Cross-border buses: smuggling conduits

The Herald

Tadious Manyepo Herald Reporter

Zimbabwe could be losing millions in potential revenue through smuggling perpetuated by connected bus crews who have devised survival tactics in the face of the existing ban in cross-border travel.

Haulage truck drivers are also involved in the smuggling of imported goods, especially clothing items.

Cross-border travelling, except for special cases, is suspended since March last year owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The ban grounded cross-border bus operations with most of the operators opting to join the ZUPCO franchise.

Those who have decided against joining ZUPCO have devised underhand survival tactics transporting smuggled items or smuggling the goods themselves to different areas in the country, mainly Bulawayo and Harare.

The transporters liaise with dealers popularly known as “runners” who are mostly based in South Africa, Zambia and Tanzania.

At times the “runners” are based locally and they go out of the country to buy the goods on behalf of their clients, whereupon they employ the services of corrupt transporters to carry the wares back home.

None of them pay duty for the goods and most of the smuggled valuables will be shrink-wrapped, an indication that the Zimra officials do not tamper with the packaging.

Police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said smuggling across the country’s borders was prevalent and his organisation was investigating several such cases.

“Those cases (smuggling) are prevalent and we are working hard to combat such crimes,” said Asst Comm Nyathi.

The police have arrested 46 911 since the start of January this year across the country for cross border crimes under an operation code named  No to cross-border crimes.

Most boutiques and downtown grocery tuckshops in Harare heavily rely on smuggled stuff which they receive in the dead of the night behind walled garages.

At times they receive the goods in broad daylight at cross border bus terminuses at Highglen shopping centre in Harare, Town Centre in Chitungwiza, Roadport in Harare’s central business district and other spots.

A “runner” based in Zambia who advertises her services through a WhatsApp group, Nancy Gurende, said smuggling was a smooth process.

“You order what you need,” she said. “What you do is you sent 50 percent of the payment via any international money transfer agent.

“The remainder is payable on delivery. We use haulage trucks or buses to transport the goods. So, part of that 50 percent you would have paid goes towards payment of facilitation for the goods to pass through the border. No need for import duty.

“Then there are several hurdles including the police roadblocks which the drivers also bribe on the way to Harare or wherever you are.”

Another runner in South Africa, Cynthia Chiota, said she did not need any money upfront for people were not always willing to pay before receiving the goods.

“There are criminal elements who are taking advantage of those in need of goods back home,” she said. “So, people are no longer willing to pay first. Instead, we receive the money upon delivering the goods in Zimbabwe. 

“In cases where those who would have ordered the goods do not live to their promise, which is to pay upon delivery, we always have ready customers in town.”

The goods are collected during the night or early in the morning as the bus and haulage truck crews try to evade the police.

In some cases, the police officers are actually bribed and even stand guard while the goods are being off-loaded.

The Herald witnessed one such case at a garage in the Willowvale Industrial Area.

Other places in Harare where the goods are offloaded include some car parks in Glen View 7 and Chitungwiza, as well as in Arcadia off Seke Road.

A bus driver with one of the popular bus companies, Mr Thomas Munaro Matamba, said he had been doing this since May 2020.

“It is all about survival,” he said. “We are not working and we have to cut corners to fend for our families. I cannot divulge everything or l risk losing everything.” 

ZIMRA head corporate communications Mr Francis Chimanda had not responded to questions sent to him by The Herald a week after acknowledging receipt.

The Herald