Investors approach Botswana to build a new railway line just to avoid South Africa

Plan for railway line gathering momentum.

Botswana has received unsolicited bids from investors to build a rail line to a Namibian port that will help avoid South Africa and its disintegrating logistics network.

The 1 500 km Trans-Kalahari Railway project is gathering momentum as Transnet, the State rail and ports monopoly in Botswana’s southern neighbour, struggles to ship goods, according to Transport and Public Works Minister Eric Molale.

“We learned in June that the waiting period at all South Africa ports to offload and load can be a minimum of two weeks, floating on the sea for that period,” he said in an interview in December 2023 in Gaborone, the capital.

“The United Arab Emirates, the Qataris, the Chinese, the Indians have also come to say this is not a long line for them and it is in fact, a comparatively short one that they can do very quickly.”

Transnet has become one of the biggest drags on South Africa’s economy and, along with power outages, resulted in a surprising contraction in growth in the third quarter. Snarled transportation also has the potential to crimp expansion in neighbouring countries, including landlocked Botswana – one of the world’s biggest diamond producers and a major beef exporter that relies on South Africa for most of its trade.

An alternative route may also attract companies in South Africa, offering shorter travel than to the nation’s own ports, said Molale.

Coal shipments on Transnet freight-rail network have plunged to 30-year lows and iron-ore railings are at their lowest in a decade. Port gridlock has led to delays to the loading and offloading of ships and some fashion retailers have resorted to flying in apparel.

“We see ourselves as best placed especially for companies in the Johannesburg, Pretoria area of Gauteng because either way, going west or east, they cover the same distance and some of them, like vehicle manufacturers have come to us,” said the Minister.

The Trans-Kalahari Railway has been slow to develop since Botswana and Namibia signed an agreement in 2010. The original impetus was to export coal from eastern Botswana, yet prices declined and financiers have shunned backing the fuel. It will rather focus on exports from the fast-developing Kalahari Copperbelt in the west of the country.

The line would run from Gaborone, through the Kalahari Desert to Gobabis in Namibia and Walvis Bay on the Atlantic Ocean.

Nations in the region are seeking ways to better get their goods to global markets. The US is backing a rail line from the copper and cobalt mines in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Lobito in Angola, while China’s government selected a state-owned company to negotiate a concession to operate a railway connecting Zambia with the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam.

Copper and cobalt are important minerals in the global transition to cleaner fuels.

Botswana and Namibia set up a bi-national project office in 2015 to push the project. According to its website, 12 companies submitted expressions of interest last month. A request for proposals will be released in March and construction is due to begin in January 2025.

“There is a lot of money out there in the world and unsolicited bids have been coming in,” said Molale.

Rail services in Botswana are provided by Botswana Railways in Botswana. Most routes in the country radiate from Gaborone. The railway network consists of 888km, its gauge is 1.067mm (3ft 6in) cape gauge. The first section of railway track in Botswana was laid in 1896. There is no direct connection with Namibia, but one does exist via South Africa, although an electrified railway connecting to Lüderitz, Namibia for coal traffic was scheduled.

Botswana is an associate member of the International Union of Railways (UIC). Botswana has the 93rd longest railway network in the world, it is one of the busiest railways in Africa. In comparison South Africa is 13th in the world with 22 387kms of railway line.