Furious Beit Bridge residents set fire to the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority warehouse over restrictions put on South African goods. Picture: Shannon Ebrahim

Beit Bridge - Tensions at Beit Bridge border post between Zimbabwe and South Africa reached boiling point over a Zimbabwean ban on importing basic South African goods.

Zimbabwe immediately sent in its army to the volatile border town.

Residents of Beit Bridge burnt a Zimbabwe Revenue Association warehouse of confiscated goods at the border on Friday, and vehicles and people were prevented from crossing into South Africa with rocks and burning tyres.

The plan on the South African side was to blockade the border and turn back all trucks and other vehicles carrying goods from Zimbabwe.

Shops in the northern-most South African town of Musina were forced to close due to threats to destroy them if they conducted business as usual, and there were even calls to set fire to a Zimbabwean citizen in protest against the measures and to force Zimbabwe to reverse its ban.

The Beit Bridge Taxi Association, the Musina Meter Taxi Association and residents in Musina had extended an invitation to the Beit Bridge Cross-Border Transporters’ Association and Beit Bridge residents who were being refused the right to protest to join them on the South African side.

The crisis sparked a massive protest at the border post on Friday, with thousands of South Africans and Zimbabweans joining forces to blockade the border in protest against Zimbabwe’s enforcement of regulations under Statutory Instrument 64 of 2016.

The regulation is meant to control the importation of South African goods which are available locally.

Harare wants to force Zimbabweans to buy locally to spur the local economy and employment, but residents say that many of the banned goods are unavailable locally or are extremely expensive owing to the financial crisis.

The measures are a desperate attempt to deal with Zimbabwe’s tanking economy, crippling cash shortages and dwindling exports.

The protests have not only disrupted trade between South Africa and Zimbabwe, but between South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Malawi, in what is the busiest border post in southern Africa.

Zimbabwe’s Industry and Commerce Minister Mike Bimha has blamed the country’s economic woes on sanctions imposed by the West and hyper-inflation.

But the opposition Movement for Democratic Change has responded to developments at the border saying: “The decision was taken without consultation or engagement with stakeholders in the sector, and the new regulations were never publicised or discussed.

The measures are inhumane and unconstitutional, and target informal traders and travellers engaging in genuine and innocent means of survival under these difficult economic circumstances.”

With 85 percent of working-age Zimbabweans having no formal job, many make a living by buying goods in South Africa and reselling them in Zimbabwe.

The extensive list of South African items which are now banned include petroleum jelly, shoe polish, Cremora, baked beans, camphor, potato chips, mayonnaise, peanut butter, yoghurt, flavoured milk, cereal, ice cream, cheese, used tyres, fertilisers, tile adhesive, synthetic hair products, bedroom and dining room suites, office furniture and woven fabrics.

All banned items will be confiscated, and even if individuals are willing to pay the duty, they need a licence from the ministry of industry and commerce in Harare.

Those without a licence will be held and fined $2 000 (R29 000).

According to reports, cargo has been stuck at the border for nine days as importers have struggled to get permits for their goods.

Several trucks were stuck on the South African side as the Zimbabwe side did not have adequate space to accommodate them.

Protests are expected to continue this week.

Foreign Editor