Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille’s R37 million Beit Bridge fence upgrade as part of government efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus backfired but did bring to the fore the need for continued and proper maintenance of all border infrastructure in South Africa.
Samantha Graham-Mare, Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow deputy minister of public works and infrastructure, was the first public representative to reveal the ineffectiveness of the upgraded fence 20 km either side of South Africa’s only official port of entry with Zimbabwe. This – and that her information saw Parliamentary standing committees on public accounts and public works and infrastructure alerted to potential corruption as well as investigation by the Auditor General – saw her dig deeper into the state of permanent infrastructure on South Africa’s 4 860 km of land borders with six countries.
One of her “finds” was a defenceWeb report on an innovative, low-tech and low cost solution to prevent vehicle thieves moving top of the range SUVs and 4x4s to Mozambique.
In December 2016, defenceWeb wrote: “A 30 km section of border between KwaZulu-Natal has long been a thorn in the side of soldiers deployed on border protection as part of the wider Operation Corona tasking, specifically as far as vehicles illegally taken out of South Africa is concerned.
“Lieutenant Colonel ‘Wollie’ Wolmarans, Staff Officer Operational Planning at SANDF Joint Operations KZN tactical headquarters, said the border fence was regularly cut to allow easy access to neighbouring Mozambique.
“In September 2015, despite the best efforts of soldiers, police and local communities, it was reported that vehicles were being lost at the rate of up to 80 a month.
“The first effort to plug this hole used railway sleepers as additional border barriers. This helped but when Wolmarans was making a call on a crusher operation in Ndumo he saw another – better – solution.
“’The crusher operator was loading rocks of between 150 and 200 kg onto trucks. I asked and was told they [were] going to be dumped,’ Wolmarans said, and a ‘stop the bus’ moment materialised.
“’I asked if we (the military) could collect and place them along the border as additional barriers to prevent vehicles being illegally moved. The rest, as they say, is history and we reached a point when no more than 20 stolen vehicles a month get past us.’
“‘The large rocks are strategically placed on commonly used routes. In time the entire 30 km section of border will have the extra fortifications to cut down further on the movement of stolen vehicles.
‘“The placement of the rocks, as simple as it seems, had a marked effect on vehicle recovery. Additional rocks are placed on a constant basis in different areas to close the gaps. The criminal is never sure which area is closed or safe to use,’ he said.”
This “gem” as Graham-Mare termed it, has found its way into a Parliamentary question for Minister De Lille, as part of overall plans to establish what the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI) contributes to border infrastructure, including fencing, buildings, electric lighting and power pylons.
It will be, as far as defenceWeb can ascertain, the first time a report from this publication is used as part of a question to a Cabinet Minister.
Graham-Mare’s question reads: “In 2015, soldiers protecting the border between Mozambique and South Africa in the Ndumo area started placing boulders at breach points in the fence for about 30 km which reduced the number of vehicles illegally transported across the border. (a) Is this solution still employed in the area and (i) if so, what amount of maintenance is required and if not (ii) when did they stop using rocks and (iii) why did they stop; (b) what was the impact of this solution in terms of reducing illegal border breaches.
She also wants the Minister to state if this could be a solution to fence security in areas of vehicle breaches of borders; “would this not be a viable addition to the materials mix for border fencing and what other alternative mechanisms and materials is DWPI considering to augment border fences?”