One of Africa's strategic communication lines -- the Benguela railway in Angola -- was re-opened on Saturday (4 November).
One of Africa's strategic communication lines -- the Benguela railway in Angola -- was re-opened on Saturday (4 November). Linking the inland mining districts of Zambia and Zaire with the Atlantic Ocean, it had been closed for three years, since the Angolan civil war.
SYNOPSIS: One powerful motive prompted moves to re-open the line: copper, a metal vital for western economies. For Zaire and Zambia, the metal is their major mineral wealth, and their economic lifeblood. So an efficient transport link is crucial to the health of their economies. Their disrupted rail systems had forced Zambia and Zaire to stockpile their copper, depriving them of most of their foreign currency earnings.
The copper mines lie deep inland, one thousand miles or more from the sea. Apart from the Benguela railway, there are only two other major rail links to ports. One, the Tazara line to Tanzania, is seriously overloaded. The other passes through white-ruled South Africa, and Rhodesia.
Before it was closed in 1965, the Benguela line used to carry more than half the copper exports of Zaire and Zambia. Until now, political differences between Angola and Zaire have kept it closed. The line passes across their borders and into Zambia. Zambia did draw up plans to by-pass the route through Zaire to move its copper to the port of Lobito on the Angolan coast. From here, copper and zinc are shipped to importing countries.
After the railway companies concerned had worked out administrative details, services were expected to resume by the end of November. When they get going, the harbour will take on the bustle it had in scenes like this, filmed four years ago. Railway officials say that, when traffic starts, one train of forty waggons will run daily in each direction. For Zambia, the service will shrink its stockpile of more than seventy million pounds worth (140 million dollars) of copper now stationary at mines, or in loaded waggons.
Since the war blocked the railway, hundreds of waggons, mostly from Zaire, have lain idle at stations or sidings in Angola. These will have to be cleared. The bridges either damaged or destroyed in the war will have to be repaired. But UNITA guerrillas, still operating in southern Angola, have threatened to sabotage attempts to re-open the line.
These threats from UNITA have raised doubts about the authorities' ability to keep the line open. But the fact that Angola is willing to run this risk, and has reached agreement with a country of different ideology, emphasises how important the line is to the region's economy -- and future.