AS we turn right off the Harare-Beitbridge highway – just before the intersection of the Harare and Bulawayo arteries five kilometres north of Beitbridge Border Post on the banks of the Limpopo River – a huge construction camp zooms into sight.
It mirrors the new vibrant stream of life breathed into Beitbridge, the small, yet strategic frontier town by a US$300 million private sector upgrade programme and government’s emergency road rehabilitation works underway.
The border post is being revamped by ZimBorders. It is now a different world from what it was – bigger than the South African side. The project involves facelifting certain parts of the busy border town, including the bus terminus and roads, which has remained a development backwater despite generating millions for the government in revenue.
Our convoy of journalists and government officials on a tour of the Harare-Beitbridge highway and the border post projects enters the camp which is a hive of activity.
People walk up and down, some hectic at work, others gather, chat and laugh, while a few idle around across the vast yard strewn with cars, blue construction trucks, equipment, benches and chairs, water bowsers and many other relevant paraphernalia lying around within the campsite perimeter fence surrounded by dry savanna woodland and vegetation that typify the local arid environs.
There is even a brand new-looking executive helicopter parked majestically at the centre of the yard.
Although helicopters have an image problem — they are seen as complicated, difficult to fly and not generally as safe as jet aircraft — this blue one parked at the Bitumen World campsite on the northern edge of the now fast-expanding Beitbridge town looks sophisticated and modern.
Unmistakably, the helicopter is a status symbol for the construction magnates, but also signifies the seriousness of those behind the project and the megabucks involved.
The lively campsite is run by Bitumen World, a reputable local construction and infrastructure development company. It is one of the two main camps along the Harare-Beitbridge stretch from Bubi River to the south being rehabilitated by the firm.
From Masvingo to Beitbridge, which is 290km, the sequence of major rivers is Tokwe, Runde, Mwenezi and Bubi. So from Bubi going down south, that is where Bitumen World is working.
Journalists, even those who are usually critical of the government’s performance — including cynics and polemicists — agreed Bitumen World and the authorities are doing a splendid job.
Construction of infrastructure has become core business for Bitumen World. This speaks to the construction of new or rehabilitation of roads, both national and secondary routes, development of urban infrastructure, bulk earthworks, and construction of concrete structures and buildings.
There are about five companies involved in the 580 kilometres road project.
Apart from Bitumen World, the other companies include Tensor Systems, Masimba Construction, Fossil Contracting (Kuzolunga!) and Exodus Company.
Initially each company was allocated a 20-kilometre stretch, with room for expansion to 100km depending on their performance.
Ministry of Transport permanent secretary Theodius Kudzanayi Chinyanga, who led the tour from Harare to Masvingo before leaving the other part of the trip to colleagues, said there has been significant progress in rehabilitating the road, especially considering Covid-19 disruptions and other unforeseen interruptions.
He said 330km had been upgraded as of last week, with 200km targeted for completion this year. About 340km to 350km should be completed by the end of this week. The remainder of the distance would be bypasses.
The cost of the project is US$1.5 million per kilometre, which means it would add up to US$870 million. If cost escalations arise, it might go to about US$1 billion.
Chinyanga singled out Fossil Contracting for praise while briefing journalists onsite just before Chivhu, saying the company had done a great job on its stretch.
Before he ended his role in Masvingo, Chinyanga had been with the journalists right from the Mbudzi flyover junction in Harare where he led the tour of construction works being done there at a cost of US$85 million.
The traffic interchange — which involves construction of 12 interconnected bridges — connects Simon Mazorodze, Chitungwiza and High Glen roads, which feed vehicles from western Chitungwiza and other neighbourhoods into Harare city centre, as well as national arteries, particularly the Harare-Beitbridge highway.
The joint venture project is being done by Tensor Construction, Fossil Contracting and Masimba Holdings.
At least 135 properties will be demolished to pave way for the project. Chinyanga said compensation at fair value would be paid.
As we arrive and exchange greetings with staff and managers at the Bitumen World campsite, town council officials, including town clerk Loud Ramakgapola, MP for Beitbridge East Albert Ngulube and Transport minister Felix Mhona, our delegation of hungry journalists wastes no time before heading straight for food and drinks.
The delegation, which had left Harare and slept in Masvingo the day before, had only had breakfast and no lunch until late afternoon on 15 July.
Typically, the journalists headed straight for the buffet where there was some sumptuous food — roast beef, chicken, sausage (boerewors), and other meats, salads and the usual Zimbabwean starchy cuisines — sadza/isitshwala, potatoes, rice, and some pasta, as well as an assortment of soft drinks.
To show the business-like attitude of the late lunch, no liquor was provided, much to the chagrin of beer-loving journalists.
After eating, our convoys heads out straight to the border to see what ZimBorders is doing. It is also a hive of activity as usual.
We gather at ZimBorders offices for a briefing with general manager Nqobile Ncube and his colleagues.
Soon after, they take us through the new border post complex. The area looks modern and spacious. The freshly-minted immigration terminal is built with stone thematic designs like Great Zimbabwe, with the words Welcome to Zimbabwe inscribed outside.
The grounds are vast with a lot of structures built around and some still under construction.
People walk around minding their own business as human and vehicular traffic flow in and out of the border across the Limpopo River, which separates Zimbabwe and South Africa.
It is a marvel to behold in a country like Zimbabwe with dilapidated infrastructure and general decay.
As the tour wound down to a close, it was time for the evening function at Shamba Gardens. It was going to be a Press briefing, dinner and drinking event all in one.
Speakers were lined up — the main ones being Ngulube, Zimbabwe National Roads Administration (Zinara) chairperson George Manyaya, Zimbabwe National Editors Forum (Zinef) chairperson Dumisani Muleya and Mhona.
Ngulube paid tribute to the government for focusing on his constituency for a long overdue development opportunity, saying it was a strategic town which needed to be upgraded to improve the gateway to and face of the nation.
Manyaya said Zinara had rebranded and is now pushing hard to ensure roads are fixed.
The tour was organised by Zinef and Zinara, part of the ministry of Transport. Zinara chief executive Nkosinathi Ncube gave a vote of thanks, urging people to unite and work hard to rebuild the country.
The idea of the tour was to give journalists an opportunity to observe empirically what was happening and ask critical questions about the project, which they did.
A robust engagement with government officials, including the minister, characterised the tour.
Muleya urged journalists not just to write the feel-good stories about the tour, but also to also investigate and follow the money as corruption is usually inherent in such big money infrastructure projects.
Mhona explained the context of the Beitbridge town development plan and the road infrastructure programme, saying the process was going to cover the whole country.
Government declared all roads to be a state of national disaster on 9 February 2021. Shortly after, a second Emergency Road Rehabilitation Programme (ERRPII) was launched.
The objectives of ERRP II are to improve the road network, which was extensively damaged during the rainy season, and to harness the potential of the transport system in promoting economic growth. Zimbabwe’s infrastructure, including roads, has become dilapidated due to bad governance, economic failure and lack of investment.
ERRP II is focused on repairing some 26 000km of the road network. Zinara has taken over 500km of roads from the country’s urban councils, including 32 roads totalling 250km in Harare, 38 roads totalling 84km in Masvingo, eight roads totalling 12km in Mashonaland Central and nine roads totalling 25km in Manicaland.
Authorities say priority in urban areas is on arterial roads with access roads to be attended to when more funding becomes available.
A previous African Development Bank report on Zimbabwe’s infrastructure says the share of the total road network of almost 90 000 km in fair to good condition declined from 73% in 1995 to about 60% for much of the past decade. The additional 12 800km of road network that was reclassified to poor condition requires complete rehabilitation, the cost of which is about US$1.1 billion.
The economic collapse of the past two decades led to large declines in rail and aviation services. In the case of the railways, for example, freight carried in the mid-1990s was about 14 million tonnes, equivalent to almost 80% of the network capacity.
By 2009, the amount of freight carried was 2.7 million tonnes, equivalent to 15% of the original design capacity of the network.
According to a previous World Economic Forum report, Zimbabwe’s border administration is inefficient by regional comparison. Clearance by customs and other border agencies is excessively burdensome, costly and time consuming.
This is what the Beitbridge Border Post upgrade is meant to address.
The last AfDB study on Zimbabwe’s infrastructure said about US$14.2 billion was needed, including US$4.6 billion of private investment, to upgrade existing infrastructure and new capacity, including roads, railways, water supply, sanitation and energy provision.
With a gross domestic product of about US$25 billion (rebased) and a budget of US$8.5 billion, Zimbabwe cannot afford the resources needed for infrastructure rehabilitation and capacity expansion.
GDP in Zimbabwe averaged US$7.6 billion from 1960 until 2021, reaching an all-time high of US$26.2 in 2021 and a record low of US$1.05 billion in 1960.
Sustained deterioration in the quality of infrastructure assets stemmed from awfully inadequate levels of public expenditures for routine and periodic maintenance of the infrastructure networks, especially in power, water and sanitation, and transport.
Infrastructure services in road transport and communications that are provided by the private sector are now more expensive than in neighbouring countries, reflecting in part the economic costs of the deterioration.
In the parastatal-dominated sectors such as power, rail transport, and fixed line communications, services prices have been kept low and, as a result, the economic costs of the deterioration have emerged in the form of large and, in some cases, unsustainable operating losses.
The deterioration in the physical infrastructure has been accompanied by lack of progress in building institutional capacities for management and regulation of the basic services associated with these networks.
Problems in this area stem from a disjoined approach to regulation and oversight among the ministries responsible for these sectors, compounded by a substantial loss of skills in the public workforce; Institutional and regulatory inadequacies also resulted in minimal amounts of investment by the private sector in basic infrastructure, despite periodic efforts to attract such investment, for example, in the transport and communications sectors; The deterioration in basic infrastructure has, in turn, had a serious impact on other productive sectors of the economy as well as the level and quality of services.
To make matters worse, Zimbabwe’s external debt is unsustainable and continues to grow owing to accrual of arrears and new payments of interest and penalty charges on existing payment arrears.
Zimbabwe has 476 public and publicly-guaranteed (PPG) loans, as well as over 500 debt securities which are active and currently running.
As at the end of December 2020, total PPG external debt, including Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) external guaranteed debt amounted to US$10.5 billion, representing 71.2% of GDP.
Excluding the RBZ external debt of US$2.1 billion, total external public debt stood at US$8.4 billion, which is an increase of 4.1% from the total public external debt stock of US$8.094 billion in 2019.
The increase in the total PPG external debt is as a result of the continued accumulation of arrears, as well as the disbursements from the active portfolios recorded in the year under review.
PPG external debt owed to the multilateral creditors amounted to US$2.68 billion, of which US$1.53 billion is owed to the World Bank Group, US$729 million to the AfDB, US$356 million to the European Investment Bank, and US$68 million to other multilateral creditors.
On the other hand, bilateral PPG external debt amounted to US$5.75 billion, with US$3.79 billion owed to Paris Club bilateral creditors mainly comprising Germany (US$1.02 billion), France (US$724 million), Japan (US$435 million), UK (US$416 million) and US (US$285 million).
The Non-Paris Club creditors are owed US$1.67 billion, which comprise mainly China (US$1.57 billion) and India (US$70 million).
Clearly, the country lacks resources to fund its infrastructure needs.
However, the government is under pressure to improve its infrastructure, especially after the Kazungula Bridge Project was officially commissioned in May last year.
The 923-metre bridge with two border facilities on either side, is not only a win for Botswana and Zambia, it also contributes to integration in the southern Africa region, and illustrates development cooperation. The bridge and one-stop border posts will support trade and transport along the North-South Corridor, and indeed the Trans-African Highway on the Cape to Cairo route.
The bridge also provides impetus to the recently launched African Continental Free Trade Area. The AfDB supported the project through an African Development Fund loan of US$76.5 million to Zambia. In addition to funding from the two governments, the overall project was co-financed by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and the EU-Africa Infrastructure Trust Fund.
The total cost of the project was US$259.3 million. It was approved in December 2011 and completed in December 2020.
The project seeks to facilitate trade activities and the global competitiveness of Zambia and Botswana, improve the regional connectivity of the North-South corridor and contribute to improved regional integration of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc).
This puts pressure on Zimbabwe to revamp its infrastructure as it might now lose its traditional advantages in the geo-economic scheme of things of the region.
Sadc embarked on a journey in 2012 to transform infrastructure in the region, when it adopted the Regional Infrastructure Development Master Plan.
Southern Africa’s population is growing, with projections indicating that by 2027 the number of people living in the region will surpass 400 million.
This places a greater demand on the need for robust and modern regional infrastructure that meets the developmental aspirations of Sadc citizens and its integration agenda. These aspirations include the need to improve access to energy, information technology products and services, safe water and sanitation services, and transport infrastructure and services.