With government preparing legislation to establish the Border Management Agency (BMA) ahead of it becoming operational in 2017 it has again been pointed out that closure of the Commandos and the withdrawal of the military from border protection in 2003 was when democratic South Africa’s problems in this vital security area started to worsen.
“When the decision was first taken by Cabinet to disband the Commando system, the DA warned that unless appropriate mechanisms were put in place to deal with the vacuum created, South Africa’s security would be compromised and communities in rural areas would be left even more vulnerable to crime,” the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party said in a 2008 statement.
The statement followed an oversight visit by members of the Parliamentary Police Portfolio Committee to, among others, the Lebombo border post. DA shadow police minister Dianne Kohler Barnard, pointed out that an April, 2008, the DA warned South Africa faced a security threat along its borders as a result of “government’s ill-conceived 2003 decision to close commando units and withdraw the SA National Defence Force”.
It also at the time elaborated on 10 points pertinent to border security.
These were: The Border Control Co-ordinating Committee (BCOCC) – the body established to oversee border security – had not delivered. Despite having been created in 2001, the BCOCC still had no complete overall strategic plan relating to borderline policing, as well as no divisional policy relating to borderline operations.
According to the Auditor-General’s (AG) special report into the state of borderline security, there was then no overall strategic plan relating to borderline policing, nor a divisional policy relating to borderline operations.
There was also no specialised operational support structure for borderline crime intelligence, which negatively impacts on intelligence gathering and analysis, the DA said.
A security analysis of the state of border fences had not been performed, which has obvious implications for national security and controlling the flow of illegal people and smuggled weapons, drugs and vehicles into the country.
There was a 71% under-capacity rate for land borders.
Sea borderline operations had a 96% under-capacity rate and air borderline operations had no permanent staff.
Air borderline operations did not have the correct equipment to detect low flying aircraft. It was noted that perlemoen (abalone) smugglers make use of low-flying aircraft to smuggle goods out of the country.
There were frequently no fences in place and no compensating equipment such as helicopters, horses or quad bikes to patrol borders in areas not accessible by conventional vehicles.
The AG also noted deficient equipment and resources in the form of radios, cell phones and uniforms.
There were no centrally collected and analysed statistics relating to border crimes, illegal foreigners, repatriated illegal immigrants and criminal syndicates connected with trafficking in people, goods and weapons. This absence makes a mockery of any attempt to combat cross-border crime.
The committee report on the visit notes with regard to the Lebombo border post there were currently 160 police and 16 other government employees there – “insufficient for the large number of vehicles and pedestrians that cross the border daily”.
The Lebombo point of entry is the third largest in South Africa with more than four million people using it annually. The committee said “current systems in use are stressed and fragmented”. It was also told the SANDF is managing a trilateral forum with Mozambique and Swaziland to address challenges at Lebombo.
There are eight departments involved in border security including the police, Hawks, Home Affairs, SA Revenue Services, State Security and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).
The military effort to protect borders under Operation Corona has seen 15 companies deploy along South Africa’s landward borders. Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula indicated earlier in 2015 that a further two companies would be added during the current financial year, even though no provision has been made in the medium term financial expenditure.
The BMA is expected to concentrate its efforts on border security at recognised points of entry such as Lebombo and Beit Bridge. This will leave the thousands of kilometres of border where fences have been destroyed in many parts to soldiers supported by the SA Air Force, as currently happens .