Border or barrier?
Beitbridge Border Post is reportedly the busiest inland port of entry in sub-Saharan Africa. The fact that this border has, owing to an increased volume of trucks amongst other factors, become increasingly chaotic since the end of last year, is of huge concern to cross-border cargo carriers. SIOBHAN ENRAGHT-MOONY investigates…
The situation at the Beitbridge Border Post has gone from bad to worse. That’s the worrying news from Barney Curtis, executive director of the Federation of East and Southern African Road Transport Associations (FESARTA). “The situation has definitely deteriorated in recent times,” he tells FOCUS.
Disorganisation, corruption and inefficient border officials and systems beleaguer the would-be transporter. “Whilst continuing efforts are being made by the stakeholders of the inter-border committee and other organisations to improve matters, there seem to be other forces at play which are determined to negate any improvements,” reports a frustrated Curtis.
Two initiatives are in place in an attempt to improve the situation: The Beitbridge Border Efficiency Management System programme (BBEMS), led by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and ongoing ground level efforts by the Inter-Border Committee and the private sector.
A workshop held in 2009, headed up by SADC, led to the creation of a task team, which has met on several occasions, and has drawn up three documents. The Task Team Terms of Reference and Work Programme documents were created, identifying the major constraints at the border and providing a plan of action to deal with them, and a draft memorandum of understanding (MOU) between South Africa and Zimbabwe was drawn up.
These are decent sentiments but in order for the task team to carry out the work programme, the MOU must first be signed. The result of this provision is that their hands are politically tied. The MOU needs to be signed by the responsible ministers from both countries: the minister of Finance in South Africa and the minister of Regional Integration and International Co-operation in Zimbabwe. A year after the MOU was drafted, the ministers have yet to agree – effectively incapacitating the work programme.
The Inter-Border Committee which, in terms of the BBEMS, will be renamed the Joint Border Operations Committee meets regularly. “But it does not seem to be capable of making and carrying out decisions that would have a significant impact on the efficiency of the border,” Curtis reveals.
With a hamstrung multinational initiative and an indecisive committee, this leaves the private sector to try and manage the chaos. And it is chaos. Urgent problems, which were highlighted by the recent FESARTA report, are numerous. Corruption, which has always been a problem at the border, is now reaching systemic levels due to the inefficiencies of the border control offices. It is reported that drivers must pay US$200 each time they want their gate pass stamped to exit the border and enter Zimbabwe. Reporting on the problem is minimal as this exposes drivers to victimisation.
Problems with documentation are rife. Receipt of supporting documents is not acknowledged, no estimated turnaround times are provided, there are not enough qualified officers for issuing SADC certificates and letters of intent/demand are left unattended on the enquiry counter. Documents are not processed (only released) after 22h00 on the South African side and on the Zimbabwean side this may stop at 17h00. Similarly, no stops are addressed after 22h00 and, according to Curtis, “even before 22h00 officers drag their feet or find excuses”.
Stops themselves are problematic. Irrespective of the nature of the stop, an examination must be booked and only at the time of booking the examination will the client be told the reason for the stop. The same consignment may also be stopped several times by Cargo, CBCU and other agencies, at different stages. High-risk consignments are paid unnecessary attention, being stopped for hours, if not days, at the border.
Both causing and exacerbating these problems is a staff shortage, which has been brought about by combining export, import and verification into one team. Additional staffing problems highlighted by the update are that decisions made by seniors are often overruled by juniors, and managers are not available on their mobile phones after business hours. In addition, hindering, rather than aiding the process are a number of inexperienced and illegal clearing agents at Beitbridge, which may be contributing to bribery and corruption, making things more difficult for legitimate agents. New procedures on the Zimbabwean side to try and regulate clearing agents have, at some point, closed virtually all Zimbabwean agencies.
The private sector has attempted to address these significant shortcomings through its own staff and resources. According to Brian Kalshoven, general manager of Beitbridge Border Clearing Agency, bigger agencies on the South African side “strive constantly, at considerable expense to themselves, to provide 24-hour representation at their offices, top quality staff and top-of-the-range computer hard- and software”.
“The senior and middle management of these offices, too, expend an enormous amount of time and effort, making personal representations to generally disinterested or unwilling civil servants to expedite and facilitate the movement of goods through this control, without going the easy, but less popular route of paying backhanders and bribes,” he says.
“These people, furthermore, attend at their own expense, many, many meetings, mostly five or six hours-drive away from their offices, at SARS head office and SAAFF offices, in their efforts to find solutions,” Kalshoven adds.
However, the transporters who choose the cheapest clearing rates or companies who are more prepared to engage with corrupt officials, direct business away from these hard-working legitimate clearing agencies. These transporters thereby contribute to the very problems that continue to affect them.
The private sector should not be expected to address this problem alone, nor is it actually capable of addressing a political and governmental problem of national-border administration.
What is perhaps most frustrating is that this is not a new problem. There was a South African parliamentary meeting and report on Beitbridge congestion back in January 2002! It is a problem that has been allowed to fester and worsen to the point where legal cross-border trade, with no bribes or questionable go-betweens, is almost impossible. Although there are continuing efforts at all levels to make a difference, decisions need to be made so that real action can be taken – and soon.