Cross border traders sing the blues

Source: Cross border traders sing the blues | The Financial Gazette September 15, 2016 By Stephen Tsoroti

THREE months ago, Tariro Manda arrived at the Beitbridge Border Post laden with goods purchased from Johannesburg, South Africa, for resale in Harare’s dormitory town of Chitungwiza.
To her utter disbelief, the rules allowing her to bring the items that included second-hands clothes into Zimbabwe had completely changed.
It later dawned on her that she had been a victim of Statutory Instrument 64 of 2016 (SI64), which now restricts the importation of 42 items on the General Import Licence.
The banned items include peanut-butter, maheu, doors, beds, wheelbarrows, gates and fertilisers, among other items.
Although SI64 offers importers the chance to obtain a licence to import the banned items, the process, which costs US$30, is tedious and one is never assured of getting the permit.
“At first, I was just told that I have to pay extra duty for the goods. When I asked the customs officials whether I could leave the goods with them so that I could go and find the extra money, I was blatantly told that they had, in fact, confiscated my goods,” recalled Manda as she retraced the genesis of her present predicament.
Manda’s pickle meant she had to close shop at her clothing stall at Chitungwiza’s Makoni Shopping Centre.
“I am now grounded at home trying to think what other business I can venture into in order to repay a loan I had borrowed for my business,” said Manda, her eyes darting around with confusion.
One of her friends, Tracy Chibonda, who lost her job as a bank employee in 2013, has also been affected by SI64 since she was in the business of importing basic food commodities.
“Traders have now been forced to use undesignated points, like ‘Kumvura (illegal crossing points along Limpopo)’, to smuggle their goods into the country. It means pumping extra money to pay the malaicha (illegal cross-border porters) to carry the goods across the border,” added Chibonda, who has now resorted to selling vegetables and detergents to make ends meet.
Chibonda argues that the statutory instrument was not good for a country that currently has, for instance, no capacity to supply enough and affordable clothes for its citizens.
“With R1 000 you can buy a lot of clothes in South Africa; but locally you can only buy very little with say R1 000 which is equivalent to US$65. It’s the same when you use the Botswana pula; or Tanzanian shillings or British pounds, ” Chibonda said.
The country’s textile industry is currently redundant. The Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) recently told the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Budget, Finance and Investment Promotion that leading companies in the clothing retail industry had in the past year imported finished clothes worth close US$1,7 million instead of raw fabric to make textile products.
Zimbabwe Women Bureau executive director, Ronika Mumbire, said: “The move has sounded a death knell for many small women businesses. Consultation and engagement with the key stakeholders in the sector should have been sought. It was also deplorable for the customs officials to confiscate traders’ wares at the country’s border posts.”
A long time campaigner for women’s rights in the country, Mumbire described the instrument as a rushed piece of law that has hurt not only the women traders, but their struggling families and others.
“As the biggest stakeholder in the country, we were surprised when SI 64 was gazetted and included some groceries and fabrics on the list of goods now requiring an import license, even from small traders as women cross-border traders,” said Mumbire. “While we support measures aimed at reducing the amount of non-compliant imports, substantial consultation needed to have been carried out first. The application and subsequent implementation of the instrument was ill timed and heartless.”
However, the Minister of industry and Commerce, Mike Bimha, has maintained that the main purpose of SI 64 is to promote the revival of local industries and support the relevant local producers.
The local industry is supposed to use the protection from imports to “retool and bring in new technology and address production inefficiencies”, insists Bimha.
But Munyaradzi Bwanya, an official with the United States Embassy in Harare, contested the idea.
Bwanya said if the State’s objective is to protect local industry, then two issues arise.
“Firstly, why are we importing in the first place? Secondly, what will be the impact and criteria of issuing out import permits given that we have small scale traders and big businesses (all) lumped into one basket,” he quizzed, adding: “The first raises broader governance issues centred on land reform and its success. Our economy is agro-based, so if farms are unproductive industry cannot be productive.
“The second raises questions of government’s honesty. Import licences are an admission that local industry is unable to meet demand.
“The government wants to control who brings things and this raises the issue of corruption.
“Cumulative bad sovereign policy decisions will reduce legal trade and increase illicit ways of doing business for Zimbabweans who deal with foreigners,” said Bwanya.
Human rights activist, Jestina Mukoko said the promulgation of destructive economic policies by Zimbabwe such as SI64 has cross national effects and has direct consequences of limiting trade in the region.
She called upon government to craft unambiguous policies that generate confidence among investors, and genuine commitment to democratising economic governance, which respects the rule of law and property rights that will assist in sending positive signals to investors.
The move by the State to confiscate the traders’ ware or goods without warning was inhumane and inconsiderate and unconstitutional, charged Tsholofelo Sesanga, community intervention programme manager at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR).
Sesanga noted that the decision taken by government would not only affect Zimbabwe and South Africans, but also other Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries such as Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Malawi.
“As a civil society organisation, we call on SADC and the South African government to intervene. The new import regulations implemented by the Zimbabwean government will affect both countries negatively,” said Sesanga.
CSVR facilitates the creation of spaces for youths, men and women, traditional, religious and community leaders, local organisations and State institutions to dialogue about sources of gender based violence, HIV and Aids and youth violence and collectively seek for solutions to address these.
“If government doesn’t take action these protests have a potential to spread into other areas and feed into xenophobic attacks,” she said.
The import ban has sparked nationwide and regional trade protests, which have seen property worth thousands of dollars including a ZIMRA warehouse being destroyed.