Anyone who has crossed the borders will tell you that paying duty is an option, not a must. It is not even a matter of having well-placed contacts; they are all over the show. Many of these are so-called clearing agents. They clear your goods alright. They do it so well you won’t pay a dime to government but to them. But they are obviously linked to the Zimra officials. If the dogs could smell out corrupt officers that could really be useful.
And the whole thing is quite a big racket. It’s not the guy behind the counter, it’s the supervisor in the back office, all the way to top officials in Harare and even the police. The minions at the border posts can’t pull off the big deals on their own.
This is how convoys of truckloads may go through without paying a cent. The fact that Finance minister Tendai Biti said he wants the ports computerised so that he can track companies that don’t pay duty is testimony enough. We’d like to think he had information on good authority. Working for the state media once, the writer made unsung history by being the only person in Zimbabwe to move from a police cell into a presidential plane. This was during an investigation more than 10 years ago into allegations of corrupt operations at Beitbridge border post. Word got out and it wasn’t long before the then Chief Customs Officer pulled his strings and got the news crew arrested.
However, when the writer pleaded he was covering the president on an external trip, and this was verified, the release was secured. So, the corruption at our border posts is not a new story. However, it is one that needs political willpower and an integrated approach involving Zimra itself, its parent ministry Finance, the Reserve Bank, the Home Affairs ministry and its agencies the Department of Immigration and the Police, intelligence services, the Anti-Corruption Commission as well as the general public.
Revenue authorities play a critical role in economic development and sustenance. The fact that many people know of the existence of the United States’ Internal Revenue Service (IRS) underscores the importance of this agency to the world’s biggest economy. Of course, the IRS is not immune to tax dodgers and has meted out heavy penalties to defaulters, including celebrities, even putting them in jail, in order to drive the message home.
That Zimbabwe is officially said to be losing more than 70% of its potential revenue from customs duty through leakages at the borders is tragedy of stupendous proportions. The country just simply cannot afford this. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango. Apart from attempting to deal with its corrupt officers, Zimra should intensify its massive education campaign to the general public, who are the clients for corrupt Zimra officials. Frankly, many law-abiding citizens have been lured into corruption after Zimra officials quoted them unrealistic duties, then went on to offer them cheaper options by referring them to agents.
Therefore, the public information campaign should empower the man on the street in terms of what they should expect to pay for any goods they bring in. The public must also have an automatic appeal channel if confronted with a payment they don’t understand. Otherwise they will be left at the mercy of the corrupt Zimra officials who play god to returning residents, including the many hapless women trying to eke out a living from cross-border trading.