A long traffic queue on the South African side stretching up to 15 kilometres between the Beitbridge Border Post and the Musina central business district is quite a sight.
Frustrated and exhausted travellers heading to Zimbabwe get out of their cars and buses, and stand on the roadside under trees, sheltered from the scorching Limpopo sun as they breathe in the fresh air.
Hawkers pace up and down selling water and food at inflated prices to cash in on the desperate travellers, most of whom are reluctant to leave behind their goods or vehicles to dash into Musina town to buy food
Amid the exhausted travellers, a woman collapsed and died.
Some motorists say they have been in the queue for up to four days, while others are coming from as far as Cape Town as the queue continues to stretch longer each passing day.
Most fear that they will spend Christmas Day stranded at the border.
“I am thinking of going back to Bloemfontein where I am coming from,” says Gerald Motsi, a Zimbabwean national who is travelling to Harare for the holidays.
“I have been here for the past two days and with the way things are, I don’t see our bus crossing the border before Christmas. Under normal circumstances, I would have arrived in Harare yesterday. I’m tired and being here is now costly because everyone is buying food every day.”
The travellers include those in transit to Zambia and Malawi.
A 10pm curfew imposed by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on December 15 as part of stringent lockdown measures following a coronavirus second wave is said to be the main cause of the delay in crossing the border.
The curfew is also affecting those travelling from Zimbabwe although longer queues are on the South African side.
The Beitbridge border is normally a 24-hour port of entry on both sides of the countries but the South African end shuts its doors to private vehicles, buses and pedestrians at 10pm.
Only freight trucks and commercial vehicles are allowed to pass through after curfew.
Musina is a town notorious for travellers falling victim to muggings but Director of Communications Services at Limpopo Department of Transport & Community Safety says Matome Moremi-Tauetsoala some plans are in place to reduce criminal incidences on the parked vehicles.
“We are aware of the pile-up at the Beitbridge and our team from South Africa Police Services and traffic have re-strategised their plans and they will put them into action,” Mr Moremi-Tauetsoala said on state-owned SABC News.
“The matter will be addressed and also the Minister of Home Affairs will be making an announcement that will also enhance the plans that we have now. We are calling on motorists to be patient with each other in the meantime.”
While there have been several reported cases of robberies in the queues and there are also health concerns due to lack of ablution facilities on the highway which has seen people relieving themselves in the bushes on the roadside.
The biggest worry in this traffic congestion is the spread of the coronavirus as people can be seen not observing health protocols like social distancing, masking up and sanitising their hands.
Fears that Musina will experience a spike in Covid-19 cases are growing.
Owing to the delay at the border, travellers with coronavirus test certificates whose validity is 72 hours are gravely concerned that the proof that they are Covid-19 negative will not be considered by the time they try to cross into Zimbabwe because the certificates would have expired.
Meanwhile, businesses are also suffering as a result of delays at the border in clearing freight vehicle drivers.
While commercial vehicles are allowed to cross the border beyond the curfew time, freight trucks continue piling up.
Unlike other motorists, drivers of these vehicles are required to get tested for Covid-19 at the border between 9.30am and 5pm, leaving most of them unable to move outside that time limit.
In a letter to South Africa’s Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, Federation of East and Southern African Road Transport Associations executive director Mike Fitzmaurice said the delays are bleeding the freight industry of millions of dollars.
“The testing facilities and staffing levels are totally inadequate to cope with the traffic volumes, and the closure of the testing station for 16 hours of the day is totally unsatisfactory at a 24-hour operational border post,” Mr Fitzmaurice said.
“There is only one testing table in place for drivers, with one person to register, test and print the results and one person [a cashier] to collect money and issue receipts.
“This process is far too slow, is causing absolute chaos, and is the cause of the delays and the build-up of trucks on the Zimbabwe side.
“The cost of these delays to the cross-border transport industry and their impact on the economies of both South Africa and Zimbabwe, are staggering, and calculated at a rate of $20 per hour for each hour a vehicle stands, it is horrific.
“This is totally unacceptable as industry cannot be expected to continue to suffer these kinds of losses after suffering a massive loss in November this year due to a 27-day blockage at Beitbridge on northbound traffic which cost the transport Industry a massive $30 million.”
While traffic volumes are increasing at the border, the situation is expected to run beyond mid-January when more traffic will be South Africa-bound from Zimbabwe.