Tichaona Zindoga Features Writer
A rough ride down the rugged dirty road running parallel to a skeletal railway line entering Mozambique at Sango Border Post to the south-eastern Lowveld of Zimbabwe seems to confirm one thing. Deep in the hot, arid, and virtually uninhabited
game area of Gonarezhou is a jungle, at least on the Zimbabwean side, that conforms to the “forest” denoted in the name.
But the forest is not exactly untamed.
Through it, at regular intervals weekly, rumble steel monsters of goods and passenger trains and buses negotiate the craggy road to Sango Border Post.
From Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and Saturday hundreds of people pass through Sango Border Post to and from Mozambique, with the town of Chicualacuala being their first port of call.
They might call on Maputo, some 300km away, to bring back various wares such as clothing, food and foodstuffs for resale in Zimbabwe.
If the disadvantage of Zimbabwe importing more than it exports is not a cause for concern, then the state of the infrastructure at the border should be.
On entering the border one is greeted with a particularly strong stench of human waste that comes from small makeshift toilets to the right while the chatter and din of mainly female cross-border traders standing at an open space waiting to be cleared adds to the assault.
To the left is a small and crowded Zimbabwe Revenue Authority office wherein officials plead patience that they cannot cope with the pressure.
“I have not gone out for lunch because we are short-staffed,” one supervisor who should not be on the clearing desk says to one woman.
Two other visibly tired officers are deeply engrossed in their business of shuffling and stamping the blue declaration papers.
The hard sound of the stamping seems to be the only thing with a resolve in this tired, musty and hot little room.
“We do not have water and electricity here,” says one border control official adding that the Zimra office has to rely on a not-so-efficient generator.
They also have to make do without their families as Zimra does not have adequate housing.
Officials from the Zimra headquarters in Harare have for the past few weeks failed to answer questions from The Herald despite written questions from the paper and persistent follow-ups.
The organisation had promised to write back within 48 hours.
The Herald sought answers on a range of issues such as how much the border post handles in terms of traffic and who and what constitutes the same and how much revenue Zimra receives per month from cross-border business.
There were also questions as to how Sango compares with other ports of entry in the country in terms of size and how transport — rail and road — services affect business; the apparent under-staffing level at Sango; the lack of amenities Sango’s potential, and challenges being faced at the border.
On its website, Zimra says its mandate is to collect customs duty; facilitate trade and travel by ensuring smooth movement of goods and people through inland and border ports of entry/exit, and protecting civil society by curbing smuggling and any forms of international trade.
It is also mandated to curb crime as well as to enforce import, export and exchange controls.
“Most of these controls are meant to protect the consumer against dangerous and harmful drugs, hazardous substances, expired drugs, pornographic, objectionable
or undesirable materials, and harmful substances,” Zimra says.
However, the nearby towns of Chiredzi, Masvingo, Mwenezi and Zvishavane to as far afield as Bulawayo and Harare have been awash with Mozambican spirits that pass through Sango.
A trader is supposed to bring into Zimbabwe not more than five litres of alcohol.
Cross-border traders complain over what they believe are high excise duty charged on their wares.
“They should lower this duty because we have families to feed and all our efforts are stymied by the high rates,” said one trader. Ironically, Zimra recently celebrated surpassing its revenue targets.
Analysts have expressed concern over Zimra’s taxation crusade, with one writing early this year that, “The latest charge by Zimra to levy 25 percent surtax, an additional tax on already existing taxes, on imported second-hand vehicles, alcohol, food, tobacco, electrical gadgets, cosmetics and clothing is just another well-calculated fund-raising venture.”
Hit hard by taxation, going as high as 40 percent, some traders have resorted to under-declaring their wares.
Some claim they have the help of Zimra officials in concealing some goods.
On a busy day, the impatience of travellers, or an experienced stoicism of those who have seen similar days, are palpable as people await their passage home.
That might not be guaranteed, though.
Transport is a major problem.
“We need cheap and reliable transport,” says Mstassel Ncube from Zvishavane, a cross-border trader for the past four years.
“We need Zupco buses as the two operators that ply this route are unreliable and expensive. They charge US$7 to Rutenga,” she said.
The train service for the route is also not known for reliability.
When The Herald visited the border post recently, travellers were stranded because the train had been delayed, again.
There were two wagons that had derailed.
On the other hand, it seems laughable, if tragic, that the Mozambican “town” of Chicualacuala, which by any Zimbabwean standards would be like a poorly organised rural township, should be the brighter side of the frontier.
This dusty little outpost has houses and shops that at best are made of rudimentary clay mouldings by way of bricks or at worst made of unplastered wooden poles.
“We do not have shops and accommodation on the Zimbabwean side so we have to come here,” says one Zimbabwean civil servant, resignedly.
“It is said there have been offers for housing but no one seems ready to take up the opportunity because the area around the border is infested with wildlife and landmines,” he said.
As there are no shops on the Zimbabwean side, the man and his fellow Zimbabweans have learnt to substitute his home products — like Castle Lager beer — with Mozambican ones like MacMahon or 2M (pronounced here “Dos M”).
Suffice to say, any Zimbabwean equivalents are generally very expensive while Mozambican ones, like spirits, are cheaper and of very low quality.
South African products, which are of a much agreeable quality, make a huge chunk of products on the market.
Cross-border traders and other stakeholders are calling for the modernisation of the border post, coupled with infrastructural development, so that it can facilitate business with Mozambique.
They point to the low usage of the border a result of the backwardness of investment or the willpower to invest in this little outpost.
Questions arise as to whether it is morally, economically or even politically right that Zimbabwe continues to play second fiddle to Mozambique — represented here by the ugly face of Chicualacuala.