Don’t Read the Fine Print

Beit Bridge,

South Africa – Zimbabwe

May 24, 2016

Rumour has it that crossing the border from South Africa to Zimbabwe at Beit Bridge takes ages, typically three to four hours. And the bus companies understandably do not want to wait on the passengers, so they insist on passengers having a visa before they board the bus.

But I figured if I bought a ticket online only to the border, I should be able to get on the bus. Little did I know that it came with a fine print that said I would not be allowed to board the bus without a visa. No amount of arguments on the phone seemed to work. Even speaking with different agents on different days at different times did not help.

“Our protocol says we cannot allow you to board without a visa” said the agent on the phone.

“But I am not crossing the border on your bus” I protested. “I am only going to the border.”

“The bus cannot wait for you” came the response, “because our protocol says we cannot allow you to board without a visa”. And so it went ad nauseum.

But all that aggravation was for naught. When I arrived at the Park City Bus station, not only was I not asked anything about a visa, I was even told that the drivers would help me find a seat on an ongoing bus at the border.

I was the only tourist on the bus, the rest mostly Zimbabweans who had made the trip to South Africa solely to buy manufactured products which they would then sell in Zimbabwe. With the imposition of sanctions, the industry in Zimbabwe has virtually ground to a halt and other than agricultural goods, just about everything comes from South Africa. Giant bundles of baby diapers were piled in next to even bigger bundles of toilet rolls. Next to them were piled bales of cloth, boxes of machine parts, plastic buckets, tubs and cutlery. Bags of blankets in eye-popping colours sat next to boxes of shoes. All of these were put in a trailer that was hauled behind the bus.

The bus left Jo’burg at 8:30 pm, shockingly on time and arrived at the Beit Bridge border at 4:30 am. There were a couple of other buses and a few cars. We piled out and got stamped out of South Africa. I got my Zimbabwean visa processed, paid and stamped in well before the customs check on the numerous boxes and bags were complete. Under a poster sternly declaring that bribery and smuggling were illegal and punishable by law, negotiations took place in hushed tones as the passengers of all the buses milled together.  Overstayed visas and custom duties were discussed, negotiated and money changed hands with the fluency of practice. I could apparently go on to Bulawayo on the same bus, but true to their word, the drivers spoke to other drivers and my backpack and I were soon on a bus to Masvingo.