia into Botswana will only stop at the Botswana side. The one-stop border post, another SADC priority for decades, has excited new finance and economic development minister, Peggy Serame.
“The economic significance of this one-stop border post to the two countries, and indeed, to SADC cannot be overemphasised, as this facility will enable trade facilitation between the two countries and throughout the region and beyond,” she said recently at the signing of an agreement for the posts.
Analysts say while Chirundu also has a one-stop border post, established in 2009, its effectiveness has been dulled by the agonising delays at Beitbridge.
The analysis over whether Kazungula will steal Beitbridge’s thunder has been boiling over on social media this week, but Mnangagwa seemed to suggest the point was moot.
“Upon the coming into the office of the second administration (post-Mugabe), Zimbabwe has come on board and now the bridge is now owned by three countries,” he told the gathering near Chirundu.
“And so we shall also be upgrading the road from Kazungula to Victoria Falls.”
To cement his correction of Mugabe’s error, Mnangagwa said he would be attending next week’s launch of Kazungula Bridge together with President Mokgweetsi Masisi and President Edgar Lungu of Zambia, who he referred to as “my brothers”.
Khama previously invited Mnangagwa to tour Kazungula together with Lungu in early 2018, during which unclear statements were made about including Zimbabwe. No further details have been given since then.
Mnangagwa’s own statements on the matter seem to suggest that he wants the Kazungula Bridge project not to be thought of as a missed opportunity for Zimbabwe, but the triumph of ‘brotherly’ cooperation, as seen in his highlighting other roadworks planned for the regions of Zimbabwe in the Zambezi River area.
The Zimbabwe leader, however, is also upgrading the Beitbridge border at a cost of $130 million (P1.4 billion) in the spirit of boosting regional trade. Analysts say the upgrade could also be to spruce up an economic corridor whose shine is being threatened by Kazungula Bridge.
The regional brothers will smile at Kazungula’s official opening next week, but below them, in the waters of the Zambezi, the economic balance of power around regional trade will be shifting.