Crossing into Zim with a car I have completely forgotten what a nightmare African borders can be. It’s been a while since I’ve crossed a proper African border (South Africa really doesn’t count) but as I left SA and approached Zimbabwe – it all came flooding back: The needless and pointless bureaucracy. The queues. The hawkers… it was all there.
I’ve always said you can tell a lot about the African country you are about to visit – its economic and political situation by the state of affairs at the border. Borders are like an intense microcosm of the world you are about to experience for the next few weeks: The length of queues. How chaotic things are. The demeanour and attitude of the border officials and how organised the cons of the hawkers are and the level of collusion with border officials are all good indicators of what you are about to face in general in a country. By these standards Zim appears to be a country that is in trouble and is starved of money at every level of society. Everything you do from the moment you get to the border – esp if you are alone and look none too confident as I must of done(!)- is to try to extract every cent possible from you – From the lowly hawkers – to the border and customs officials – to the secret police and plain clothes cid.. they appear to be in collusion to try and bend the bureaucracy so by the end you are grateful to pay your way out…!
Even by Western standards where the idea of bureaucracy is generally negative stirring connotations of inefficiency and mental images of unnecessary paperwork, it is easy to forget that the actual purpose of bureaucracy is to try and help make life more seemless and help in general organisation… but in many parts of Africa it is so Kafka-esque and convoluted it goes beyond the Western negative definition and seems to serve one purpose and one purpose alone – to make the process so impossible to adhere to that it leaves you with no other choice than to offer a bribe.
There are the small bribes like the one at the Zim border to avoid queuing up for approx 2/3 hours at immigration for around USD 10.
Then there are the big bribes: The real problem at borders in Africa in general is and has always been customs and Zim was to prove no exception – in fact far from it.
I realise now that the substantial camera equipment I am carrying as well as all the spare car parts and the tool kit I have for the Landie will be a problem this side of Africa. Apparently the correct procedure at the border would be to produce every single receipt for every bit of equipment I have so that the customs officials can catalogue everything and then issue a temporary importation document for all the equipment. This though involves putting down a ‘deposit’ against the full value of all my equipment but which is supposedly refundable on leaving the country again. It would have entailed a deposit of thousands of dollars.
Anyone who has gone overland in Africa will know this is standard procedure for your car where you place a deposit with the AA (in South Africa in my case) which is refundable on re-entering SA with the car. The AA will allow you to (seriously) undervalue your vehicle so that the deposit is not overwhelming. In the case of the Zim border officials – without receipts – they will try and over-value everything so adding a few hundred – even thousands of dollars to your final deposit.
In theory this deposit is refundable once leaving the country. But trying to reclaim your deposit in countries like Zim is almost wishful thinking bordering on fantasy. When I come to try and reclaim it the process will be so labyrinthine and time consuming (we’re talking weeks – even months here) that it will be nigh on impossible to get the money back… and so – the honest man – is left with only one choice – and that is to throw a hundred dollars or so at the custom officials to turn a blind eye at all the equipment I am carrying.
Admittedly – the overwhelming nature of the border crossing is also a sign of how out of practice I am and is ultimately a sign of my own failure.
I could have stood my ground calmly while the customs officials tried to scare me into submission and probably got away with the smallest of bribes. But a combination of not having adjusted from the relatively fair but inefficient bureaucracy of SA (if the year-long wait for my work permit is anything to go by), the fear of the unknown especially as I was bringing loads of camera equipment into a country not particularly known for its friendliness to journalists and the fact I had driven since 5am and it was now 10 hours later, lead me to capitulate a bit quicker than I would have liked.
It will be interesting to see how I fare at the same border on the way back after a few months on the Continent proper – I would like to think that once I am up and running again it will be harder to dupe this ol’ mug next time…..!