South Africa’s socio-economic needs mean that funding for border security will always be scarce. But that does not remove the need for effective border protection, defenceWeb’s Border Control Africa conference has been told.
Noted military analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman says there is, therefore, a need to find a way to address that function that is both effective and efficient.
“The recent decision to return the border protection function to the defence force is probably correct in the circumstances,” he adds, noting that the police had not been able to perform the function effectively. “Border protection is in any event more of a military than a policing function.” Heitman continues that there is no other agency than the SANDF that could take over the function.
The country’s 4750km land border is long and “not easy to control.” Heitman says the SA-Namibian border is 967 km long. Of that much is along the Orange River and part of it runs through rugged terrain that makes it a difficult proposition except for small, well-prepared groups to cross. Close to the coast, “diamond companies keep an eagle eye on things. But other stretches would not be very difficult, particularly given vehicles on both sides of the border, and the border along the Kalahari Gemsbok Park presents no challenge at all, given an adequate vehicle.
The 1840km border with Botswana, mostly along the Molopo River, “is even easier to move people or goods across. The only real judgment call would be to select an area that is not so isolated that any strange vehicle will be reported. Further north there would be the advantage of quick access to the busy roads leading to Gauteng on which to disappear among the traffic,” Heitman says.
SA’s border with Zimbabwe is just 225km long, “along the often dry Limpopo, with rural areas into which to disappear and a good road network not far from the border. The obstacle here is the border fence where it is actually in place, but that is not insurmountable.”
The border of SA with Mozambique – some 491km long – “is favoured by criminals and others because it is so easy to cross and so difficult to control. It is fenced in stretches, but that fence is not an insurmountable obstacle even where it has been kept intact. Car theft syndicates have in the past moved large numbers of stolen cars across this border, bypassing the border posts.”
The 430km frontier with Swaziland is even more difficult to control against small-scale movement and, says Heitman, the 909km border with Lesotho is “notorious for cattle rustling and other activities.”
The bottom line, the author says, “is that someone who badly wants to enter South Africa will not find it difficult to do so, given only that adequate vehicles are available. The reality is, further, that any attempt to simply patrol with infantry is doomed to fail – the borders are too long. Similarly, the length of the borders means that covering all of them with a proper sensor fence is not affordable.
“As in most military situations, a mix of approaches will be needed – fences, sensors, ground patrols, aerial surveillance and reaction forces. And, as noted in the Joint Operations Division’s briefings [to Parliament], an effective system for building and updating a local intelligence picture.
Heitman further adds the defence force can perform the border protection mission effectively and efficiently as the “mission is very similar to its role in peacekeeping and similar operations, it has relevant training and organisational structures, it can coordinate in-house land, air and sea assets as required, and it has suitable equipment and can use any equipment that must be acquired for this mission for its peacekeeping and other such deployments.
“In fact, a good case can be made for the border protection mission being ideal on-the-job training prior to deployment on peacekeeping and similar missions. Many of the tasks are identical, and much of the equipment is required in both roles.
“By the same token, it can be argued that the police service is unsuited to this mission: It is not organised, trained or equipped for what is essentially light infantry or armoured car work, and it lacks the inherent capability to coordinate joint operations.
“The argument for a separate Border Guard falls down for the same reasons as earlier arguments for a separate Coast Guard: South Africa is not wealthy enough to afford a multiplicity of security services, and is not so small as to do without a defence force.
“That said, a good case can be made for forming a ‘Gendarmerie’ type force in South Africa to take over a number of functions from the police – riot control, anti-terrorist, airport and harbour security – and perhaps also the border protection function from the defence force. There are real advantages in having such a constabulary that frees the police to do normal policing and the defence force to focus on its role.
“The sheer length of South Africa’s borders would, however, require that Constabulary to be a very large force, and that is not really a practicable option given the demands on the available funding,” Heitman says.
He says the optimal solution might, inevitably, lie in a compromise: Task the defence force with border patrol and protection, which mission is very similar to its tasks in peacekeeping and similar operations, and which can serve as a useful practical training programme for those missions. Task the constabulary with the anti-terrorist, key point protection and riot control missions, which would suite the capabilities of such a force that could be formed and maintained within a reasonable budget. Task the Police Service with the normal policing functions. “Each of the three organisations would then be able to focus on a coherent set of tasks.”
“The additional cost could be kept to reasonable levels by placing the constabulary within the Department of Defence for administrative and support purposes, and under the defence force in time of war, but operating at the direction of another ministry in time of peace. That model is used to good effect by many countries, and obviates the need for an entire new infrastructure.”
Pic: Maseru border post