South Africa’s air and sea borders are neglected – expert

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South Africa’s air and sea borders have been neglected and are at risk from illegal immigrants, abalone poachers, narcotics and weapons smugglers, says Helmoed-Romer Heitman, defence analyst and South African correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly.

Heitman says South Africa’s borders are faced with a host of problems, including cigarette and narcotics smuggling and gun running. “We know we have illegal immigrants; we know we have stolen cars crossing the border; we know we have illegal abalone.”

As most of the border security focus is on border crossings, Heitman says a lot of the illegal activity in the borderlands goes undetected, especially on the border with Botswana and Namibia, as the main focus is on Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Lesotho. “I don’t think we have a clue how much goes on,” he says. “No-one ever looks.”

South Africa’s land border is 4 862 kilometres long, with Botswana sharing the most territory at 1 840 kilometres of shared border. This is followed by Namibia with 967 kilometres; Lesotho with 909 kilometres; Mozambique with 491 kilometres; Swaziland with 430 kilometres and Zimbabwe with 225 kilometres.

Of less concern than the land border is South Africa’s aerial borderline, especially in the northeast. “Most smuggling operations in Africa operate by air,” Heitman says, and adds that in places like Brazil and Costa Rica, drugs smugglers, illegal miners and loggers (and to a lesser extent guerrillas) are dependent on aircraft. “The situation in Africa is the same, but just on a smaller scale and has a lower profile.”

To curb forest mismanagement and arms and narcotics trafficking in the Amazon, the Brazilian government has implemented the massive Amazon Surveillance System (SIVAM) by utilising a network of satellites, ground and airborne radars and attack and patrol aircraft. The system has borne fruit – for example, deforestation dropped 14% between August 2009 and July 2010 and by 50% between 2008 and 2010.

Meanwhile in South Africa, the Air Force will conduct an air border safeguarding operation in the northern Limpopo Province from next Tuesday until February 23 to enhance and enforce South Africa’s airspace. Colonel Lucas Delport, Senior Staff Officer Planning on the Joint-5 (Long Term Planning) staff of the Defence Force’s Joint Operations Division said last August that the Air Force and Army would be using assets ad hoc to conduct air surveillance and intercept transgressors along the country’s aerial borderline, using techniques developed for Operation Kgwele, the safeguarding of the soccer World Cup.

Although the air and land borders of South Africa remain a problem, Heitman is more concerned about South Africa’s 2 798 kilometre long coastline, and says a large chunk of it could be used to perform illegal activities – for instance, some illegal immigrants are coming in to Natal by sea. “We’re not looking at the coastline. There is no control, no force that patrols coastlines.” He believes the South African Navy doesn’t have the ships to patrol the coast and that the anti-poaching vessels are unavailable for such duties. Heitman thinks South Africa should have bought another two frigates for things like piracy and maritime patrol. “We do not have the ability to patrol our coasts – not even our harbours,” he says.

Heitman suggests a long-term solution to the border problem is to push South Africa’s borders outwards. “The SADC border should be our border,” he says, referring to the Southern African Development Community, which consists of 15 nations in southern Africa that work together to further socio-economic integration, political co-operation and security.

Heitman points out the European Union, which successfully strengthened its outer borders and loosened its inner borders in order to facilitate trade and movement, and suggests South Africa do something similar with SADC. However, he acknowledges that security would have to be improved in South Africa’s neighbours and that this idea is a long term solution, particularly as Mozambique and Angola are politically unstable or are not being governed well. For the short term, Heitman says South Africa should look after its own borders and use the resources it has to patrol the border more effectively. The Defence Force should at least thoroughly monitor a section at a time using resources like radar, aircraft etc. Since the section being monitored will change all the time, this well keep border-crossers on their toes, he says.

Heitman agrees with Professor Mike Hough, former Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the University of Pretoria, that improving the borderline only treats a symptom. “The solution to illegal immigration [and other problems] is to make our neighbour’s economies work better,” he says. “We’ll do better if they do better.”

Heitman will be covering some of the issues mentioned in this article at the upcoming defenceWeb Border Control Conference on March 8 and 9.



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]
Detailed programme available here.