Despite the government ban on genetically modified crops from South Africa, washed potatoes still find their way into the country amid allegations of corruption in the Ministry of Agriculture’s Plant Quarantine Services department which regulates import and export of agricultural commodities.
In an interview with NewsDay yesterday, the principal director in the ministry Cames Mguni said they were aware that the potatoes still found their way onto the streets and the issue was now in the hands of the police.
“That issue is already being taken care of by the police in Bulawayo. Actually most of our guys in Bulawayo were suspended,” he said.
According to information from sources in the ministry, there is a network of officials based in Harare and at Beitbridge border post who were letting the washed potatoes into the country against government regulations.
The sources said the ministry’s officers based in Harare had formed a racket that included importers based in Bulawayo who paid the department’s staff based at Beitbridge Border Post to have their illegal merchandise into the country.
“In Bulawayo, there are about 12 importers of the banned washed potatoes. The importers are divided into three groups. Each group brings at least four loads of 34 metric tonnes of potatoes per month. Each truckload pays a bribe of R5 000 to go through the border. This money is paid to plant health inspectors through an employee who was imposed there by the bosses,” the source said.
The source said each group of importers paid R20 000 per month, which made a combined total of R60 000 a month.
“To my surprise, the bosses choose to come and raid, confiscate and get paid again by the same importers in Bulawayo. This happens but the powers-that-be have not done anything to investigate how these potatoes are finding their way into the country because they don’t want to ruffle feathers,” the source said.
The source said even though Bulawayo had its own team of plant health inspectors, in July 2010 a three-member team descended on the country’s second biggest city to raid market operators.
“They confiscated more than 20 tonnes of potatoes and took them to a certain warehouse which they locked before going back to Harare. When they got to Harare, an employee stole keys from another employee, made duplicate keys and sent the keys back to Bulawayo to his cousin to open the warehouse and he was given $1 500 by the importers before going back to Harare.
“The importers took back their potatoes and locked the warehouse again. After seven working days, two employees came back to Bulawayo on a mission to destroy the potatoes as per government regulations.
“When they got to Bulawayo, they were again given $1 600 by the same importers to stop the destruction,” the source said.
In an interview with NewsDay, one of the importers who allegedly paid bribes to the ministry officials denied ever paying a bribe but said there could be a scandal.
“I have heard that such things happen. It’s only that my name is big and they will mention it casually like that. I have not been made to pay a bribe by anyone, though we have heard that it happens,” he said.
The importer said he suspected foul play from the ministry officials because they did not give satisfactory reasons for confiscating their potatoes.