‘Redeployed’ officials behind export crackdown, says customs

A modernisation programme to digitise local export processes may lie behind the puzzling clampdown that has left local food exporters reeling. Apparently customs officials have been cancelling their duty-free status on exports to Europe.

Following the Mail & Guardian’s article last week, customs and border management of the South African Revenue Service confirmed that the refusal to grant some local food exports EUR1 certificates, which allows them to enter Europe duty-free, were not prompted by European complaints over any abuse of its trade protocol with South Africa. Instead, the clampdown was entirely self-inflicted, led by local customs officials.

The protocol states that only products with less than 15% non-South African content, or those that have undergone a “complex process” of beneficiation, qualify as duty-free. Cape Town customs branch manager Nicholas Madlebe said neither the protocol nor the exporters’ products had changed. But the digitising process had freed up officials who had been processing trade documentation manually. They were now deployed to check the veracity of the exporters’ self-assessments.

Madlebe said the move was a sharpening of customs officials’ focus in carrying out their normal mandate. But the experience of Turqle Trading, a Cape Town-based export firm, suggests a Kafkaesque dysfunction in customs’ EUR1 process. Turqle founder Pieter Swart said his company had been slapped with fines amounting to thousands of rands after the rejection of their self-­assessments. Their smoked olive oil was rejected as noncompliant despite the fact that “the olives are grown near Paarl, the oil is made there, we smoke it near Villiersdorp and it is bottled in Wellington”.

Madlebe said he could not comment on the specifics of a case as he was just a branch manager and not one of the technical experts. Exporters also complained bitterly about obtuse responses from customs to their requests for an explanation. They said customs officials simply refer them to the protocol, which officials interpreted in a narrow, nit-picking manner.

Madlebe said he was shocked to hear complaints about the lack of communication as the customs agency’s door was always open. There was also an internal mechanism to appeal the decisions made by officials, he said. But exporter Cape Herb and Spice is skipping the lengthy appeals process and will fight customs in court.

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