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Its been some time since I’ve penned an article on the South African Customs Modernisation Programme. Aside from it being the SA Revenue Service’s prerogative to communicate and publish notice of its internal developments and plans, some caution always needs to be exercised observing bureaucratic protocol, ensuring that the official message is forthcoming from SARS. Given the widespread interest in the programme as well as the development of the Interfront [formerly Tatis] integrated customs border management solution (iCBMs) as a wholly owned development of South Africa, I think it not out of place to inform the public interest on this matter. Readership of this blog has an extensive global following and a specific interest in Interfront developments.

Unlike ASYCUDA, Sofix, e-Biscus, and a host of other integrated Customs-tailored business solution offerings, Interfront’s solution for SARS will not include a client user frontend. In other words, the Interfront system (iCBMs) will essentially drive declaration backend processing. This comprises a fully integrated declaration validation and processing engine, supported by a sophisticated tariff engine and duty calculator; the latter offering future web-based services for customs users. In order to compliment the SARS corporate and standardised user interface approach, the iCBMs interfaces with SARS’s revenue accounting, trader registration, risk management, and case management workflow systems. Not only does this leverage cost savings and efficiencies, but ensures a unified ‘workspace’ for all of SARS employees.

Much of the Interfront technology is therefore hidden to the customs user, with traders experiencing an identical interface with SARS Customs, as it does today. From the outset of the Customs Modernisation Programme (July 2010), the approach has followed pragmatic migration of customs electronic clearance processing – across its 30 odd legacy systems – towards an integrated clearance process that could mimic the functionality featured on the new iCBMs. The modern technology and scalability of Interfront offers the ability and agility to enhance service levels and efficiencies to another level. At the same time, operational policies and procedures have been modernised with the aim and intent of meeting the requirements contained in Customs new Control and Duty Bills.

Much of the ‘change’ experienced by both customs officers and the trade over the last 2 years has prepared the country for the eventual migration to the new system. These have been significant, and at times painful changes, not without anxiety and apprehension. Over the last 6 months an even more painstaking and taxing effort has been expended by the Customs Modernisation Team, Interfront and other service providers in addressing a seamless harmonisation and switchover of customs business from disparate legacy systems to a new customs technology platform. The “Parallel Run” has witnessed the daily comparison of customs clearance data between the old and new systems, identification and logging of disparities (bugs), modification of the two environments to ensure the same result is achieved. This has not been an easy and simple process, as any country having undergone a system switchover can attest to.

This month, February 2013, service providers to the customs industry are readying their resources to commence user testing. This implies that service providers (computer bureaus) will engage their clients to prepare test cases for submission to customs to test the new Interfront process. Given that Customs legacy systems and Interfront have been synchronised to a high level of compatibility, the process for traders should not reveal much difference to what they have experienced over the period of modernisation over the last 2 years. One area of note will be the structure and content of Customs Response messages. Traders will have to familiarise themselves and test their interpretation of these messages to ensure they perform or respond appropriately to the instructions.

Satya Prasad Sahu - Technical Officer at the WCO provided members of SACU, SADC and the EAC comprehensive guidelines for the development of the GNC Utility Block concept in Africa (February 2012)

Satya Prasad Sahu – Senior Technical Officer at the WCO provided members of SACU, SADC and the EAC comprehensive guidelines for the development of the GNC Utility Block concept in Africa (February 2012)

In terms of compliance and compatibility with international developments, the new iCBMs is engineered on the WCO Data Model. All relevant simplification processes as exemplified in the Revise Kyoto Convention are likewise factored into its design, although not all of these will be immediately available with the initial rollout. Introduction of the new Customs Control and Duty Acts will require these principles to be fully functional and operational, however.

The WCO Data Model is the pivotal design component around which most of the new system’s business and validation rules are centred. This in itself is a major achievement as it bodes well for all future ‘cross border’, customs-2-customs connectivity initiatives. In this regard SARS is well advanced in bilateral and multilateral projects with key trading partners, for example IBSA (cross-global trilateral initiative), and in Africa, we are working with SACU, SADC, COMESA and the EAC to bring about regional customs connectivity. On a bilateral basis, initiatives with Swaziland, Mozambique and Zimbabwe are developing nicely. A significant contributor to cross border/cross global customs connectivity is undoubtedly the excellent work brought about by the dedicated members of the WCO’s Globally Networked Customs adhoc workgroup. In June last year, the WCOs policy Commission unanimously endorsed the GNC architecture and Utility Block approach. African customs connectivity efforts have likewise adopted this model which ensures harmonisation and uniformity in approach, legal dispensation, data exchange, risk management and procedure. The WCO moreover plays a overseeing role in many of these GNC and capacity building initiatives across the globe – this assists greatly in sharing and learning of experiences.

I would think that the above should be sufficient to wet the appetites of customs practitioners, traders, ICT technocrats, and perhaps even legislators and bureaucrats on developments in South Africa. Subsequent to the launch of Interfront SARS will make its ideas and strategy relating to forthcoming initiatives known to trade and the business community. A Year of Innovation? Yes, and hopefully a happy tale that will bode well for the South African trade and supply chain logistics community, and some good fortune for Interfront in its business development in the region and beyond!

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Forgive my exuberance and national pride, for one minute. After some years of intense re-organisation and strategization a new dynamic organization is set to spearhead ICT development in the Customs and Border Management industry. Many will know it by its previous name TATIS or TATIScms. The Cape Town based IT outfit is responsible for the intuitive customs software solution which currently operates in Luxembourg Customs. Let it be known that this is one tough space to operate and succeed in.

Africa, in particular, has  suffered the stigma of UN and World Bank ‘freebies’ by way of customs automated solutions – designed and developed by the west, on western philosophy with little concern for the longer term sustainability and development on the African continent. Before the emergence of commercial Windows-based software, African states (and most developing countries for that matter) had little option but to adopt ASYCUDA. The French colonies in the main sought franco-developed SOFIX. Bull Computers were particularly strong in this space and received great support from the French government in their ventures.

Just as the ‘power’ of the west is waning under financial and political turmoil, so developmental states and economies are looking to their own resources and expertise to fulfil their needs and destinies. A similar phenomenon occurred in the border and port control security space during the first decade of the 21st century, where the Chinese have virtually stolen international market share in NII (Cargo scanning) equipment.  Therefore the emergence of InterFront on the Customs ICT scene is both unique and timely. For more details on the new company and its partners, solutions and expertise please visit their website: http://www.interfront.co.za. Also read their corporate and product profile brochure – click here!

This week, Interfront are show-casing their solution and expertise at the WCO‘s 2012 ICT Conference in Tallinn, Estonia. With the international customs and border management relatively young and seeking stability, Interfront have a great opportunity to develop a regional and international footprint. SARS, in particular, looks forward to its new integrated customs solution; setting a new bench mark in global customs processing.