The removal of non-tariff barriers (NTB) and border harmonisation, the hoped-for ideal to align country-to-country customs and cargo procedures, have become familiar buzz phrases at talk shops about trade, especially in the sub-Saharan region.
Unfortunately, the reality on the ground is an altogether different matter, which is probably why trade facilitators like to gab on about it.
Take for example Zimbabwe, whose long-distance truck drivers are allowed to take three days to pass through their own country, compared to foreign drivers who don’t have this luxury.
More to the point, it means that Zim drivers about to enter their own country often prefer to spend the evening south of the border before getting their documents stamped.
That way they don’t waste precious time they can spend with loved ones, waiting to pass through a control zone that has shut down for the evening, even though their clearing documents have already been approved (see story posted earlier: “Beitbridge, will the mess ever end?”)
Mike Fitzmaurice, chief executive of the Federation of East and Southern African Road Transport Associations, explains.
“If a driver from Zimbabwe gets cleared at night, or late in the day, they have to exit the border immediately and have to sleep somewhere. It means they lose a day. So what they do is wait south of the border until the following morning to exit. That way they have three full days before they’re required to be processed at the next exit point on their journey.
“That way they get to maximise their time in Zim, spending it with families, delivering groceries, or both. Foreign drivers, in comparison, will leave the border area as soon as they can.”
Of course it would help if clearing agents at the Beitbridge Border Post worked 24/7, as they are supposed to.
But for reasons of their own, they pack up for the day and head home by nightfall, meaning Zim drivers hang around south of the border before receiving their clearing documents the next morning.
The effect this is having on truck parks south of the border has been flagged by Fitzmaurice as one of three main sticking points once again causing congestion and traffic build-up south of Beitbridge.
“Over and above that,” he says, “there are systems on the Zim side contributing to the slow movement of trucks through the border area - such as trucks that have to be escorted to inspection areas, and officials from the Environmental Management Agency, Port Health, the National Biotechnology Authority, and the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority all having their system requirements to follow.”
And while the waiting show plays out, because what’s good for one country is not good for the other, the area south of the border fills up rapidly, with an arrival rate that exceeds throughput at Beitbridge.
In addition, amid the mêlée of truckers eager to continue north on their journey through Zimbabwe, and others willing to wait for whatever reason, drivers have to weigh loads north and south of the border.
However, it’s on the Musina side of the border that the show really goes south (see follow-up story about weighbridges).
In short – when you’re talking NTBs and non-harmonisation of border systems and procedures, you’re talking Beitbridge.
“And it’s been like that since I can remember,” says Fitzmaurice.