THE recent opening of the US$22 million Rainbow Beitbridge Hotel, along with several other infrastructural developments in the border post over the last decade, suggest an increasingly realisation and purpose by various stakeholders to develop the town – the busiest port of entry in sub-Saharan Africa – to enable it to become a hub of economic activity and growth in the country.
From being a dusty and dilapidated town in 1980s and 1990s, Beitbridge – named after Alfred Beit, the founder of South African mining conglomerate De Beers and business associate of Cecil John Rhodes – has slowly but surely been emerging from the economic backwaters to take its rightful position as a possible centre of development and progress in the country.
Compared to Musina, the South African side of the border, Beitbridge is still lagging behind but judging by developments in recent years, the town seems to be catching up quickly relative to Zimbabwe’s size and state of economy.
On the South African side of the border Musina lies on the N1 which connects the town to main economic hubs of Pretoria (463 km) and Johannesburg (521 km) away. That makes Musina a strategic town and development around it shows that.
On the Zimbabwean side of the border, Beitbridge lies on the confluence of roads from Harare and Bulawayo, the country’s two major cities, with the A6 running to Bulawayo and the R1 to Harare.
Besides major roads, a railway line also passes through Beitbridge, side by side with the roads, and splits into a line to Bulawayo and a line to Gweru via Rutenga.
In fact, three railway lines meet at Beitbridge: the South African Spoornet line to Polokwane, Limpopo’s economic hub, National Railways of Zimbabwe line to Gweru via Rutenga and the Beitbridge-Bulawayo railway line, situating Beitbridge town in a strategic economic position.
Although government and the private sector have been overlooking Beitbridge’s potential for a long time, things are beginning to change even if the public sector or the state remains the weak link.
Government has been collecting millions annually from Beitbridge over the years but doing very little to upgrade and develop the town, in the process killing the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg.
However, things are gradually changing despite government delivery failures.
A visit by journalists last week to Beitbridge to witness the official opening of a two-storey hotel, built by the National Social Security Authority (NSSA) and operated by Rainbow Tourism Group, gave a further insight into the new development path of the town.
The hotel opened its doors to the public on January 15, bringing to five the number of hotels in the border town. While briefing the media last week at the hotel, Eltah Sanangura, RTG corporate communications manager, said they were looking at securing three stars for the hotel, but were waiting to hear from ZTA with hopes high the rating could be even higher.
There is growing confidence that the hotel, which has 140 rooms, four conference rooms, bars, gymnasiums and also houses two commercial banks will attract more visitors and conferences to the border town and boost revenue inflows while creating much-needed employment.
“We have already hosted a number of groups in our conference facilities and we are expecting to host more and our 30-seater Mopani conference centre will be our cash cow,” said Innocent Kufa, the general manager of the hotel, adding that they were also training locals in hotel management skills.
RTG’s new double storey hotel joins other similar structures in changing face and emerging skyline of the border town, adding an aesthetic appeal to what was for many decades a town which, apart from the sprawling high density of Dulibadzimo suburb, with a few shops and offices, was largely a desolate, blazing hot border post surrounded by mopani and thorny shrubs.
But crucially, beyond mere aesthetics is the genuine desire to attract meaningful investment and enjoy a greater share of the huge revenue inflows between the Zimbabwean and South African sides of the border.
After all this is the busiest inland port in the region processing what could be the highest human volumes in Africa on a daily basis as an average of 10 000 people pass through, including streams of border jumpers.
However, the major concern is the Zimbabwean government’s snail’s pace in addressing critical infrastructure and social services problems that bedevil the town.
This strongly suggests government is the weak link in turning Beitbridge into a world class border town which can fully benefit from the daily heavy flow of human and vehicle traffic across the ever-busy bridges on the Limpopo River which forms the border between the two countries.
As shown by the case of Bulawayo, once the industrial hub of Zimbabwe has proved, serious investors are unlikely to open shop in an area without water, for instance.
But like in Bulawayo, government has continually dragged its feet in attending to perennial water problems afflicting Beitbridge, which ironically is surrounded by a big river and dams.
Residents continue to complain about erratic water supplies despite the abundance of water in the Zhovhe Dam, just 63kms away from the town.
For a long time, government’s plans for the construction of a 63km water canal to the town to address its water challenges and promote irrigation farming along the way have remained on paper, amid indications only US$23 million – a small fraction of the money government officials spend gallivanting on foreign travel every year – is required to fund the project.
This is really worrying Beitbridge Rural District Council CEO Albert Mbedzi:
“Our worry is that the town loses about 60% of water from Zhovhe Dam which we normally rely on when water levels in the Limpopo River go down yet the issue of a canal has been on the table for several years now.”
The good news though with regard to the water situation is that the long-delayed Zimbabwe National Water Authority (Zinwa) water treatment plant is nearing completion with Zinwa chief engineer Peter Makwarimba telling the state media two weeks ago it is 80% complete.
“We have covered a lot of ground and we are very hopeful that with adequate funding the project will be complete before the end of the year,” said Makwarimba who blamed inadequate funding for the failure to meet the initial 2013 deadline for completion of the project which commenced in 2011.
The town requires at least 15 000 cubic metres of water per hour but Zinwa is pumping only 3 000 cubic metres which will improve to 5 160 cubic metres upon completion of the project.
But even when the project is complete the water supply will remain woefully inadequate to meet the demands of the town which has an estimated 40 000 population plus another 10 000 people who pass through daily on transit to and from South Africa.
To illustrate the water shortages at Beitbridge, during the cholera outbreak in 2008 the town literally ran dry and enterprising hawkers made a killing by selling buckets of frozen water for an average of R10.
The relative improvement in the town’s water and sewer reticulation system between 2009 and 2011 has in fact occurred in spite of rather than because of government, thanks to the World Bank which launched the Beitbridge Emergency Water Supply and Sanitation programme and refurbished infrastructure in the aftermath of the cholera epidemic.
In addition, government has failed to uplift and develop the transport facilities including those it inherited from the colonial regimes.
Young fans of popular singer Lovemore Majaivana probably wonder what he was singing about in his 1980s hit Stimela SeGoli (the train to Johannesburg) lyrics, but this was a tribute to the train that used to transport people to and from South Africa where people from Beitbridge and Matabeleland region in general have for generations been working.
The train service was briefly revived in the mid-2000s but like many other infrastructure government inherited, it is no longer functional.
Even the roads leading from the town to Harare and Bulawayo are still in a poor state, contributing to frequent accidents.
There has been very little commitment to improve them to the extent that a mere 15km stretch of the Beitbridge-Bulawayo road proved a herculean task, taking more than 17 years to complete with refurbishment having started in 1991. When the same road was damaged by Cyclone Eline rains in 2000, it took 10 years to fix a very short stretch.
And so even if Beitbridge now boasts an impressive number of hotels and many lodges, more than across the border in Musina, less than 15kms away on the South African side, the momentum is still with the South African side as visitors and shoppers are drawn there by the more impressive shopping malls boasting all the leading retail concerns.
This is because while Beitbridge boasts more accommodation facilities, South African government intervention has enabled Musina to have decent social services and infrastructure developments as well as jobs which have attracted thousands of Zimbabweans to visit, shop, work and live in Musina, that being a reflection of the state of the local border post and Zimbabwe’s economy.