Mayhem at the border

December 3, 2019
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Southern Africa’s cross-border transport companies face a tough task – overcoming the violence, corruption and long delays at customs’ posts that have forced some of them to close their doors   

Failing customs procedures at nearly all border posts along southern Africa’s north-south trade corridor are causing massive delays for transporters, with queues of trucks creating opportunities for criminal elements to rob drivers and loot vehicles at will. Drivers are being told “stay in your truck if you want to stay alive”.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the automated Sydonia customs system is constantly down; Mozambique has significant challenges with its system, and Zambia and Zimbabwe are no different. Drivers have little option but to sit and wait.

In Fesarta’s view, the South African Revenue Service’s system used at South Africa’s borders is failing, too, affecting the processing of vital CN2 documents and other papers. Recently, the system was down for maintenance and upgrading – and a week later remained out of commission at some posts. The attitude that business should have to pay for the failings of customs’ systems throughout the region is not acceptable.

Employees of transport companies complain of being treated like sub-humans by border officials, with exorbitant taxes and fees being demanded for no services in return.

The relationship between border revenue authorities and transporters is supposed to be mutually beneficial, aimed at encouraging inter-regional trade with a view to growing businesses, which, in turn, would enable governments to collect more revenue. It is a known fact that good inter-regional trade stimulates economic growth – and East Africa sets a glowing example.

However, in southern Africa we are subject to just the opposite – bureaucratic red tape, failing customs systems, inflated taxes and cross-border fees, as well as massive delays at all border posts.

To list but one example: Chirundu, on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border, was the first one-stop border post (OSBP) in Africa, and initially was hailed as being extremely successful in its attempts to speed up border procedures.

Now, however, it is a failing OSBP, with reports of frequent downtime regarding its automated systems, coupled with chaotic traffic flow procedures on both sides of the border and widespread corruption. In fact, Chirundu no longer operates the way an OSBP should – rather, it functions more like an old, traditional two-stop border post, with no single window system in place to facilitate speedy crossings.

Instead, clearing agents from each country are now required to submit documents separately to their respective revenue authorities – even though both sides use the same computer system for customs control.

These are the kinds of issues that make the transportation of goods across southern Africa’s borders non-profitable, and which have resulted in widespread closure of many trucking companies. Among the latest casualties is Zambian transport company Celtic Freight, which has shut its doors after 23 years in business.

Among the reasons given for the company’s demise is the fact that some of its vehicles recently had to stand idle for 18 days at a South African border crossing following a spate of attacks on its drivers, with no visible security apparent from police services to protect people or property.

Regrettably, I am sure there will be many more closures of this nature before border-crossing issues are resolved – if they ever are.

Mike Fitzmaurice is the CEO of the Federation of East and Southern Africa Road Transport Associations (Fesarta). He has 42 years of experience in the transport and logistics industry with several major companies in South Africa, as well as overseas exposure with some of the leading transport companies in six European countries. Since 2004 he has established and run Transport Logistics Consultants. In May 2015 he became CEO of Fesarta.

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