Travellers queue at the Beit Bridge border between South Africa and Zimbabwe. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng

Harare - Zimbabwean and South African immigration officials have sharply conflicting interpretations on what caused the chaos and long, uncomfortable delays travellers endured at the Beit Bridge border post over the festive season.

Kembo Mohadi, Zanu-PF home affairs minister in the inclusive government, blamed it on an unexpected surge of South Africans visiting his country and on under-staffing on the South African side of the border.

South African officials attributed it mainly to Zimbabweans coming across in vast numbers, many to seek work, some just to shop - or even just to bath.

“I went there myself and I saw the registration numbers of the vehicles and they were South African cars,” Mohadi said. “They came to Victoria Falls and Kariba. And other places.

“Don’t tell me it was only Zimbabweans going across the border, there were also Zambians, and there are Zimbabweans who are legally working in South Africa.

“It became a health issue as people in the queues were forced to defecate in the bush near the border post.

“Once I spoke to the minister, (South African Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor) more staff were put on duty and the delays were cleared. We have suggested a second border post.”

But high-level sources on the South African side at Beit Bridge said that on the heaviest days of travel from Zimbabwe to South Africa, officials on the Zimbabwean side were letting many Zimbabwean travellers through without processing them and that this had complicated clearance on the South African side.

“They did it, we know… but not with foreigners, only with their own citizens. For sure, when the pressure was heaviest, some were going across without being processed,” said one source.

“Don’t say that,” Mohadi responded. “We would never allow that.”

South Africa’s deputy director of the Beit Bridge border post, Elvis Mavhunga, said that between 26 000 and 30 000 travellers had passed through the border on some days of the holiday period, compared to about 15 000 a day the previous year.

“It was bad. And it is hot here. Some people come across the border (from Zimbabwe) to see the new mall in Musina. We also know that some Zimbabweans come across the border to get a bath and they tell us they just want to sit and rest.

“Then there are others without work permits who come looking for work, and they will then be illegal, and then there are the legal ones with work permits and there are many of them who went home for Christmas. This was the heaviest number of travellers going through Beit Bridge that I have ever seen.

“Yes, there were delays but you should have also seen what it was like on the N1 near the border. Some people parked, blocking others behind them, while they got their passports stamped.

“We know people suffered. More staff were put on duty. The queues are gone now, but this morning we cleared 25 buses from Zimbabwe into South Africa by 9am. That’s a lot of people.”

He agreed there was need for a second border post.

“It is the gateway to Africa. Usually we manage, but this year it was bad. We don’t want to see people sleeping in queues.”

South African Home Affairs director-general Mkuseli Apleni said the infrastructure at Beit Bridge was inadequate to cope with the number of travellers.

“For a start, we probably need a bypass as we now have at the Lebombo border post,” Apleni added. - Pretoria News