The line-ups for the Kazungula ferry start two or three kilometres from the water on either side of the Zambezi river. Each line up might be 150 trucks long. But the Kazungula crossing is served by just two pontoon ferries. Each ferry takes one truck, and makes the return journey in half an hour or so, transporting perhaps 20 or 25 trucks a day. The ferries often break down. When one is them is out of service, that 150 truck line-up might mean a week of waiting.
The Kazungula crossing is on one of the major trans-African highway corridors. There are other routes through to Southern Africa. To the east of Kazungula, bridges cross the Zambezi into Zimbabwe, but bureaucratic delays and corruption mean crossing in and out of Zimbabwe can be expensive and time consuming. Delays of two to five days and demands for "push money" are not uncommon. The once infamous Zambia-Zimbabwe crossing at Chirundu has recently been upgraded and, according to the African Development Bank, crossing there now takes only a few hours. However a recent report to the Zimbabwean parliament noted that the Chirundu air conditioning unit broke down one week after the new building opened, and power outages are still frequent (see here around p. 25).
To the west of Kazungula, the Katima Mulilo Bridge links Zambia with Namibia, and the western corridor down to Cape Town. Unfortunately this route means a detour of many hundreds of miles for a driver headed towards Durban or other points in the south east. In Africa, time is cheap, but gas is sold at international market prices. Saving fuel is more important than saving time.
So the drivers wait. And wait.
The long delays mean that commercial trade in perishable goods is impossible, hampering agricultural exports in Africa's many land-locked countries. Delays create hazards for drivers, who have to guard against thieves, who will rob them of goods or diesel fuel. (Drivers also have to navigate other dangers, such as snakes). Perhaps most seriously, bored and lonely drivers transport HIV/AIDS up and down the highway corridors, spreading the disease across the continent.
Given that Kazungula is such an important crossing point, why isn't there a bridge? Geography is part of the story. Kazungula is the nearest things on earth to a four-country quadripoint. Where the Chobe meets the Zambezi, the borders of four countries - Namibia, Zambia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe - almost touch. There has been talk of building a bridge for years, but the countries could never agree how to divide the costs. Zambia and Botswana are now going ahead and building a bridge without Zimbabwe's cooperation, and have lined up financing from a number of national and international institutions. The new bridge will actually be curved to avoid going over Zimbabwean waters.
Interest group politics are also part of the bridge-building story. The Katima Mulilo Bridge was built because a clearly defined interest group wanted it: Zambia is a major copper producer, and the bridge links the Zambian copper belt to ports in Namibia. But a bridge at Kazungula will serve a more diffuse and less politically powerful set of interests. There are few Zambian equivalents of the huge supermarket chains like Safeway or Loblaws, that lobby hard for better transport (though retailers like SPAR with a strong African presence might mention the subject occasionally). If a two-bit trucker going from Tanzania to Cape Town has to wait a few days, why should the Zambian or Botswanian government care?
The pressure for better transport links is dampened further by the fact that not everyone has to wait. Just like at Universal Studios, some people have front-of-the-line passes. While Lonely Planet types take the pontoon ferry, other tourists are whisked across the river on private boats.
People whose experience of international travel is limited to airports might think of border crossings as funnels, where people file through in orderly lines. Crossings like Kazungula are more like sieves. Small traders - usually women - just hop aboard the ferry and cross over for the day. Large vehicles, and those without the means to grease their way, have a harder time getting through.
In the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote "The tolls for the maintenance of a high road cannot with any safety be made the property of private persons." In his day, road maintenance was financed by tolls, but according to Smith:
At many turnpikes, it has been said, the money levied is more than double of what is necessary for executing, in the completest manner, the work which is often executed in very slovenly manner, and sometimes not executed at all.
Substitute border post for turnpike, and corrupt customs agents for private persons, and Smith's description could apply to modern Africa. There's a hold-up problem: any agent with the ability to control access to the network can create obstacles and hold up traffic, in an attempt to expropriate as much of the gains from trade as possible.
The journey to prosperity is long. There are no road maps, nor guaranteed recipes for success, but better border crossings are a step in the right direction.