Business Maverick

IMPORTS & EXPORTS

SA Revenue Service says customs clearance system ‘is up and running’ to address border posts and ports backlog

SA Revenue Service says customs clearance system ‘is up and running’ to address border posts and ports backlog
The CMA CGM SA Almaviva container vessel, docked at the Port of Cape Town, operated by Transnet, in Cape Town, South Africa, on 8 February 2023. (Photo: Dwayne Senior / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The Minerals Council SA has confirmed social media reports that there is a mounting backlog of exports at South Africa’s border posts and ports. The SA Revenue Service admits its network has been experiencing difficulties, but that the ‘customs clearance system is up and running’ and that it has implemented measures to address the backlog including ‘manual procedures’, which means doing things the old-fashioned way – by hand.

South Africa’s border posts and ports have been snarled up since Thursday last week because of technical issues related to software system upgrades by the Customs division of the South African Revenue Service (SARS), hampering the flow of crucial exports and imports that are a lifeline for a struggling economy. 

“The Minerals Council is aware of the difficulties with the border posts and customs, and is working with all our members in conjunction with government departments and SARS to expedite solutions,” Allan Seccombe, spokesperson for the Minerals Council SA (MCSA), the main industry body for South Africa’s mining sector, told Daily Maverick.

Grain SA, the main industry body for South Africa’s grain industry, also confirmed that it was aware of port congestion.

SARS said in response to queries from Daily Maverick that there had been backlogs and intermittent system interruptions but that it had implemented ‘manual release procedures’ and had carried out more maintenance on its systems since Sunday afternoon. It said its pre-clearance procedures had contained the scale of the logjams. 

‘Manual release procedures’

“The customs clearance system is up and running. SARS is working with stakeholders on the matter and has implemented manual release procedures to assist with the cross-border movement of goods,” SARS said in an email. 

That would mean resorting to the old-fashioned method of doing things by hand, which this correspondent experienced on Sunday night after arriving at OR Tambo on an international flight. Or maybe that was the Home Affairs’ network, which seems to break down more often than an Eskom power station. 

“In addition, SARS provides facilities to pre-clear goods prior to the border and have over the past weekend afforded trade the opportunity to clear backlogs in the system. We have done further maintenance on our systems over the past 24 hours and are monitoring system performance,” SARS said. 

“SARS, unlike most customs administrations worldwide, provides customs clearance procedures that are fully automated and affords traders the opportunity to pre-clear, which provides traders the ability to plan logistics pro-actively. The impact of the intermittent system interruptions is regretted, but generally for trade, using the pre-clearance option and the contingency procedures initiated, the impact has been less severe,” SARS said. 

Still, affected industries were clearly concerned. 

‘Backlog beginning to build up’

“The South African Revenue Service/Customs have been experiencing a serious ITC outage since Thursday, 21 June,” the Durban-based Citrus Growers’ Association (CGA) said last Friday in an email to its members seen by Daily Maverick

“At present, declarations and releases for all modes of international import and export traffic, sea freight, road freight and airfreight are affected. A backlog of unreleased freight is beginning to build up,” the CGA said. 

It did note that SARS was “urgently addressing the outage while the industry is meeting with Customs regarding import shipments that are currently held at ports and borders, and exports awaiting loading”. 

The CGA went on to say that: “Refrigerated fruit exports have enjoyed a custom declaration concession at all ports for some time … Effectively refrigerated fruit exports of all types can continue through all terminals as normal.” 

So, it seems that citrus exports from South Africa – the world’s second-largest exporter of the fruit – were not badly affected. 

But the broader point is that SARS has clearly had an ITC issue since last Thursday, raising alarm bells among various industries. Yet the revenue service made no public statements about the issue, a state of affairs that can give rise to confusion and uncertainty– an environment not conducive for business. 

This raises legitimate questions about SARS’s commitment to transparency and keeping the public informed. Exports and imports are key drivers of the economy, and supply chain bottlenecks in the wake of the Covid pandemic caused massive disruptions on a global scale and stoked the flames of inflation. 

There have also been ITC challenges even before last Thursday’s outages.

On 19 June, the online industry news site Southern Africa’s Freight News reported that SARS systems had gone down and to “expect delays”

“The South African Revenue Service (SARS) has confirmed via its Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) Bulletin Board that it’s experiencing a systems failure. It includes both DPS and CPS – declaration and cargo processing systems,” the Freight News report said. “At 4.13pm, the following update was received: ‘Good news, SARS both declaration and manifest are up and running, and backlog being caught up’.” 

Crucial exports

South African exports, which are a crucial source of hard currency and a support base for the rand, have also been curtailed in recent years by the ongoing train smash that is Transnet. The MCSA estimates that Transnet’s woes in 2022 cost the sector an estimated R50-billion in lost exports

SARS added in its response to Daily Maverick’s queries: “SARS would also like to state that in the past 20 years, Customs has only had two major system interruptions and that our systems are generally very stable.”

For the sake of this economy, industries and consumers alike will hope that the recent glitches have been ironed out and that the system will be “very stable”. But if it’s not, SARS could up its game when it comes to informing the public. DM

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