Not as many truck drivers reported to have died due to a days-long wait at the Beitbridge border passed away during the peak travel times at the post, Department of Home Affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi revealed to the media in a briefing on Wednesday.
Motsoaledi said he aimed to clarify “the facts”, after a number of scathing reports placing the blame of at least four truck drivers squarely on the shoulders of the department.
According to the Road Freight Association (RFA), some drivers were waiting up to nine days to cross the border, which does not have facilities and amenities to accommodate them.
RFA CEO Gavin Kelly called the deaths “a humanitarian crisis”. The drivers reportedly died in their trucks.
Kelly said congestion at Beitbridge was not new, but was this year exacerbated by Covid-19 and associated testing and curfews.
The department has since temporarily suspended testing truck drivers for Covid-19.
But during Motsoaledi’s address, he said the statistical data was lacking.
According to the department, the number of travellers crossing the border dropped 27% when compared to December last year.
A total of 21 800 trucks crossed the Beitbridge border this December. Last year, 19 800 trucks passed through. And at the Groblersbrug border close to Botswana, which is usually used as an overflow area, 2 968 trucks passed through.
The overflow area and alternative to Beitbridge was further complicated due to a strict Covid-19 lockdown in Botswana. Motsoaledi said drivers had diverted from Groblersbrug to Beitbridge because they “could not accept the waiting times in Botswana” – something he said the department could not have anticipated.
He said the norm was for trucks leaving Musina to move to truck stops instead of going directly to the border. According to him, holding areas meant for truckers was “abandoned”, with drivers instead opting to park in roads and block traffic coming from Zimbabwe into South Africa.
Motsoaledi said there are water and ablution facilities in truck stop holding areas, and drivers concsciously moving to park on the N1 and then blaming the state was “dishonest”.
“Adults driving trucks are ordinary schoolboys with no responsibilities that need to be shepherded every single moment they are on the road,” he said, adding that the freight industry was trying to “spin” the Beitbridge border deaths in “another way”.
Motsoaledi confirmed his department could only find the record of one truck driver death, which occurred on 23 December.
“His family disclosed his cause of death and never tried to play politics.”
He said the department wrote to Kelly upon hearing of the truck driver deaths, but that instead of providing names of the deceased, it was instead referred to Limpopo police.
Police reportedly told the department they were not aware of why Kelly was referring them to him.
Kelly told The Citizen that the name of the Brigadier the RFA referred the department to was supplied by Beitbridge officials, as they could not disclose the names and details of the deceased.
“We are not the SAPS and cannot release names and details of deceased persons. This is the role of SAPS and this is why we referred the minister to the SAPS.”
The other deaths, Motsoaledi said, took place before the significant increase in traffic at the Beitbridge border, namely on the 8th, 13th, 14th, 22nd and 23rd of December.
However, Kelly said that the reports of all four truck drivers’ deaths came in “at the same time – so unless delayed – they happened during the congestion time.”
He said death was an emotive issue that spurred on anger, which was now being directed at the department. But death is no stranger to Beitbridge.
Motsoaledi acknowledged this, but reiterated that the other deaths took place “long before the congestion.”
He said he hoped there would be more “common sense cooperation between freight associations and authorities which doesn’t include propaganda”, and that it was in “no one’s interest to continue on propaganda mode.”
According to Kelly, the exchange between Motsoaledi and Kelly was not as heated as the department depicted. When asked what transpired between them, Kelly responded: “Nothing.”
“There has only been reaction now in the speech by the minister.”
Kelly pointed out that during Motsoaledi’s briefing, more time was spent “trying to refute reports and transfer blame” than in ensuring that the same chaos is not repeated.
Another reason for delays at the border were due to Zimbabwe’s manual capturing of truckers crossing the border. Although automated in South Africa, these processes are notoriously slow in Zimbabwe, Motsoaledi said.
The chaos at Beitbridge just before Christmas has spurred the department on to enslist the help of more than 800 officials from various departments to assist in testing and policing travellers and easing congestion at Beitbridge, Lebombo, Maseru bridge, Ficksburg, Kopfontein and Oshoek borders.
The Kosi Bay border post will also reopen on 1 January, after having been closed since March this year.
Officials will be deployed from 2 to 14 January.
In the meantime, Kelly said the RFA had attended a number of ministerial task teams, and had engaged with departments.
But no tangible results have come out of discussions.
“Apart from paying lip service, no real results or solutions have resulted.”