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The Impact of Excessive Cargo Scanning on Intra-Regional Trade

Photo for illustration only: Camilo Ramada

The Beitbridge border post, a critical junction between South Africa and Zimbabwe, continues to grapple with inefficiencies that stymie the flow of intra-regional trade. One of the most pressing issues is the excessive cargo scanning conducted by the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra), which significantly hampers the potential pace at which trade can be facilitated through this vital crossover.

Southbound traffic, heading into South Africa, routinely undergoes rigorous checks for contraband items such as illegal cigarettes and heavily regulated lithium. However, the scanner used for these checks is outdated, requiring truck drivers to park and disembark before their vehicles—often empty on their return leg—can be inspected for compliance. This outdated technology contributes to substantial delays, as the process is both time-consuming and inefficient.

Northbound traffic, entering Zimbabwe, fares no better despite the presence of a drive-through scanner. The positioning of this scanner at the border’s exit point rather than at the entry gate exacerbates the problem. Mike Fitzmaurice, head of the Transit Assistance Bureau, emphasizes that the design of the border post, despite recent renovations aimed at speeding up cross-border traffic through the involvement of concession company Zimborders, did not account for the integration of a drive-through scanner. He argues that the issue lies not with the scanner itself, but with its suboptimal placement.

The introduction of a stricter import-control regime, which replaced the trade-facilitating Open General Import Licence with SI 35 permits, has further compounded the congestion at the border. Fitzmaurice points out that scanning all cargo, a requirement under the SI 35 system drastically slows down the movement of goods. He highlights instances where hauliers entering Zimbabwe have waited for three days or more to be called for scanning, even after completing all other border processes.

While the intent behind these stringent measures is understandable—Zimra is working diligently to prevent smuggling, especially following incidents such as the illegal diversion of ethanol meant for Malawi—there are calls for practical solutions to mitigate the delays. Fitzmaurice suggests the relocation of the scanner to an unused animal shed at the border’s entry area, which has sufficient space and shade for a mobile scanner installation. This area is conveniently near the current waiting area for drivers, potentially accelerating the scanning process for northbound traffic.

Despite these recommendations, Zimra remains resistant to change, partly due to the high cost of a new scanner, estimated at $1.5 million. Critics argue that the complexity of the current system creates opportunities for corruption, particularly at a border like Beitbridge, where concession fees alone cost more than $200 for a one-way load.

Fitzmaurice believes that the investment in a mobile scanner could be offset by charging for the service, with transporters likely willing to pay more to expedite cargo processing. However, without the necessary systems and services in place to support these strict measures, the current approach results in significant delays and inefficiencies.

While the fight against illicit goods and non-compliance in road freight operations is crucial, it is essential to balance these efforts with the need for efficient trade facilitation. Addressing the bottlenecks at Beitbridge through strategic investments and practical solutions could significantly enhance intra-regional trade, benefiting both Zimbabwe and its trade partners in the region.

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