Free State/Lesotho border begins overhaul


A start has been made on rebuilding the porous border between the Free State and Lesotho, after local farmers took the government to court last year for failing to secure the border and protect them from stock theft, illegal grazing and farm attacks.

Kobus Breytenbach, deputy chairman of Agri SA’s safety and security committee, told defenceWeb that work has begun on improving the border roads and rebuilding the almost non-existent border fence.

Breytenbach says that repairs have started on the border patrol road, with around 50-60 km having been completed so far, but adds that the rainy season has set work back. Once the rainy season is over, repairs will resume, but the weather service has forecast rain in March and April.

The repair work follows a three-year court case against the government over the lack of security along the Lesotho border. The case was settled out of court in June last year.

Free State Agriculture manager Henk Vermeulen said last year that the resulting agreement was made an order of the court by the Free State High Court. “The state’s inability to execute law and order along the Lesotho borderline was given a final blow with the agreement,” he said.

The court case tested the rights of around 300 Free State farmers to live in a ‘functional society’ in line with the terms of the constitution. The farmers took nine government departments to court to force them to do their jobs, from maintaining the border fence and road to conducting patrols. The initial court case was brought against, among others, President Jacob Zuma, Free State Premier Ace Magashule and various provincial and national state departments.

Breytenbach says it was “an extreme step” that South African agriculture took after seven or eight years of discussion with the government, as the problem had been identified as early as 2001. “All our pleas fell on deaf ears. That was the last step, taking government to court to come up with the solutions.”

Police units who had to patrol the border complained that they didn’t have the vehicles to cover the rough terrain, says Dr Johan Burger, a senior researcher in the crime and justice programme at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. “It wasn’t their responsibility to provide passable roads. A court had to intervene to force government departments to identify their roles.” The police were forced into accepting they needed vehicles for rugged terrain along the border and other departments acknowledged responsibility for roads and the maintenance of border fences.

Breytenbach says that some of the problems facing farmers along the border included farm attacks, vehicle theft, illegal grazing, drug smuggling and stock theft.
“We had farm attacks from foreigners. These people come across the border, commit a crime and then run across the border again,” he says. “If you have a farm attack, that farm stands still for years and may be sold later.” He says on average it takes two years before production resumes on a farm after an attack.
“Stock theft is our biggest concern. Farmers do expect a lot of stock theft. There is not sufficient patrolling and that’s why we experience lots of stock theft and illegal grazing.” People drive their cattle across the border to better grazing grounds but under current law, it is impossible to arrest or convict anyone for unauthorised grazing. “There is no act regulating illegal grazing,” Breytenbach says.

With the unauthorised movement of cattle, South African livestock are at risk from things like foot-and-mouth disease. “My concern is we are going to spread animal disease if we don’t have proper border control,” Breytenbach says.

He also notes other problems related to porous borders. “They are crossing the border illegally e.g. in the Lesotho area…you get people who come into South Africa for medical treatment. They are a burden on the taxpayer. Even if you have criminals coming into town stealing vehicles…that is a financial burden to the economy of the region.” Drug smuggling is another big issue in the region, as Lesotho is a major supplier of South Africa’s cannabis.

Farmers in the Free State believe that proper demarcation and safeguarding of the border is the first step in combating cross-border crime. In terms of the agreement reached with the government last year, the whole Free State/Lesotho border road will be rebuilt and the border fence replaced at a cost of R5.5 million. The 130 police officials working along the border will be strengthened with the addition of two platoons of 75 personnel each.

In addition, the state had also made available more surveillance equipment to monitor the borderline and sixteen vehicles, including seven 4×4 vehicles, had been bought, the Mail & Guardian reported last year.

The original Lesotho border fence is practically non-existent, as it has been either destroyed or stolen. Erection of a new border fence began last month, Breytenbach says, as landowners along the border were issued with vouchers to buy wire, fence posts and other material to rebuild the fence.

Although the police were in charge of patrolling the border with Lesotho, they will be replaced by South African National Defence Force (SANDF) troops from April 1. Indeed, a company will be deployed there as part of Operation Corona. The SANDF currently has four companies deployed along the Zimbabwean and Mozambican borders, with bases at Pontdrift and Musina in Limpopo, Macadamia in Mpumalanga and Ndumo in KwaZulu-Natal.
“The SANDF has made noticeable achievements since its deployment to the borders. Farmers and business people along the borders have reported a drop in cross border crime, and a number of arrests have been made which have impacted heavily on syndicates trading in illegal goods and vehicle thefts,” said Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu last month.

Breytenbach says that the northern regions of South Africa, such as Namibia and Botswana, are not as threatened as the southern regions, such as the borders with Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland.

He adds that many years ago, the people of Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland worked in South African gold mines but that is no longer the case. “They are not employed anymore…these people do not have an income. Lesotho is poor – that’s why these people are going across the border and engaging in crime.”

Dr Francois Vrey, a lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch’s Faculty of Military Science, says that societies along the borderlands play an important part in border security, and Vrey believes the government should make use of provincial authorities in order to improve these communities. In fact, one of the aspects of the Free State agreement was the establishment of cross border liaison committees for “sustainable and good neighbour relations” with the Lesotho government and its citizens along the border.
“Putting down police, the military, that’s only part of dealing with the threat. The fact is you need to stop it before it gets to the border – that’s why you need to solve the problems in the borderland,” Vrey says. “You have to look beyond your border. So many of the threats and dangers originate in the borderlands themselves.”

Breytenbach notes that patrols would not entirely stop the illegal movement of people and animals across the border. “The idea is to control the movement of people,” he says. “The whole point is not to erect a fence like the Berlin Wall and completely stop people moving.”

Breytenbach will be speaking at the upcoming defenceWeb border conference. He will be discussing the extent and impact of cross-border crime on the South African economy with particular reference to agriculture.

For more on this subject, consider attending defenceWeb’s Border Control conference at Gallagher Estate on March 8 and 9, 2011. For more information contact Maggie Pienaar at ++27 11 807 3294 or [email protected]