Netstar highlights challenges, need for technology to curb cross-border vehicle smuggling

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Border control is a big economic, social and human security issue for South Africa, with large amounts of dagga and other drugs being bought via Mozambique, and illegal migration remains a serious issue along South Africa’s land borders. Vehicle smuggling is another major issue, and the estimated value of cars sold on the black market in neighbouring countries is around R300 million a year.

These were some of the findings presented to Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD) last week, which heard from various presenters on the matter of border security. South Africa’s border protection comes in the form of a joint effort from the South African Revenue Service (SARS), the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). The SANDF’s Operation Corona border protection tasking has 15 companies deployed along South Africa’s land borders to prevent illegal immigration, stop smugglers and create a deterrence to possible threats.

Charles Morgan, Operations Executive at Netstar, a car tracking and recovery service, gave a presentation on vehicle smuggling across SA land borders. He told the JSCD that the high-risk borders are Kosi Bay and Lebombo (SA/Mozambique borders). Cross-border smuggling via the fence line is an ongoing problem in Kosi Bay and the crossing of vehicles over the borderline at the point of entry (POE) at Lebombo occurs daily. The Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho and Zimbabwe borders do not represent as high of a risk, according to Morgan.

Kosi Bay border

The Kosi Bay borderline is 48 km long with difficult terrain to operate in. Morgan said that the South African National Defence Force is under-resourced to cover the area with limited personnel and vehicles to effectively patrol the border line. “It is impossible to cover the border without the appropriate number of 4×4 vehicles needed,” Morgan said.

There is a concrete Jersey barrier being constructed by the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Department of Transport, to hamper and prevent stolen vehicles leaving South Africa. An initial R50 million was set aside for the construction, but that number now stands at around R85 million. According to TimesLive, only 0.166 km of work has been completed since the project began last year in October, with R48 million already paid to contractors. A proclamation has been signed by President Cyril Ramaphosa authorising the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) to probe the KZN Department of Transport on allegations of corruption and maladministration. Morgan said the wall will help but construction must accelerate.

He added that the POE at Kosi Bay is an issue as vehicles with false paperwork regularly cross.

Morgan said Netstar is maintaining a strong relationship with the SANDF elements deployed along the borderline, adding cooperation and communication is good and sharing of information is on-going.

Lebombo border

The Lebombo border is part of the 410 km northern segment of the South Africa-Mozambique land border, separated by the kingdom of Eswatini, running north-south along the Lebombo mountains from Zimbabwe to Swaziland.

Morgan said strong leadership has proven successful for the SANDF at the Lebombo border, however, at the POE, successes depend on the SAPS shift on duty. “Some of the shifts are effective and other shifts are weak,” noted Morgan.

The Lebombo border was in the news in November when six Department of Home Affairs (DHA) officials, a police officer and a Mozambican woman were arrested for running a scam at the POE.

Morgan maintained that Netstar’s relationship with SAPS and the SANDF is good at the Lebombo border; teams have daily communication with relevant parties, and issue lookouts to one another. “We have intel related observations daily and patrols,” Morgan added.

Technology

Morgan said the technology to assist border protection is more scalable than physical barriers, for economic and logistical reasons. Advanced Number Plate Recognition cameras and observation cameras (Bushcams) on known routes are being used and Netstar is in the process of adding more.

A dedicated radio channel with a repeater to cover the area is a must, according to Morgan. A channel available to the SANDF, SAPS, KZN Wildlife and the tracking companies would improve communication. Morgan said the SANDF also needs modern GPS equipment.

Drones with GPS, cameras, and night capability with a minimum flight time of one hour could be very useful, according to Morgan. Drones are being used by Netstar to observe new tracks being formed, they then Bushcams are deployed to observe movement in that area.

Morgan added that weekly disruptive operations with air wing and ground forces will give criminals a degree of uncertainty in trying to avoid the SANDF and SAPS.

Interventions to curb cross-border smuggling

“The porous nature of the border can be overcome if the necessary personnel and equipment are put in place and the concrete wall completed”, said Morgan.

The POE is a SAPS and immigration control function that the SANDF has no control over. Morgan highlighted that a solution is needed to stop stolen vehicles crossing at the POE.

Morgan said that the SANDF needs to look at how it detects movement. Observation is needed on known routes by smugglers where there are currently no observation cameras.

Better control at the POE and strong leadership was also recommended by Morgan, adding better policing and on route to the borderline and POE could be critical in recovering stolen vehicles.



The SANDF records weekly successes, often confiscating large amounts of dagga, cigarettes, stolen vehicles and undocumented persons, but the porosity of South Africa’s borders requires more manpower and equipment. The SANDF recently tabled a recommendation to parliament for 22 companies to be deployed to Operation Corona instead of 15.