Harare - A South African truck carrying donated foodstuffs and wheelchairs for impoverished Zimbabwe pensioners has been caught up in the authorities' new clampdown on foreign imports, a charity official has told News24.
The truck carrying more than R300 000 worth of goods has been stuck in a Zimbabwe tax authority (ZIMRA) container depot at Beitbridge border post since Monday, said Linda Schultz of the Zimbabwe Pensioners' Support Fund.
Director Hannes Botha has had to abandon the truck at the border and head to Harare - nearly 600km away - to try and obtain permits to bring in the consignment.
Zimbabwe brought in shock new regulations on Friday that require anyone importing a wide range of foreign-made goods, ranging from jam to wheelbarrows, to get a special permit.
President Robert Mugabe's government wants to save scarce foreign currency as it battles to pay its civil servants. The move is being widely seen as an attempted ban on foreign goods, though officials do not like that word.
Whereas before importers just paid duty, they must now pay for a licence and set out the reasons why the goods are needed in Zimbabwe.
The fund packs up generous "apple-boxes" of basic foodstuffs to hand out to more than 1 600 needy pensioners in 28 old age homes across Zimbabwe. Some of the pensioners lost their life-savings in the 2000-2008 crisis.
Changes and challenges
The group also helps a number of feeding kitchens inside the country. The truck currently stuck at Beitbridge has got four donated wheelchairs in it.
Schultz said the organisation was already aware of licences needed for the importation of things like tinned pilchards and corned beef. But the new regulation requiring permits for coffee creamers, baked beans, cereals, camphor creams and peanut butter - all of which regularly feature in their parcels - caught the group unawares.
Ironically, if the consignment had gone to Zimbabwe two weeks ago when it was first scheduled to leave, the hold-up would have been avoided since the new rules were only brought in at the weekend.
Asked if she was hopeful the goods would eventually be allowed in, Schultz said: "We are hoping so, but time will tell."
"Over the years we have managed throughout all the changes and challenges... to keep a good line of communication open in order to be able to keep doing what we do," she added.
Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa has defended the new import regulations, according to the state-controlled Herald on Thursday.
"The statutory instrument does not ban the importation of commodities," he was quoted as telling parliament. "For you to import those goods, you need to apply for a licence."
In a statement published on Thursday, Industry Minister Mike Bimha insisted the regulations were "to promote the revival of our local industries".
The regulations will likely hit cross-border traders hard. With formal employment at record lows in Zimbabwe, many have turned to trading to supplement their incomes.