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A troubled bridge over calm waters

THALEFANG CHARLES MBONGENI MGUNI
Ever flowing: Kazungula Bridge over the Zambezi River PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
The smiles and joy on the faces of Presidents at the Kazungula Bridge this week were deeply genuine and heartfelt given that the $260 million landmark faced one challenge after another during its 20-year journey to completion. These troubles included having to curve westwards to avoid a territorial dispute. Staff Writers, THALEFANG CHARLES and MBONGENI MGUNI report

The completion of the Kazungula Bridge is a feather in the caps of both President Mokgweetsi Masisi and his Zambian counterpart, Edgar Lungu, who this week delivered a rare infrastructural milestone for Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) long-planned regional integration and development mandate.

In the works as an idea since at least the late 1990s, replacing the pontoon at the Zambezi River quadripoint has been a key SADC priority as north-south trade within the region has relied on the congested Beitbridge/Chirundu corridor.

The Beitbridge border has in recent years seen haulage trucks spend days in queues running for kilometres waiting to cross into Zimbabwe and once they do, corrupt law enforcement, poor roads, high fuel costs and a treacherous, mountainous descent to the Zambezi River at Chirundu, have all conspired to make Kazungula a desperate priority for the region.

This week’s launch of the bridge at Kazungula was therefore appropriately attended by other SADC leaders such as Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa and Mozambique’s Filipe Nyusi, who is also the SADC chair. African Union chair, Felix Tshisekedi was in attendance, highlighting how Kazungula, by opening up trade to northern SADC, allows the region to then connect to other geopolitical groupings such as the East African Community and ECOWAS in West Africa.

Standing on the bridge, watching Tshisekedi cut the ribbon to officially open the engineering marvel over the Zambezi, Masisi and Lungu wore broad smiles and were justified in feeling pleased with their efforts to steer the project to completion.

The smiles and scenes in Kazungula this week, belie the fact that while the Zambezi River’s waters have cooperated and been calm over the years, the bridge’s development has been a troubled affair.

Even in the early days, deciding on the very spot of the bridge’s construction became a geopolitically sensitive matter after former Zimbabwe president, the late Robert Mugabe, snubbed the project and tried in vain to use the territorial borders where the crossing was to be built to thwart the project.

Archival records show that Mugabe argued that the planned site of the bridge would be in Zimbabwe’s territory and his assent would be required, a tough ask as the late leader allegedly viewed Kazungula Bridge as a conspiracy against Beitbridge and of no benefit to his nation.

Determined, Botswana approached Namibia and the bridge’s design changed so that it curved westwards away from Zimbabwe towards Namibia then over across the river into Zambia.

“We approached Namibia and asked that the bridge passes through their territory and they agreed,” the then Minister of Transport and Communications, Nonofo Molefi said in 2014.

Engineers say this Plan B that brought in a curve presented a tougher assignment and all the focus was on making a sound durable structure. The short and straight design, they say, could have been easier and allow for endless possibilities of a scenic structure.

Mugabe, would later quietly pull his country out of the project, a move probably hastened by his fall-out with the former president, Ian Khama, who in 2013 became the only regional leader to publicly condemn Zimbabwe’s disputed elections. The next year, with Zimbabwe nowhere to be found, Botswana and Zambia began construction of the bridge.

Even after the design and other details being ironed out, more troubles followed the project in the area of funding. While the African Development Bank, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and other financiers, provided the bulk of the funding through debt, both countries still had to dig into their own coffers

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to cover other costs.

Several times during its construction, funds from the governments ran tight and stones had to be squeezed dry to keep the project running. In March 2019, transport ministers from both sides were forced into an emergency engagement after contract workers on the Zambian side downed tools citing non-payment.

The construction itself was not a piece of cake either.

Given the challenges over the years, Masisi and Lungu beamed with pride at Monday’s launch, held on the Zambian side of the bridge.

Masisi was in high spirits, describing the project and its launch as a “wonderful rarity in history”. Masisi’s address also sparked parallels between how the project area was, in the past, a refugee camp in the region’s fight against colonialism and now was the launchpad for further economic liberation through the opening up of a new economic corridor for SADC.

“This bridge where it stands is of historical significance to the liberation of the whole Southern Africa.

“Botswana has always been of the view that the Kazungula Bridge will open avenues for improved trade, job creation and economic diversification in our countries.

“By and large, that it will significantly accelerate SADC’s regional integration agenda which we are vigorously pursuing.”

Lungu, equally effusive, highlighted the partnership and cooperation between the two countries over the years in delivering the strategic project.

Even as the celebrations continued, the troubles that bedevilled the bridge in its development years were rearing their head again. On local social media, a raging debate was going on about who should claim glory for the bridge between Masisi, his predecessor Khama and third president, Festus Mogae who initiated discussion of the bridge prior to his retirement.

In Zimbabwe, social media commentators were slamming Mnangagwa and his government for their renewed efforts to participate in the project, saying the move was a desperate grab for “glory after the fact”. Ahead of the launch and while still in Zimbabwe, Mnangagwa said his country also ‘owned’ the bridge and would participate in some way.

At the launch, Masisi clarified that senior officials were working on a legal framework of how to include Zimbabwe and possibly Namibia. Mnangagwa, who is desperate to make a clear distinction between himself and Mugabe’s reign, would count it a major win for his administration if he secured a spot at the table in the Kazungula project. For presidents Masisi and Lungu, however, whatever the debate or criticism, the bridge is a major achievement at a time when COVID-19 has increased animosity towards the ruling elite.

Lungu took full advantage of the occasion. The Zambian leader scored a victory by having the main ceremony held on his side of the border where the choir chosen for the event was decked out in outfits bearing his face.

Lungu’s speech also showed that his mind was on the pending electoral race in his country.

“To my party officials thank you for having given me a job and I look forward to you renewing my contract in August when we vote on the 12th,” he said, adding, “I cherish and adore you.”

At home, the completion of Kazungula Bridge gives Masisi more public goodwill and much-needed wind in the sails of his ‘RESET’ strategy under which he hopes to reinvigorate public service delivery and economic rebalancing.

From its birth and troubles, Kazungula Bridge’s immediate impact looks set to be regional harmony, bringing Zimbabwe back on board after divisions, enhancing integration and providing a spring in the step for some politicians.



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