A mob torched a Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) warehouse containing seized goods and over 40 vehicles worth hundreds of thousands of dollars as demonstrations against the implementation of Statutory Instrument No. 64 of 2016 continued at the Beitbridge Border Post last night.
The demonstrations saw travellers from various parts of the country cancelling their trips to South Africa while some bus operators in Harare refunded passengers.
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The SI tightens screws on the import of basic commodities including food items, building materials, furniture, toiletries and cooking oil among other things.
This comes as Industry and Commerce Minister Mike Bimha told The Herald yesterday on the sidelines of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce congress in Victoria Falls that the instrument was targeted at businesses and did not affect ordinary travellers buying goods for personal consumption.
However, Zimra officials continued to demand permits and confiscate the listed products from individuals, sparking the chaos.
The demonstrators also threatened to burn down Manica Transit Shed where Zimra processes vehicle imports and the National Social Security Authority (NSSA) hotel.
The protesters, who call themselves Combined Residents Association, also destroyed a house where one member of the neighbourhood watch committee identified as “MaSpeed” lives.
They accused him of unleashing a reign of terror at the border post.
There were running battles between the police and the demonstrators for the better part of yesterday.
Shops in the border town closed at around 2pm for fear of looting while those around Mashakada Business Centre and Engen Service Station and traffic lights were also vandalised.
The implementation of the new import regulations has been met with fierce resistance by travellers and ordinary importers who twice protested at Beitbridge Border Post.
Zimra gave in to pressure and suspended rolling out the new regime.
Commercial cargo had been stuck on Beitbridge Border Post (South African side) for seven days as importers struggled to get permits authorising them to import the restricted goods.
Said Minister Bimha: “Anyone who travels, you bring one, two or three items, that’s not the issue. The issue is to control certain products that we produce. The target is really more on our industry. We still have people who go out and bring things that we make here. That’s not an issue. But where people bring in things in large quantities for re-selling, the effect is that it affects our industry. There are job losses, there is no employment, there are no goods and services that can then go into the market.
“That’s the kind of thing we are talking about. Not you and I, who come with two bags of maize meal, that is allowed,” he said.
Minister Bimha said Government was open to considering applications from businesses that wanted to import some of the specified goods as long as they justified the action.
He said the protests that were happening at Beitbridge Border Post were regrettable but urged travellers to approach relevant authorities instead resorting to protests.
There were reports that South Africa briefly closed its door yesterday due to the protests while social media messages reported that Pretoria had banned Zimbabwean products from being imported into that country.
But Minister Bimha said Government always engaged its neighbours on what it sought to achieve with the introduction of Statutory Instrument 64/2016 including South Africa whenever there were issues of concern between the two countries.
“We do have technical bilateral meetings between officials of government from South Africa and here. We also have bilateral meetings where we discuss with the Minister responsible for Trade and Industry on all trade matters.
“Time and again, there are issues and concerns from both sides and we do meet to try and resolve them. That is what we do on a bilateral level. We have also advised Sadc on the measures we have taken because we know they will affect some of our regional partners explaining why we are taking them.
“If there is any country where they have problems with that, they have every reason to engage us. We are open for engagement. We are doing this on the basis of what we think is right for our economy just like any country would actually look at its own interests first,” said Minister Bimha.
He said despite the SI, Government still appreciated and respected its bilateral arrangements and agreements.
Minister Bimha said it was, however, important for Sadc countries to appreciate the reasons behind the move considering that the country was coming from a hyper-inflationary environment and was suffering from the illegal sanctions imposed on it by the West.
He said South Africa had not officially engaged Zimbabwe over the SI indicating that there was no problem between the two countries.
It was not business as usual at the usually packed Roadport bus station to South Africa in Harare yesterday as travellers panicked, resulting in numerous cancellations and postponements of travel bookings to that country.
Most travellers said they feared the potentially violent demonstrations at the Zim/SA border, a situation which was worsened and dramatised by the images circulating on social media.
The South African component of the border was closed between 6 and 12 in the morning but later opened for traffic following negotiations between the police and the protestors.
Zimbabwe’s national police spokesperson Senior Assistant Commissioner Charity Charamba said they had contained the situation.
She said three people had been arrested for orchestrating public disorder in Beitbridge adding that they had deployed police officers to all strategic points.
“We have managed the situation and we want to strongly warn those involved on such activities that we will not tolerate lawlessness,” she said.