Managing our Borders

After three days in Johannesburg my wife and I set out from Pretoria to drive to the border on our way home. Our borders are dreaded and with good cause, they are crowded, corrupt and disorganized. In addition the Beitbridge border post lies across the Limpopo River and is a hot, dry inhospitable place.

Beitbridge-Border-PostWe arrived at 17.30 hrs and after a quick visit to a One Stop on the South African side, we drove into mayhem.  We parked our car and then had to discover where to go and what to do in what sequence.

I recalled going through the border from Germany into France by car, we slowed down to about 80 Kmph and as we passed the border post, my driver lazily waved to the guards sitting in a small shelter. “What was that?” I asked, “That is the border between Germany and France”, he said as he accelerated back to speed for our journey to Paris.

The South Africans seem to play a complex game at the border post at Beitbridge; they change the rules without notice and carefully remove all signs that might actually help the traveler. Yesterday was no difference, for no apparent reason we had to walk 300 metres from the car over to the side from which visitors came from Zimbabwe. Then, all mixed up with incoming hordes, we queued for Customs and then Immigration – orderly and patient but with perhaps 500 others all trying to do the same thing.

There was no attempt to prioritize visitors, or to organise the queues, no effort to help the elderly or the infirm, no regard for the children, just an amorphous mass of humanity trying to get to a steel screen behind which a team of large, mainly overweight officials sat at computer screens and conducted a continuous series of conversations with each other while taking papers from visitors and occasionally snarling an instruction through the grill.

We presented our car papers to the Customs Officer and while he looked at those, I filled in the blank border pass which he had to stamp. He snarled at me that I should fill in the Pass on another table and not at the Counter. I told him I was done and gave it to him to stamp. The immigration room was so full it spilled over into the customs hall. We joined a queue and took our turn, people kindly took us to the front in respect for our grey hair and we did not have to wait too long to get our papers signed and stamped.

Then it was back the way we had come, past hundreds of people trying to get into the building and another 300 metres walk to the car. Then the drive to the bridge – again no signage, no suggestion that you have to visit an unmarked Police Post for a final check and then back into the queue for the exit gate, just one for 700 heavy duty trucks a day, 70 busses and hundreds of cars and thousands of pedestrians.

Then across the bridge and a brief glimpse of the grey/green Limpopo and some fresh air. On the Zimbabwe side the authorities seem to have taken on board from the South Africans that you never tell your visitors where to go or what to do. So as you come off the bridge you are faced with three roads and no signs. If you take the left – which is the logical route, then you end up on a weighbridge for 30 tonne trucks and a vast parking area for the hundreds of trucks that sit there for perhaps three days on average while the drivers and agents try to get someone to stamp their papers and clear their vehicles.

If you take the right lane, you end up on a one way to the exit from the border post to South Africa and you have no place to turn around and will not be allowed to proceed, so you then work out that right at the start of this route, there is a gap in the fence – no signs, that leads into the vast parking lot that is the holding ground for all those unfortunates who are trying to get into Paradise.

No sooner do you work out that this is where you are meant to be than you are confronted by a security guard and a row of plastic bollards that block your way. Without explanation he holds you up for a few minutes and then removes one bollard and allows us to drive up towards the main complex. We drive as far as we can go and find a parking. We look over to the right and see a queue that stretches from a building down the road, almost to the entrance to the border post. Our hearts shrink.

We get out the car and are immediately surrounded by touts who offer to take our documents and clear them for us while we wait – for $100. They point to the queue and say that we need help. I push through the group and say no, we will do this on our own. We jump the queue and make our way to the unmarked booth where we pay our bridge toll, then for no reason we are told to join another queue at another booth to pay the “road access fee” = both payments to the same organisation. Then we turn and face the rugby scrum that represents the queue to reach the immigration desks.

I have seen South African tourists at this point, stand politely at the back of the queue and politely wait for the queue to move. At this stage we put our shoulders to the wall of humanity and shove through until we got to the grill, thrust our documents through to the official who opens the passport and stamps a page. Then we fight our way back out and find the polite tourists in the same place. We tell them this is not a queue in the real sense – it’s a rugby scrum. They look dubious and apprehensive. We proceed to the Customs Hall where we have to find someone to give us a form.

We fill that in and then have to find someone to handle our documents – the Hall has no signage that makes any sense – it’s full of people who are holding wads of documents and are trying to pay duties, we have nothing to declare but have to have a stamp on our border pass. We then discover that the next stage is not Customs – it’s the Police Post, no signs but we find the Post on the other side of the inspection bays. We join a queue – so many all over but this has a police officer behind a counter.

I ask the guy in front of me if this is where I should be and he nods. I felt uneasy and told my wife to go and make investigations – she came back and said I was in the queue for border jumpers who were paying fines. My proper queue was at the back though an open door with no signage whatsoever. There two very pleasant officers in plain clothes, no form of identity, take my papers and stamp them and even though the Police clearance form clearly says it is for one journey only and must be surrendered at the border, he hands it back to me.

Then it is back to customs – there are 5 busses and hundreds of people, goods and luggage strewn all over the ground. It is chaotic. I see an officer in a booth and queue to see her, she asks – “where is your vehicle”, she says bring it up to the inspection bay for examination. I do so but discover that there is a long queue of vehicles waiting for clearance. We eat some food and drink something while we wait and slowly move forward.

Eventually we get up to another row of bollards where a security guard holds us up and then lifts one out of the way and waves us forward – we park and then go to find an officer to clear us. She agrees we have nothing to declare and we are ready to go. Can we leave we ask and are told we are finished, we may leave. We get into the car and drive out into the dark. We edge our way forward, after the chaos at the main building there is little activity but as we edge our way forward a man with a name tag steps out and waves us down. We stop and he asks to see our papers – I hand them over, no indication as to who he is or what he does, no sign that this is official, but we comply. He hands them back to me and we drive to the exit and leave the Post – it took us two hours, a tiny fraction of what it would take all those people we left behind in the endless queues.

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