Revisiting the national transit procedure – Part 2

July 8, 2012 — Leave a comment

You will recall a recent challenge by trade to SARS’ proposed implementation of mandatory clearance of national transit goods inland from port of initial discharge – refer to Revisiting the national transit procedure – Part 1.

First, some background

Now lets take a step back to look at the situation since the inception of containerisation in South Africa – some 30 years ago. Customs stance has always been that containerised goods manifested for onward delivery to a designated inland container terminal by rail would not require clearance upon discharge at initial port of entry. Containers were allowed to move ‘against the manifest’ (a ‘Through Bill’) to its named place of destination. This arrangement was designed to expedite the movement of containers from the port of discharge onto block trains operated by Transnet Freight Rail, formerly the South African Railways and Harbours (SAR&H) to the inland container terminal at City Deep. Since SAR&H operated both the national railway and the coastal and inland ports, the possibility of diversion was considered of little import to warrant any form of security over the movement of containers by rail. Moreover, container terminals were designed to allow the staging of trains with custom gantry cranes to load inland manifested containers within a ‘secure’ port precinct.

Over the years, rail freight lost market share to the emergence of cross-country road hauliers due to inefficiencies. The opening up of more inland terminals and supporting container unpack facilities, required Customs to review the matter. It was decided that road-hauled containers moved ‘in bond’ by road would lodge a customs clearance (backed with suitable surety) for purposes of national transit. Upon arrival of the bonded freight at destination, a formal home use declaration would be lodged with Customs. Notwithstanding the surety lodged to safeguard revenue, this has the effect of deferring payment of duties and taxes.

Diversification of container brokering, stuffing and multi-modal transport added to the complexity, with many customs administrations failing to maintain both control and understanding of the changing business model. Equally mystifying was the emergence of a new breed of ‘players’ in the shipping game. Initially there were so-called ‘approved container operators’ these being ocean carriers who at the same time leased containers. Then there were so-called non-approved container operators who brokered containers on behalf of the ocean carrier. These are more commonly known as non-vessel operating common carriers or NVOCCs. In the early days of containerisation there were basically two types of container stuffing – full container load (FCL) and less container load (LCL). The NVOCCs began ‘chartering’ space of their containers to other NVOCCs and shippers – this also helped in knocking down freight costs. This practice became known as ‘groupage’ and because such containers were filled to capacity the term FCL Groupage became a phenomenon. It is not uncommon nowadays for a single FCL Groupage container to have multiple co-loaders.

All of the above radically maximised the efficiency and distribution of cost of the cellular container, but at the same time complicated Customs ‘control’ in that it was not able to readily assess the ‘content’ and ownership of the goods conveyed in a multi-level groupage box. It also became a phenomenon for ‘customs brokers/clearing agents’ to enter this niche of the market. Customs traditionally licensed brokers for the tendering of goods declarations only. Nowadays, most brokers are also NVOCCs.  The law on the other hand provided for the hand-off of liability for container movements between the ocean carrier, container terminal operator and container depot operator. Nowhere was an NVOCC/Freight Forwarder held liable in any of this. A further phenomenon known as ‘carrier’ or ‘merchant’ haulage likewise added to the complexity and cause for concern over the uncontrolled inland movements of bonded cargoes. No doubt a disconnect in terms of Customs’ liability and the terms and conditions of international conveyance for the goods also helped create much of the confusion. Lets not even go down the INCOTERM route.

Internationally, customs administrations – under the global voice of the WCO – have conceded that the worlds administrations need to keep pace and work ‘smarter’ to address new innovations and dynamics in the international supply chain. One would need to look no further than the text of the Revised Kyoto Convention (RKC) to observe the governing body’s view on harmonisation and simplification. However, lets now consider SARS’ response in this matter.

SARS response to the Chamber of Business

Right of reply was subsequently afforded by FTW Online to SARS.

Concerns over Customs’ determination to have all goods cleared at the coast – expressed by Pat Corbin, past president of the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry in last week’s FTW – have been addressed by SA Revenue Service.  “One of the main objectives of the Control Bill is the control of the movement of goods across South Africa’s borders to protect our citizens against health and safety risks and to protect the fiscus. “In order to effectively determine risk, SARS has to know the tariff classification, the value and the origin of imported goods. This information is not reflected on a manifest, which is why there is a requirement that all goods must be cleared at the first port of entry into the Republic.“It appears that Mr Corbin is under the impression that the requirement of clearance at the first port of entry has the effect that all goods have to be consigned to that first port of entry or as he puts it “to terminate vessel manifests at the coastal ports in all cases”. This is incorrect. “The statutory requirement to clear goods at the first port of entry and the contract of carriage have nothing to do with one another. Goods may still be consigned to, for example, City Deep or Zambia (being a landlocked country), but they will not be released to move in transit to City Deep or Zambia unless a declaration to clear the goods, containing the relevant information, is submitted and release is granted by Customs for the goods to move. The release of the goods to move will be based on the risk the consignment poses to the country.“It is definitely not the intention to clog up the ports but rather to facilitate the seamless movement of legitimate trade. If the required information is provided and the goods do not pose any risk, they will be released.”

So, where to from here?

The issue at hand concerns the issue of the ‘means’ of customs treatment of goods under national transit. In Part 3 we’ll consider a rational outcome. Complex logistics have and always will challenge ‘customs control’ and procedures. Despite the best of intentions for law not to ‘clog up the port’, one needs to consider precisely what controls the movement of physical cargo – a goods declaration or a cargo report? How influential are the guidelines, standards and recommendations of the WCO, or are they mere studies in intellectual theories?

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