TOM EATON | De Lille’s reputation is even more in tatters than her border fence

Wasting R40m may be small fry by SA standards, but she’s been made to look like a rube by the tenderpreneurs

17 March 2021 - 20:12
By Tom Eaton
Zimbabweans who crossed illegally into SA to shop for groceries cross back into their country through one of the many gaps in the R40m Beitbridge border fence.
Image: Thapelo Morebudi HERE TODAY, GONE TODAY Zimbabweans who crossed illegally into SA to shop for groceries cross back into their country through one of the many gaps in the R40m Beitbridge border fence.

Patricia de Lille’s border fence fiasco began as bureaucracy, became soap opera, then satire, and has now transcended into installation art. Or, as the case may be, de-installation art.

This week, De Lille revealed to a stunned parliament the verdict of a “technical team” sent to investigate a R40m stretch of fence between SA and Zimbabwe: the most expensive length of washing line in the history of humankind, the team could confirm, was “not fit for purpose” and — reader, do not scream — “non-compliant with the specifications” of being a border fence.

That it took the task team almost three months to decide that an abstract smattering of wire is not, in fact, a fence is only slightly less amazing than that a task team was required at all.

Still, as the original contractor said to his workers as they watched a butterfly blow over a fence post with its wings, it’s time to move on.

The gossamer wisp that is the Beitbridge border fence, De Lille explained, would not be maintained or repaired for the highly pragmatic reason that trying to throw good money after fantastically bad would “lead to irregular expenditure”.

Some might argue that when you’ve spent R40m on a six-year-old’s attempt to build a chicken coop, “irregular expenditure” has already happened.

To be fair to De Lille, though, at least we got a washing line out of it. Last year, the late auditor-general, Kimi Makwetu, revealed that SA’s municipalities had blown R32bn in the 2018/2019 financial year via irregular and wasteful expenditure — about one R40m De Fence fiasco every 11 hours — and often with literally nothing to show for it.

The elephant wandering across the border and into the room, however, is that there’s really not much more De Lille can do.

But even if she had billions at her disposal, De Lille wouldn’t be much better off. Because she still wouldn’t be able to be honest and admit that 'secure' borders are a myth.

First, there’s just no more money. On Sunday, for example, De Lille was in the headlines for trying to force her colleagues to pay outstanding rent on their ministerial houses. When a whole minister is banging on doors demanding rent, you know we’re as close as dammit to bankrupt.

On Tuesday, she told parliament she was “looking at funding solutions to check what is available to fix our porous borders”.

Translation: if anyone knows where we can get a drone and two walkie-talkies for less than 50 bucks, please call us on 0800-AUNTIE-PATS-BUDGET-FENCING.

But even if she had billions at her disposal, De Lille wouldn’t be much better off. Because she still wouldn’t be able to be honest and admit that “secure” borders are a myth.

In the movies or the fantasies of xenophobes, borders can be “closed” or “sealed”, as if they are the sliding doors of some type of country-sized bunker.

In reality, closing a country’s borders usually just means the rules change at existing border crossings. Even at the height of Donald Trump’s xenophobic, isolationist and racist paranoia about “migrant caravans”, endless stretches of the US’s southern border with Mexico featured no physical barrier whatsoever.

That’s because, for the most part, borders are not designed to keep determined people out. Instead, they serve as a type of legal notice, informing migrants that, beyond this point, they will need to comply with certain laws.

That, however, doesn’t play well with many voters, who want to believe there is an iron wall around them. And so the state pretends it has the capacity, will and money to erect that wall, and quietly gets on with maintaining short stretches of wire and sending out tiny teams to patrol the endless expanses of nothing, maybe apprehending the odd migrant, but maybe not.

No, De Lille was never going to build an impenetrable fence because that’s not her job.

But it is her job not to be made to look like an absolute rube by tenderpreneurs and whatever happens with De Fence in the future, right now the minister of public works and infrastructure looks as solid and reassuring as a bisected chicken-wire fence flapping in the breeze.