Would you greet the visitors on your doorstep with the words: “Welcome! My home is a gateway to my neighbours”?
It seems the town council of Katima Mulilo in Namibia’s Zambezi Region has officially and explicitly internalized the colonial logic that, in 1890 as part of the Anglo- German Heligoland- Zanzibar agreement, originally established the German “access corridor” to the Zambezi and, by logical extension, to the interior of southern Africa. The town council has a very concrete reason to endorse that view.
Opened in May 2004 and built with a bilateral German-Zambian development grant, the Katima Mulilo bridge across the Zambezi was the last missing link connecting the Namibian port of Walvis Bay with the mining areas of Zambia’s Copperbelt and the Katanga province of DRC via an uninterrupted 2600km asphalt road.
This road is one of four long-distance trans-boundary transport corridors converging on Walvis Bay. Developing the port into a major transport hub plugging the southern African region into the world of global commerce has for over a decade been a high official priority for the Namibian government and a wide variety of public and private interested parties organized, since 2001, in the Walvis Bay Corridor Group. Their agenda is well integrated with even larger-scale pronouncements by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African Union (AU), donors and investors around the globe. Investment in transport infrastructure is currently big business and high politics across Africa. The present construction of an entirely new container terminal in the Walvis Bay harbour is but one small piece in the puzzle.
Big words and big numbers of ongoing or projected investments are easy to come by in the media coverage and policy literature. But “uninterrupted” and “trans-boundary” are relative terms.
When you are behind the wheel of a truck arriving in Katima Mulilo, potholes, 2 and 4-legged pedestrians, and red tape are what you need to deal with. The gateway has many locks and they do not all open easily.
Despite its appearance of permanence and continuity, infrastructure is never separate from the physical environment. Instead it must be understood as alive and part of the natural landscape. Prof. Andrew Barry recently pointed this out at the annual conference of the Centre of African Studies at Edinburgh University.
Elephants, people and cattle crossing or using the road for their own purposes are all aspects of this. 11 years after it was entirely rebuilt, the fast-growing potholes on the first 60km of highway between the Katima Mulilo bridge and Livingstone in Zambia illustrate another aspect: roads require ongoing maintenance. Lack of drainage and canals blocked by encroaching vegetation has left sections of the highway’s undercarriage waterlogged and consequently unstable for months during the rainy season.
While Zambian work crews are doing their best to fill in the holes with an – evidently inadequate and largely cosmetic – mix of cement and gravel, their colleagues on the Namibian side have asphalt to do the job and appear to be on top of the task to keep the weeds down.
This abnormal sized convoy of altogether 16 vehicles (4 oversize trailers & their “horses”, 1 tanker truck, 2 managers, 8 escort vehicles and 1 researcher) is hauling 4 Dutch-built electricity transformers weighing 110 tons each from Walvis Bay to the Kafue Gorge hydroelectric power plant in Zambia.
For the drivers the difference between the road surfaces in Namibia and Zambia is easily put in numbers: A breath-taking 50km/hour cruise down the smooth open road or a nerve-wrecking slalom at 10km/hour to avoid as many holes as possible, and a lot more hassle with the after-effect such conditions have on the 18 or more quadruple axles per trailer.
Physical infrastructure is but one aspect of the ever-changing landscape navigated by the core team of the convoy: Wynand Prinsloo (supervisor), Hentje Rupping (soon retired senior supervisor), Rudolf Rupping (driver, & Hentje’s son), Chris Dean (driver), Israel Mollo (driver), Teens Nhlapo (driver) and Cecil Ramasenya (gofer & handyman), all from South Africa. Dealing with border post bureaucracy, traffic police and the pen-pushers back in the head office of Mammoet Southern Africa (pty) ltd in Johannesburg is at least as much part of their job as their technical know-how to keep 4 X 200 tons of steel & rubber on the road and moving forward.
By the time I join the convoy they have been on the road non-stop for altogether 11 weeks. One week has passed while they were waiting at a lodge in Katima Mulilo for their head office to confirm that the Zambian parastatal electricity provider ZESCO has indeed transferred the final installment of 33 million Euros for the merchandise which Wynand & his team are about to take across the border into Zambia. Their predicament was my good luck: I had plenty of time to socialize with the truckers.
What does a South African with extra time on his hands do? Beach or borderland, he fires up the braai.
I took the above pictures as the convoy, finally with green light from the head office but now dealing with yet more border bureaucracy, was settling in to camp for a second night in the no-man’s land between the Namibian and Zambian checkpoints. In the very same place, the official speakers at the opening of the nearby Zambezi Bridge in 2004 had loudly proclaimed the prospect of a supposedly more efficient one-stop border post. It has so far remained a happy fiction.
Despite their close and friendly relations, both the Namibian and Zambian governments have, instead, in recent years invested in separate brand new shiny office buildings housing their separate immigration, customs, police and road authority desks.
The architects have done a fairly good job to provide for the needs of the administrators and regular-sized personal vehicles and trucks. My Mammoet friends are not so lucky.
Their oversized trailers barely fit through the gates and around the narrow corners of the border checkpoints. But, as the saying goes, the Boers make a plan.
But no Boer plan can help against the fact that the Zambian customs service has recently centralized its operations. Whereas before border customs stations were able to handle and process their local paperwork – albeit at their own chosen speed and often against unofficial or inflated fees – all procedures must now go through the national head office in Lusaka. They are supposedly working 24/7 but that’s the theory while in practice the electronic channels that should transport the customs documents between the central and frontline offices are just like some of the roads: potholes, inadequate bends, poorly maintained etc. So what used to take 2 days now takes 5, say my trucker friends. We wait and braai. Time to look around a bit.
The space between the checkpoints is bustling with the activities of currency traders, fuel smugglers and truck cleaners by day, while the working girls, gangs stealing diesel from the parked trucks, and private security personnel hired to prevent the latter are working the night shifts. The corridor route is space where many people live and try to make a living, and only few of these are long-distance transporters.
With the oversized cargo providing welcome shade, the white supervisors and drivers of “my” convoy are sharing the meat, beer and stories. We discuss how to best adulterate electrical equipment to cater for the needs of life on the road. The senior members of the team soon move into stories of their time spent in the area as young soldiers serving with the South African Defense Forces back in the 1970s and 80s, and the importance of their Christian faith to provide a moral compass for the hard life on the road. As the shadows from the steel hunks surrounding us grow longer the memories of the Voortrekkers are invoked.
Meanwhile, the black members of the team and their local female companions are gathering in their own separate circle, preparing Zambezi bream, cabbage and maize porridge and sharing their own stories in the shade of their own trucks. All members of the closely-knit team are well used to each other after years of life on the road together, but when making camp they do maintain that certain distance.
By the following morning all the paper work has finally been resolved. Before sunrise the diesel hearts are pumping hydraulic fluids through the veins of the monsters.
The escort vehicles (Zambian law requires two per abnormal truck) are blinking and buzzing around them like nervous insects. Then the man with the key to the highway finally appears. I ask Wynand: “Are you excited to get going again?” “No, I just want to go home to my family” comes his prompt reply.
Minutes later, the convoy very carefully crawls across the Zambezi bridge, one truck at a time.
But as soon as they reach the other side they come to a full stop.
The mechanics from ZESCO, supposed to lift some power cables that are hanging too low for the tall cargo to pass, are nowhere to be seen. 16 vehicles, 4 of them far too wide to pass, are stuck in the middle of High Street in the border town of Sesheke and absolutely nothing is moving. Wynand has been working the phone for days to avoid precisely this scenario. But it’s too early in the morning to get angry. With a dry grin he comments “If we don’t move nothing here moves. That’s not my problem”. Except it will be his problem later on.
The ZESCO team eventually arrives at a leisurely speed to lift the cables. We start rolling again at 50km/h. Then the potholes start. The convoy ends up spending the night by the roadside half way to Livingstone, only half the distance Wynand an his team had hoped to accomplish that day.
Abnormal sized trucks are only allowed on the road during daylight hours. A Cape-to-Cairo cyclist adventurer has overtaken the convoy several times during the day and ends up pitching his tent in the safe proximity of the Mammoet convoy.
How long the rest of the journey may still take is uncertain. Once the convoy reaches Kafue, they must wait for the hydraulic lifts needed to unload the cargo to arrive. Those are currently stuck at Beitbridge on the South Africa-Zimbabwe border. And among the truckers of Southern Africa that border is famous for being very, very slow. At least the fishing is good in Kafue. And then they will braai.
The Walvis Bay Corridor Group is promoting the Walvis Bay Ndola Lubumbashi Corridor as an integrated transport route to unlock the economic potential of southern Africa. They market the promise of unrestrained movement of goods. What I have learned during those days on the road and crossing the Namibia-Zambia border with the Mammoet convoy is just how wide a variety of reasons there is for stoppage.
“Red tape” is just a word that masks a huge variety of administrative steps involving both state representatives in frontline and distant central offices, and corporate actors on the road as well as back in the headquarters of the transport operators and their customers. “Poor infrastructure” is just a word which masks a huge variety of hands-on problems, from deteriorating road surfaces and tight corners to low power cables. All of these constantly evolve, sometimes for the better and sometimes the opposite. There are patterns and seasonality but no matter how well prepared and seasoned Wyand and his drivers are, they constantly need to try and anticipate the unepected. In most cases “the unexpected”, when it finally occurs, means the wheels stop turning. Living on the corridor road appears to be very much about living with the absence of movement. The braai and the fishing rod, the smart phone and, for some, the bible are essential tools to keep going.
Living on the road, my friend
Was going to keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
And your breath’s as hard as kerosene
The author is a Senior Research Fellow on the African Governance and Space (AFRIGOS) project. Starting in January 2016, AFRIGOS will examine transport corridors, border towns and port cities in four regions of Africa. The project is funded by the European Research Council’s Advanced Grant scheme. Prof. Paul Nugent is the Principal Investigator of AFRIGOS.