Border posts go hi-tech

The modernisation of South Africa’s border control technology is easing the process for people taking cargo across national borders, and making it harder for criminals to dodge the system.

Besides making trade a lot smoother, the process is also facilitating the entry of tourists into the country.

Modernisation of the customs procedure is the single biggest change ever made to its decades-old operating model, according to the South African Revenue Service (Sars), and is set to improve trade into and out of South Africa by falling in line with international best practice.

The country’s border environment is overseen by the Border Control Operational Coordinating Committee, which was established in 2005 and is affiliated with the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster, a body chaired by the minister of justice and constitutional development.

The committee is made up of representatives from the national departments of transport, public works, agriculture and health as well as Sars.

South Africa shares 1 840km of border with Botswana, 909km with Lesotho, 491km with Mozambique, 969km with Namibia, 430km with Swaziland, and and 225km with Zimbabwe.

The Southern African Customs Union (Sacu), the world’s oldest such body, exists to facilitate the free exchange of goods between the member countries of South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia and Lesotho.

Sacu dates back to an agreement set up in 1889 between the Cape colony, run by the British at the time, and the Orange Free State boer republic. The current customs agreement came into force in 1970 and replaced the 1910 agreement that was extended to include the entire Union of South Africa as well as other Southern African territories.

While the neighbouring countries may not yet be in a position to implement a similar modern system, says Sars, it and Sacu will work with them to provide the best solution in the meantime.

Speedy processing and clearance

After a decade of research and planning, the modernisation process was introduced in 2010 with the aim of improving cross-border trade. To achieve this, an overhaul of the system and the introduction of information technology was necessary.

Besides streamlining, standardisation across the various modes of transport – sea, rail, air and land – was an important consideration.

Other aspects of the plan cover automation of processes such as import and export customs clearance, the secure recording of any movement of goods, and notification of impending goods arrival or departure.

The modernisation process provides for the assessment of regular importers and exporters according to their Sars profiles, and if they pose a minimal risk, their goods could be cleared either orally or without a formal customs clearance, or even if the declaration is incomplete. In the latter case, a supplement to the declaration will later give all the necessary information.

An integral part of the new system, according to Sars, is the introduction of an efficient, automated risk management system which pulls together information from a number of state departments and agencies. Without this, customs officials would have to personally check all incoming and outbound shipment, but with the so-called customs risk engine in place, non-risk-related shipments will be speedily released.

Lastly, customs staff are receiving thorough training to become confident in using the progressive new system, which is light years removed from the way shipments were handled as recently as 20 years ago, when processing of paperwork for just one shipment could take weeks.

Streamlined system

Automation of many customs processes means that human error or intervention is eliminated, cutting down on possible unnecessary delays and corrupt activity.

Today, when an importer or exporter wishes to move goods across the border, he or she can submit documentation electronically. Taxes are calculated, payment is made via the Sars website and before the consignment even departs for its final destination, all paperwork is taken care of and approval has been received – or denied.

At this point the risk management engine comes into play and carries out the risk assessment.

Depending on the individual profile presented by the engine, the shipment may be allowed through unhindered at the border, or may undergo an inspection.

This automation has cut the time spent on processing a shipment from over five hours to under 30 minutes, on average.

However, no shipment will cross without a clearance document issued to the importer or exporter once the initial application is taken care of – this is carried by the driver, who hands it in on arrival and receives barcoded forms in exchange. The barcode is shipment-specific and alerts officials at the exit point as to whether or not all the required procedures have been followed – if not, the vehicle may be subject to further inspection.

In a whole new twist, Sars customs officials carry iPads with which they can take photos of consignments and send and receive information on the spot. The photos can also be used as evidence should an investigation arise. This is a world first, according to Sars.

The same electronic clearance is also available to smaller businesses and infrequent traders, but they will have to visit a Sars branch beforehand to arrange the documentation.

(Author: Janine Erasmus)