Defence and Military Veterans Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and Members of Parliament have visited the Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique and Swaziland border where soldiers last month resumed patrol duty.
The minister and the National Assembly’s Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans inspected facilities and talked with soldiers to understand the challenges the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) face as they return to a task they were ordered to lay down in 2003.
The state BuaNews agency reports Sisulu said she is confident that the SANDF will bring a new dawn to border management and security. “We return to the borders as more advanced SANDF than when we left in 1998 [sic], I am very impressed by the ground work already done to take over the full patrol from SAPS and the progress and presence we have already made along the border.”
The SANDF was meant to have completely handed over borderline control to the police by March 31, 2009 but this was halted at virtually the last moment. A company of infantry remained at Musina in Limpopo and patrolled about 20km each side of the Beit Bridge border. They were last month augmented by three more companies and their patrol area expanded from Botswana to the coast on the Mozambique border.
“We are engaging the defence industry on some of the best technology to monitor illegal activities and also keep an eye on our fence 24 hours. Together with other law enforcement agencies the SANDF will ensure that their constitutional mandate to secure the borders is done with pride and excellence,” she added.
It was suggested at defenceWeb’s border control conference in March that companies deployed to the border would be reinforced with Military Police section as well as a battlefield surveillance section. The latter would be drawn from 1 SA Tactical Intelligence Regiment that is equipped for that role with 14 Thales Squire ground surveillance radars and 65 Thales Sophie thermal imagers. Sources say equipment has been delivered under Project Cytoon for two squadrons with that of the third squadron on the way. These tools will be very useful in the border surveillance role. The unit may also, in time, receive unmanned aerial vehicles for the battlefield surveillance role.
Sisulu added the SANDF is returning to the border in phases due to a shortage of funds and in line with Government budgeting processes, funds will start being made available in the next financial year. “This is a major programme, the infrastructure is not the best it can be, the fence is not in a good state, we have a over 2000km long land border we have to look after and that requires both financial, technology and human resources; but we are up for the task and I am confident that many South Africans are happy that their troops are back on the border,” she said.
The Times newspaper added government has yet to provide additional funds for the SANDF to patrol the border. It is expected that the visit will be used to gather information on the funding required. “We do not have the budget to do what needs to be done. The budget follows the mandate,” said Sisulu. “We are doing everything we can do within the limited budget to fulfil the mandate.” Sisulu said the new budget would not come into effect until next year.
The SANDF will also meet with the chiefs of the defence forces of neighbouring countries to re-establish coordinating structures and to urge them to deploy soldiers on their side of the fence, Sisulu added.
Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee Mnyamazeli “Nyami” Booi said the SANDF is capable of delivering on the task but they need the necessary resources. “We would have preferred that the SANDF takes over full border patrol as soon as possible, but we understand that this phased approach is necessitated by lack of funds and we will do what we can to assist the SANDF to perform this function, we are happy that the return to the border has started,” he said to the state BuaNews agency.
Members of the visiting parliamentary delegation have, across party lines, endorsed the redeployment of the military and criticised the police for allowing the border fencing and facilities to fall into such disrepair so quickly. “Looking at the fence line, the physical infrastructure, I’m left with one question: What have the police been doing in the last three years?” asked Democratic Alliance (DA) MP David Maynier. Maynier and the other parliamentarians were shown that the border fence with Zimbabwe is riddled with holes, some only a few metres apart.
Booi also found the condition on the borders and the deterioration of the infrastructure “shocking”.
A local SANDF officer said it took only 15 seconds for illegal immigrants to cut through the fence and cross over into South Africa, The Times said. On the Mozambican border, the damage to the fence was less obvious, but just as serious. Crime syndicates, which smuggled out stolen cars, had cut large holes in the fencing which were repaired to form makeshift gates. Several hundred metres of the outer fencing on the Mozambican border had simply been stolen. The fences on both the Zimbabwean and Mozambican borders are meant to be electrified, but have not been for several months. “The defence force is essentially picking up the broken pieces from the SAPS,” said Maynier.
Police Colonel Patrick Ncba Bobelo said local communities were often a factor in illegal activity on the border. The syndicates which smuggled cars into Mozambique used local villages for shelter and information. Villagers were paid between R1000 and R2000 a car. “More than 100 vehicles a month: Land Cruisers, 4x4s, Mercedes-Benz, even small cars,” he said.
On the Zimbabwean border, human smugglers, called “gomma-gomma”, were often locals who used their knowledge of the border to bring over illegal immigrants. Because of changes in permit regulations, most Zimbabweans are able to legally acquire permits to live in South Africa. Those who cannot are often so poor that they cannot afford the necessary basic identification. Booi said they were the ones who used, and were sometimes victimised by gomma-gommas.
“The fact that SANDF are there [will help], other agencies are going to come and arrest them,” said Booi. “The criminals are aggressive, they are organised. That’s the kind of people we are dealing with. Not ordinary people. People who are hungry.”