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We are sinking, say cross-border traders



MASERU – CROSS-BORDER traders say they are battling to stay afloat due to new demands brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. The traders are required to provide a PCR test at a cost of about M750 for every test, a figure they say is too steep for most of them. The concerns were raised at an indaba organised by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The indaba heard that while the informal sector was the source of livelihood for many Basotho, the sector was facing countless challenges that are inhibiting growth. Lemohang Kobeli from Khathang Tema Baitšokoli, a group of informal traders, said even before the advent of Covid-19 the informal sector was already suffering and now the situation was worse. The pandemic, Kobeli said, worsened things for the informal cross-border traders resulting in many businesses closing. “The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in restricted movements therefore not everyone could cross and stock in South Africa like they used to,” Kobeli said. The problem, Kobeli said, is that they are not recognised as traders because of lack of papers – only formally established businesses are allowed to cross to stock during Covid-19. Another factor inhibiting their businesses is the cost of PCR tests at the border. “Crossing the border required PCR testing which was very expensive and most cross-border informal traders could not afford such amounts,” he said. Another challenge during early stages of Covid-19 pandemic, Kobeli said, was the 14-day quarantine time that countries were imposing on travellers. “For traders like those who sell Seshoeshoe dresses in South Africa it meant that their money was tied in stock for long as they could not get into business for the first 14 days,” he said. He said the sector did not receive enough support from the government to function well. “We need robust forums to assist and discuss ways to cut the red tape and enable informal traders to trade with minimum challenges,” Kobeli said. Eriko Nishimura, the Head of IOM, said the informal cross-border traders’ safety has gotten even more compromised because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Lack of proper registration documents and costs of testing for Covid-19 has pushed traders to use illegal and unsafe means to cross into South Africa. As a result traders, especially females, are exposed to abuse and exploitation during illegal crossing. “Fourty-three percent of informal cross-border traders are women and face intimidations at the border, increasing their vulnerability and compromising their safety by leaving illegal crossing points as their only choice,” Nishimura said. Providing training for border staff on how to assist informal cross border traders and issuing them with proper documentation to identify them, Nishimura said, would go a long way in minimising harm suffered by informal cross-border traders. The Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Trade, Tlhopheho Sefali, said the economic contribution of informal cross-border traders cannot be ignored adding there was a need to create a conducive working environment for them. “Many Basotho have been educated through informal trading, it is a means of livelihood especially now that we have an unemployment crisis,” Sefali said. He said the formalisation of the informal trade sector through provision of proper documentation will minimize safety risks associated with crossing through the river. “Further dialogue is needed to talk about the challenges faced by the sector and propose solutions to support the industry that is helping the government with job creation,” Sefali said. On behalf of the Lesotho Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Stephen Monyamane said the sector is resilient, innovative and instills entrepreneurial skills. Monyamane said rather than formalizing the informal sector a conducive environment should be created to allow the sector to thrive and minimize smuggling. “Why should they formalize when the cross-border business is seasonal for them? This business is by chance, a side hustle and a stepping stone to something better,” Monyamane said. Currently, he said, informal cross-border traders are not declaring all their goods at the border as a result of lack of an enabling environment and documentation, leading to loss of revenue for the government. “We need to start understanding, valuing, respecting and analyzing the money that the sector brings in and assist them to trade in a conducive environment that will allow them to thrive,” he said. Lemohang Rakotsoane

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