Dossier: measuring performance

Relieving congestion at land borders: joint TRS sets South Africa and Eswatini on the right track

25 June 2024
By Michael Lekala , of the South African Revenue Service and Nhlanhla Ntshakala , of the Eswatini Revenue Service

The Oshoek/Ngwenya border

The border posts connecting the towns of Oshoek in South Africa and Ngwenya in Eswatini are known for long queues of trucks which end up blocking road traffic and negatively impacting both travellers and traders. Around 120 trucks per day flow into Oshoek, transporting mainly processed coal and minerals (30%), manufactured goods (15%) and sugar (12%), while approximately 300 trucks per day flow into Ngwenya, primarily carrying coal and minerals (50%), and household and retail goods (25%).

The situation had drawn not only the attention of the respective heads of the Eswatini and South African revenue services, but also of senior government representatives, including the Prime Minister of Eswatini who requested that the border congestion be addressed as a matter of priority. Given the high trade volumes passing through the border posts (50% of Eswatini’s and 8% of South Africa’s cross-border trade), improvements would have a substantial impact on the overall efficiency of trade within the region.

High-level discussions

The issue was discussed with former WCO Secretary General Kunio Mikuriya during his visit to Eswatini in May 2023, as well as at various forums at national and regional level. The consensus view was to conduct a Time Release Study (TRS) to identify bottlenecks throughout the clearance, processing and release of goods processes.

For its previous Customs-focused TRS, the Eswatini Revenue Service (ERS) contracted a consultancy firm, as no in-house capacity was available to conduct a study. The South African Revenue Service (SARS) previously conducted a TRS at the Port of Durban. However, this took place during the COVID-19 pandemic and faced many challenges, ultimately serving more as a learning opportunity.

Both South Africa and Eswatini are partner countries of the WCO Accelerate Trade Facilitation Programme, which is funded by the United Kingdom’s His Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC). The WCO capacity building was part of the Programme’s multi-year strategic partnership with both countries.


In line with the WCO TRS Guide, both countries established TRS Technical Working Groups (TWGs) with clear terms of reference and mandates, and comprising of permanent and ad-hoc members to drive the implementation of the joint study. The permanent members of the TWGs will be required to participate in future TRS to ensure continuity and preservation of institutional knowledge, whereas ad-hoc members are specific to the respective border post and cross-border modality. These participants were chosen to ensure the inclusion of diverse competencies, experience and responsibilities in the clearance processes.

ERS TRS Lead with WCO TRS Experts

ERS established a TWG under Eswatini’s National Trade Facilitation Committee (NTFC) to secure collaboration, engagement and buy-in from other government agencies (OGAs). As the South African NTFC has a limited focus, SARS involved the South African Border Management Authority (BMA), an amalgamation of the Departments of Home Affairs (DHA), Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD), Environment Affairs (DEA) and Health (DOH) in the study.

Both SARS and the ERS also nominated a lead person to manage the project within their respective countries, align TRS activities and ensure that members of the TWGs understood the key expectations of senior management.

One of the main objectives of the TRS was to build competency and capacity for both South Africa and Eswatini to enable them to conduct these studies themselves in the future, thereby reducing reliance on international development partners or consultancies. This would serve to enhance alignment of both countries with Article 7.6 of the World Trade Organization’s Trade Facilitation Agreement. The WCO Secretariat supported the TRS by providing remote and in-country capacity-building workshops, guiding both TWGs on developing TRS questionnaires, inputting data into the WCO TRS software and vetting the accuracy of the questionnaires before the actual data collection began. Furthermore, as part of the Accelerate Trade Facilitation Programme’s peer-to-peer exchange, TRS specialists from the Namibian and Zambian revenue authorities were engaged to share their experiences and lessons learned.


The TRS was launched during a public event which included high-level representatives of the various stakeholders involved in the study. The event generated significant momentum for the project.

The study was conducted over a four-day period, from 14 to 17 November 2023, between 07.00 and 23.59. For the duration of the study, data was collected manually by enumerators using questionnaires designed with the assistance of the WCO TRS software. Additional data were also collected from the IT systems of the respective Customs administrations and other regulatory agencies. All the data were then captured on the TRS software for analysis.

A 20% sample size for both imports and exports was identified by the statisticians as being suitably representative. At its conclusion, the study included 1,295 Customs declarations filed during the four-day period for South African exports/Eswatini imports and 205 declarations for Eswatini exports/South African imports.

Key findings

On 20 May 2024, the TRS final report which sets out the findings and outlines the way forward towards desired reforms was launched during a public event. All stakeholders agreed on their shared responsibility to improve border processes and on the need to conduct regular TRSs to assess progress made. The event was also livestreamed to allow for a wider audience reach.

ERS Commissioner General Brightwell Nkambule (left) and SARS Commissioner Edward Kieswetter at the TRS Report launch event.

Speaking at the launch event, Commissioner General Nkambule remarked that “Conducting a joint TRS highlights our commitment to viewing the border as a bridge connecting our nations, rather than a dividing line, demonstrating how we live the WCO ethos that “borders divide but Customs connect”.

SARS Commissioner Edward Kieswetter emphasized the significance of trade facilitation and highlighted that improvements can be achieved through collaboration between Customs administrations and OGAs.

The TRS at the Oshoek/Ngwenya border post revealed average export turnaround times of 1 hour and 24 minutes at Oshoek and 1 hour and 1 minute at Ngwenya. For imports, the times were 34 minutes at Oshoek and 43 minutes at Ngwenya. The study also found that 25% of Customs declarations are not pre-cleared, which can considerably delay the process.

In this light, the SARS Commissioner called for enhanced cooperation between Customs administrations and OGAs to improve trade facilitation. Such cooperation would be crucial for the successful implementation of the AfCFTA, which has the potential to boost economic growth in Africa significantly.

The joint TRS identified several critical bottlenecks, including the immigration process, the truck retrieval process and the import verification process on the South African side, which contribute to the extended waiting periods for truck drivers.

Furthermore, the TRS reports made the following recommendations for immediate implementation:

  • allocation of dedicated lanes to immigration and Customs for truck drivers to reduce queuing times for travellers declaring goods;
  • enhancement of the communication network infrastructure;
  • optimization of the import verification process to expedite clearances; and
  • establishment of designated pickup points to streamline the truck retrieval process.

The long-term strategic measures recommended included:

  • potential designation of Oshoek as a One-Stop Border Post (OSBP), which would consolidate clearance procedures and services on the South African side in a single location; and
  • implementation of a Single Regional Customs Declaration system to enable trade operators to submit their declarations only once, with declarations being shared among relevant countries through the system.

Benefits realization

The benefits resulting from undertaking the TRS cannot be overstated. The TRS process resulted in the building of strong ties between the relevant agencies within the two countries and reinforcing trust in the capacity and willingness to simplify and harmonize procedures by both countries.

Important benefits that stand to be gained once the identified measures have been implemented are a reduction of trade costs and the creation of favourable trade conditions for legitimate business. These will go a long way to increasing the predictability of the release or clearance process and will result in better inventory management and just-in-time deliveries, among other things.

Costs implications

By training their own officers with the support of the WCO, ERS and SARS were able to keep the costs of the TRS relatively low. The cost incurred by Eswatini to conduct the TRS in 2024 was more than 70% lower than in 2021, when it had hired a consultancy firm. Some savings can be attributed to the fact that the ERS did not have to provide accommodation for all of the 20 enumerators who were engaged for the task. The only unavoidable costs incurred by the ERS were associated with accommodating those officers who did not have alternative accommodation close to the border, organizing the launch event, printing TRS materials and publishing the report, providing subsistence allowances and transporting the officers to the border and back to the hotel. In total, the costs were less than 180,000 Swazi lilangeni (around 9,000 euros).

As for SARS, it incurred a cost of 220,000 South African rand (approx. 11,000 euros), covering travel costs, car hire, flights, accommodation and per diem for eight Customs officials.

It was estimated that these costs would have doubled had it not been for the WCO Accelerate Trade Facilitation Programme providing the technical assistance and support in facilitating the training of both South Africa’s and Eswatini’s TWGs.

Way forward

Building on the success of the Oshoek/Ngwenya TRS, South Africa and Eswatini are planning to conduct further TRS projects to continue improving trade efficiency. Both countries will maintain their Technical Working Groups and TRS Team Leads, with the necessary high-level buy-in, to oversee future TRSs as a diagnostic and performance measurement tool for data-driven reforms. The ERS and SARS, along with the Technical Working Group, will be responsible for institutionalizing the obtained knowledge and capacity, while the WCO Secretariat can offer guidance and serve as a sounding board for future TRS initiatives.

Looking ahead, SARS intends to conduct a TRS at its border with Lesotho and Mozambique during the 2024/25 financial year, while the ERS has plans to conduct a regional TRS with Mozambique and South Africa.

Success factors

The complexity of conducting a TRS should not be underestimated. One of the main challenges is securing the participation and support of OGAs and other key stakeholders, including the private sector, who will be required to input data.

Success factors include:

High-level support and commitment

The support of the respective Heads of SARS and the ERS played a pivotal role in the TRS exercise. They provided oversight to the TRS and confirmed their enthusiasm and support for the project on multiple occasions. The Customs Commissioners of the two agencies, Gugu Mahlinza from the ERS and Beyers Theron from SARS, met regularly to monitor progress and were also very much involved in sustaining momentum among stakeholders towards finalizing the analysis and the publication of the reports.

Launch event

The release of the study at a launch event served not only to inform the public but also to build enthusiasm and ensure that the various stakeholders took ownership of the project and its successful conclusion. High-level representatives of the different stakeholders attended the launch event, and this helped to confirm their commitment to the project to a wide range of representatives from government, civil society, the trade community and the media.

Internal capacities and allocation of proper resources

Building the capacity and expertise of Customs officers and stakeholders to undertake TRS ensures the consistency and efficiency of future studies and also helps to limit costs associated with conducting a TRS. Some activities such as the collection of data require proper resource allocation, and it is important to ensure that enough officers are allocated to a TRS so as to avoid exhaustion and stress.

Empowering the TRS lead person

The TRS lead person must be empowered to drive the project forward and must therefore have a direct reporting line to senior management especially where immediate decisions are required.


It is imperative to be adaptable and ready to address challenges specific to different borders and cross-border modalities. To this end, tailoring the TRS approach to local conditions can enhance the effectiveness of a study.

Collaborative environment

All stakeholders, OGAs and private-sector stakeholders must be engaged continually to ensure the success of the project. It is imperative that TRSs are perceived to be national projects of benefit to the entire country, rather than as just a Customs project. Fostering a collaborative and engaging environment through regular meetings or emails to provide updates and review progress is vital to ensure the success of any TRS and to ensure that the recommendations resulting from the study are implemented, especially those related to processes which are not the responsibility of Customs.

High-level endorsement of the findings

The findings of the TRS must be made public and officially validated by high-level representatives of all stakeholders involved to ensure that recommendations are supported by key decision-makers and implemented accordingly.

Shared experience

The WCO Accelerate Trade Facilitation Programme partner countries hold regular meetings with the Programme team and WCO experts to share experiences and lessons learned. At the June 2024 National Focal Point meeting which brought together all partner countries, the ERS and SARS together with the Namibian and Zambian revenue authorities shared their experiences of the TRS. These meetings provide important opportunities to highlight challenges and identify gaps and needs that feed into future updates of the WCO TRS Guide.


The successful conclusion of this TRS stemmed from a meeting held during the June 2023 WCO Policy Commission and Council meeting, where discussions about the long queues posed by trucks at the Oshoek/Ngwenya border between ERS Commissioner General Nkambule, SARS Commissioner Kieswetter and Ms Donia Hammami, the Head for the WCO Accelerate Trade Facilitation Programme first took place. All parties agreed on that occasion that a TRS should be conducted as a priority program that could assist in finding solutions to the problems and inconvenience suffered by traders and travellers. Despite being an obvious choice especially at land borders, joint TRS’s are not common given their complexity, and the Oshoek/Ngwenya TRS is the first such joint study ever done in the Southern African Customs Union.  The outcomes of the TRS clearly demonstrates the inherent benefits resulting from the collective efforts to undertake a study such as this.

More information

For more information on the WCO Accelerate Trade Facilitation Programme, please go to or contact

For more information on the WCO TRS methodology, contact