Migration IV: The state of South Africa’s borders

South Africa’s borders require serious attention to counter irregular migration, illicit trade and incumbered movement. The Department of Home Affairs’ intended solutions are deficient.

Porous borders fuel xenophobia

Confidence in the country’s border control, border security and migration policy implementation are critical in ensuring the support required for a constructive skills-based immigration regime.

This is not to suggest that a wall should be built, or that there should be an overemphasis on border security (e.g. Herman Mashaba’s “we need to close our borders because drugs are coming in”)[1]. But rather that the current borders should be managed efficiently, in a way that facilitates the movement of desirable goods and people, whilst preventing the movement of the contrary.

This brief reviews South Africa’s borders. Findings from the DA’s 2018 Border Tour and the Department of Home Affairs (DHA’s) intended solutions are presented and interrogated.

DA border tour findings

Mmusi Maimane declared in July 2018, after the DA’s investigation of Beitbridge, Manguzi and Skilpadshek border posts, ‘[c]itizens, go and experience the border for yourselves. It is an unconscionable indictment on the state of the ANC national government and not a matter of whether you are pan-African or not’.[2] He said that ‘security at border posts is less intensive than at an average suburban block of flats’, that ‘technology seems absent or antiquated’ and that ‘the officers themselves are only intermittently present’.

Issues at the border posts can be summed up as follows:

1. Irregular migration: There is no absolute measure of irregular migration to South Africa. 369 726 migrants were deported between January 2012 and December 2016.[3] In the 2017-18 reporting period, only 15 033 deportations were recorded.[4] Illegal border crossings are understood to have dropped since the Dispensation for Zimbabweans Project (DZP) and the policy clampdown between 2011 and 2016, with escalated fines and sentences for those assisting migrants to enter South Africa illegally. Still, as per the DA’s alarming border reports (holes in border fences, smuggling networks, accounts of immigrants crossing the border to collect social grants), the issue remains pressing, fuelling xenophobia and deportation.

2. Illicit trade and crime syndicates: People, drugs and illegal goods are trafficked over national borders. Two success stories in 2016 – the detection of 57 children being smuggled at Mahikeng and R80m of mandrax at Kopfontein – have not diffused concern surrounding the “drug-riddled towns” in South Africa’s border regions and the extent of undetected cross-border crime resulting from dilapidated infrastructure and corrupt border officials.

3. Slow and inefficient border crossing: As it stands, around 15 000 people and 500 trucks travel through South Africa’s busiest border post, Beitbridge, per day.[5] The success of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which entered into force in May 2019, depends on South Africa’s capacity to balance the efficient flow of goods with careful management and security. Border posts are infamous for slow processing times as a result of overburdened infrastructure and staff and antiquated technology.

A key issue is that of the design of the border posts themselves: A complete duplication of the border post process occurs on the South African and neighbouring country sides. There are separate customs clearance functions, freight security checks and immigration checks and services in each jurisdiction.[6] Moreover, at many of the border posts, there is no sterile separation of incoming and outgoing traffic within the border area, and private and commercial traffic join the same queue.[7] This compromises security and efficiency.

The abovementioned issues have the following roots:

a. Corruption, poor training of staff and insufficient deployment: The DA conducted a survey concluding that 73% of police officers at border posts felt that they were inadequately trained. In March 2017, 18 people were arrested in connection with corruption at Ficksburg, including 10 police officers and 5 DHA officials. In 2005, Beitbridge began operating on a three-monthly rotation basis on the rationale that this limited the corruption of officials. However, this made for inexperienced SAPS personnel with limited knowledge of local smuggling networks. Beitbridge therefore reverted to permanent staffing in higher volumes and corruption is endemic.

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is deployed on the 4800km landward border. Their functions include patrolling the border by foot, establishing observation posts, providing a reaction force and follow-up operations, and conducting road blocks and intelligence operations. 15 units are deployed to these ends. The DA and Defence Web stress the need for 22.[8]

b. Lack of infrastructure and technology: Border posts are insufficiently equipped to deal with the volumes and risks that have become endemic to South Africa’s land border. The discourse is plagued with reports of broken fences, power failures, poor ICT systems, the lack of a dedicated truck lane and secure vehicle detention area, separate border-crossing buildings and insufficient security infrastructure (lighting; cameras; vehicle scanners; and SANDF vehicles, access roads, bases, and sensors).[9]

c. Lack of coordination between departments: At present, the borders are managed by 7 different departments applying 58 different laws passed by Parliament. The departments are Home Affairs (Immigration Division), SAPS, SANDF, Agriculture, Land and Rural Development, Health and SARS (Customs and Excise). These departments have seven different command structures with different laws, work ethics and mandates.[10] At some border posts, departments are housed in disconnected buildings. There is no institutional mechanism that provides for accountability of the various departments and their agencies, and there is no platform that links their information or IT systems.

The Border Control Operational Coordinating Committee (BCOCC), formerly responsible for coordinating between departments and other institutions, is understood to have failed against its mandate of stemming irregular migration, illicit trade and cross-border criminality.[11] In December 2014, Cabinet resolved that BCOCC responsibilities be relocated from SARS to the DHA.

The DHA solution

To address these and other issues, the DHA has come up with the Border Management Authority (BMA) and the Port of Entry Upgrade pilot, along with the other interventions explained below.

1. Border Management Authority: The BMA Bill proposes the establishment, organisation and regulation of a single BMA to oversee all aspects of the movement of goods and people through South African borders. The Bill was developed by the DHA and has been presented as a catch-all solution to border issues. The BMA Bill was passed at the National Assembly in 2017 (after the third voting attempt), and was subsequently stuck at the NCOP until Parliament dissolved. In July 2019, the DHA announced its intention to ‘fast-track the Bill for finalisation in 2019’[12], setting aside R100 million for implementation.

A BMA Road Map has been drawn out, the BMA Project Management Office has been established and an Integrated Border Management Strategy (IBMS) has been defined. The BMA and its IBMS will become operational in phases, subject to the enactment of the legislation. So far, the BMA Office’s functions are limited to planning and coordination, having absorbed the mandate of the BCOCC.[13]

If the Bill is passed, the BMA will be implemented first at OR Tambo International Airport, Cape Town Seaport, Oshoek and Lebombo.[14]

2. Ports of Entry (PoE) Upgrade: One objective of the BMA’s Project Management Office is the upgrade of six border posts: Beitbridge (bordering Zimbabwe), Lebombo (bordering Mozambique), Ficksburg (bordering Lesotho), Maseru Bridge (bordering Lesotho), Kopfontein (bordering Botswana) and Oshoek (bordering Swaziland). These were some of the busiest land border posts in South Africa in 2018, and their upgrades will serve as blue prints for others.

The objective, according to the DHA’s Development of a Ports of Entry Master Plan and Funding Model, is to develop ‘modern (state of the art), cost-effective and efficient PoEs that:

  • are in line with global best practice;
  • are based on an optimal balance between infrastructure and technology interventions;
  • enable the organs of state to efficiently carry out their mandates and protect their interests at the PoEs;
  • and facilitate regional trade.’

As well as to ‘enable and support the optimal functioning of the BMA’. Specific interventions of the upgrade include implementing one-stop border posts (so that there is no duplication of border-crossing processes between South Africa and its neighbours); upgrades to roads, fencing and security; and the creation of a ‘sterile’ border post environment, with:

  • the separation of incoming and outgoing traffic;
  • the separation of traffic by modality;
  • the strict management of entry and exit of people and vehicles through the sterile areas;
  • and designated search areas and the provision of a buffer zone.[15]

In April 2018, the DHA made a request for pre-qualification of tenders for the upgrades, with CSCEC Imbani Consortium; SPG-CHEC JV; Border Post Consortium; GNGA Capital (Fast Post SA); and Group Five (Hlanganani Consortium).[16] The tender has not yet been awarded with two phases remaining of the qualification process: written comments and proposals.[17]

3. Other Interventions: The DHA, in its 2017-18 Annual Report, documents the interventions and improvements it has made. On technology, the DHA has concluded the role out of an interim version (“Phase 1”) of biometric capturing at all land ports. The improved version is set to be piloted at select ports in 2019. An interface between an e-permitting system (to be developed) and biometric systems will be established.

Some improvements to infrastructure were made at five PoEs – Ramatlabama, Kopfontein, Grobler Bridge, Van Rooyens Gate and Monantsa Pass – during the reporting period.

During peak seasons, the DHA extends operational hours, staffing and temporary infrastructure at border posts. 425 additional staff were deployed during the 2018 Christmas period.[18] The DHA reports that ‘adequate staffing levels remain a challenge to manage the continued increase in traveller volumes and the complexities in the border management environment’.[19]

Remaining issues and policy suggestions

The majority of the government’s solutions have not yet been implemented. That is the first issue. But there are, in addition, concerns surrounding their content – whether they will successfully improve the functioning of the border (to facilitate, prevent, monitor and control movement of goods and people).

The most controversial point is the BMA. The BMA rightly seeks to address fragmentation of border management, but in doing so, creates another level of government bureaucracy.

The BMA falls under the authority of a single government department: the DHA. SARS and SAPS have criticised its “blurring of mandates” – SARS would prefer to retain authority in customs and excise, while SAPS opposes interference in the police’s constitutionally mandated functions.[20] The Bill has been denounced as a ‘draconian effort’ by the DHA (then under MalusiGigaba) to expand its power.[21] But the DHA is an ailing department, riddled with corruption and inefficiency.

The Bill has been in process for nine years and its prospects of succeeding have been compromised by the new political context – a Ramaphosa government, Motsoaledi DHA and sixth Parliament. At a 2018 NCOP meeting, the Chairperson concluded that, given resistance from other departments and a lack of support from the Executive, a resolution is unlikely.[22]

Given these costs and risks, an alternative should be pursued. What was once the BCOCC (and is now the coordinating function of the BMA) should be extracted from the failing BMA framework and resourced sufficiently to address the silo-based approach to border management. This would shift the focus from authority to coordination, and from a complete (risky and costly) border management overhaul to fixing the current system.

There is also a pressing need for a coordination branch tasked with inter-state collaboration around the issues discussed, and for the implementation of one-stop border posts. Discussions surrounding a one-stop border post between Zimbabwe and South Africa, for example, are still underway.

Further suggestions are:

  • Corruption: The interventions prescribed by government do not target corruption. A routine investigation into corruption should be carried out by (a reformed) Hawks at the border posts. This should be reinforced with effective performance management, training, systems and technology.
  • Information: There is a critical need for accurate and accessible data (on border-crossing times, illegal migration, cross-border criminality, the state of border post infrastructure etc.), to guide decision-making on resource allocation and to enable departments to provide their mandated services. Conclusions in this paper are limited by lack of data.
  • Efficiency and upgrades: The pilot upgrades’ commencement should be prioritised and undertaken separately to the passing of the BMA Bill. All resources involved should be properly accounted for through regular audits, preventing poor contracting, tender fraud and undue influence in employment processes. Lessons can be drawn from the Beitbridge upgrade on the Zimbabwe side currently underway. Zimborders won the $240m contract and is in its pre-works phase (border access roads, underground services, first infrastructural buildings). One-stop-border posts and trade facilitation technology (updated biometric systems, e-permitting, electronic single-window customs clearance system[23], modern vehicle and goods scanners) should be pursued with urgency.
  • Fences and security: Border fences must be fixed and reinforced or supplemented with adequate security (watchtowers, infrared equipment, drones). SANDF is designed, structured, equipped and trained to fulfil its primary constitutional mandate of border protection (from military or armed threats to South Africa’s sovereignty). It is thus not adequately resourced for its secondary border function.[24] In lieu of the BMA’s border takeover, this gap requires attention, that would include increasing the SANDF units deployed at the border and training personnel to repair and maintain border fences, combat stock theft and regularise migration.


Tove van Lennep

[1] News 24, 30 July 2019. 'We need to close our borders, because drugs are coming in' - Mashaba

[3] DHA, 2017. White Paper on Migration, p29

[4] DHA, 2018. 2017-18 Annual Report

[6] Khumalo, 2014. Unlocking South African cross-border transport challenges: A case study of Beitbridge border post

[7] Irish, 2005. Illicit trafficking of vehicles across Beit Bridge border post; Khumalo, 2014. Unlocking South African cross-border transport challenges: A case study of Beitbridge border post

[8] Defence Web, 23 April 2019. SANDF personnel strength

[9]Peberdy, 2001. ‘Imagining Immigration’ in Africa Today, p23; PMG, 16 Feb 2010. Border Control: briefing by Chief of Joint Operations, South African National Defence Force (SANDF)

[11] DA, 15 October 2018. DA Immigration Plan.

[12] PMG quoting Minister of Home Affairs, 17 July 2019. Question NW138 to the Minister of Home Affairs

[16] SA Government, 10 May 2019. Government Tender Bulletin

[19] DHA, 2018. 2017-18 Annual Report

[23] The single window system enables international (cross-border) traders to submit regulatory documents at a single location and/or single entity. Such documents are typically customs declarations, applications for import/export permits, and other supporting documents such as certificates of origin and trading invoices.