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Plain clothes officials at Beitbridge expose border post to criminals

ADRIAN Ndhlovu (not his real name) is stranded after his car, a 2018 Toyota D4D twin cab on hire purchased in South Africa, has been placed under seizure by the Customs and Excise Department.

By Rex Mphisa in beitbridge

He has lost the car, or it will take weeks if not months of rigorous written explanations as well as appeals and sometimes court proceedings culminating in a steep fine to get his vehicle back.

All plans of a holiday with his family back in Zimbabwe have been scuttled.

At the compliance point, the last checkpoint on arrival in Zimbabwe after all the border formalities are done and one is about to leave, plain clothes officials told Ndhlovu that he had a fake temporary import permit (TIP).

According to the officials, he was trying to smuggle his South African-registered car into Zimbabwe. But in reality, Ndhlovu, whose family sits dejected as they wait for officials to lock their car in the vehicle pound, some middle-aged smartly dressed “customs clearing agent” who offered to do his import papers and charged him US$200 is the source of their misfortunes.

Ndhlovu is not alone in this predicament. The new normal at Beitbridge, the country’s biggest entry point, is the presence of an army of plainclothes immigration and customs officials and secret law enforcers.

While the logic behind the deployment of these plain clothes officials and secret police may make sense — to catch smugglers and complicit customs officials — the move has opened floodgates for criminals masquerading as police or customs officials.

By and large, it is the presence of these plain clothes officials inside the Beitbridge Customs and Excise yard that has invited undesirables like pickpockets, thieves, conmen and all types of criminals into the Customs Yard.

This new practice may have hurt unsuspecting travellers like Ndhlovu now, but the reality is that the image of the country is at stake just as the tourism industry and the economy in general stand to take a knock.

“The border post is the last place I expected to meet a conman. I am devastated. I have lost my money, my car and worst of all, the confidence in the country of my birth,” Ndhlovu said.

He will tell his story to a family member, a friend and eventually the story goes out to the world.

“The guy told me he worked with the Department of Customs and he would now and again go to the counters and come back with a smile and results, good results. He was fast and friendly, too smooth to be unreal,” Ndhlovu said.

Almost every holiday, dozens of unsuspecting travellers fall to this trick by what have come known as maguma-guma prowling the border post day and night.

They personify police, members of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) and other plain clothes government agents and officials deployed at the border post.

The government last year created an anti-smuggling unit comprising of various security agents mostly in plain clothes in a bid to arrest the rampant corruption at the country’s entry points.

This opened the border, once manned by uniformed officials, to other elements.

Maguma-guma, some of whom are ex-policemen, government officials or even genuine officials who may be on leave, took advantage of this development to con travellers.

“There are too many plain clothes officials at the Zimbabwean border posts. It becomes difficult to control. On our side officials without uniforms operate from inside buildings where they are identified by their offices,” a South African policeman who attends inter-border security meetings between Zimbabwean and SA officials said.

“Your border area is a jungle, there is very little information available to arrivals and they are easily swayed by conman owing to confusion there,” he said.

Just recently a Zimbabwean resident in South Africa had his Porsche car seized by Customs after he fell victim to a similar scam.
Francis Chimanda, the corporate affairs spokesperson for the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) under which Customs falls, confirmed the problem and said his office was working with other departments to rid the border post of these conmen.

“Zimra is working with other stakeholders to ensure that touts and pick pockets are removed from the border. Members of Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) are also operating inside the border post to deal with the issue of touts and pick pockets,” Chimanda said.

“A significant change has been witnessed since their deployment. Zimra hopes that other stakeholders enforce internal codes of conduct and anti-corruption measures that ensure that even without visible identity cards, their staff perform their duties ethically and professionally.”

Many people said they believed the presence of soldiers had brought a breath of fresh air at the border post, but that was short-lived as the same soldiers soon fell to corruption as well.

“Their command is the same and they now know the drill and they have become accustomed to the sweetness of money. After a few days of arrival we tune them into line,” said one well-known con-artist at the border post.

“They are not effective anymore; just as they have failed to control movement at the bridge where they are stationed and have become known for taking bribes from border jumpers and criminals.”

Criminals have taken over the old Alfred Beit Bridge reserved for bona fide travellers. The bridge is now impassable because of marauding thieves who operate in full glare of soldiers camped at the bridge but who are paid to look the other way.

Snatch and dash thieves operate freely at the 472-metre-long steel girder bridge where Dennis Masera from Dulivhadzimo was murdered and thrown off the bridge. No arrests were made over the murder since it happened in June last year.

Police and soldiers manning the bridge have been accused of shutting out or shifting away a camera that was installed to film goings-on at the bridge to conceal their nefarious activities that include demanding money from and assisting border jumpers.

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