SA’s R37m Covid fence ‘joke’
Hasty barrier laughed off by Zimbabwe’s many border hoppers
A stream of people illegally transporting groceries and cigarettes between SA and Zimbabwe this week laughed off SA’s hastily constructed R37m border fence as a “joke”.
The Sunday Times visited Beitbridge, where the border post between the two countries has been closed to nonessential traffic in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
“This is not a fence,” laughed Busani Sibanda, moments after crossing the Limpopo River into SA.
“This thing doesn’t even take me five minutes to cut through. We make big holes so we can get suitcases with cigarettes through and small ones so we can get people and groceries through.”
Soldiers who patrol the fence admit they are fighting a losing battle trying to stem the flow of people across the border.
So far the department of public works has paid R21m to Magwa Construction for the 40km fence. At 1.8m high, it consists of six rolls of coiled razor wire and a razor wire grid.
The fence has been slated by governance experts as a “knee-jerk reaction” to seal off the border because of the Covid-19 crisis.
“The speed and timing point to concerns around gaps in planning and how these Covid-19 projects are being thought out and implemented,” said Sean Tait of the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum, which monitors police accountability and governance in Africa.
The contract is to be investigated by auditor-general Kimi Makwetu for alleged procurement irregularities.
Makwetu this week said special measures need to be introduced to stop much-needed public funds from landing in the wrong pockets.
He has pledged to dispatch a team of auditors from his office to assist the government in preventing looting of the R500bn emergency coronavirus budget.
He cautioned that this budget was going to be spent through a system already plagued by “internal weakness, especially in the area of procurement”.
This week the Sunday Times spent three days on the border watching smugglers and ordinary Zimbabweans stream between the two countries, carrying groceries and contraband such as cigarettes.
Sibanda charges R500 to help someone cross the fence. He charges R2, 000 for arranging food purchases in Musina — the closest South African town to the border — and deliveries.
“We work in big teams. It takes about 40 of us 20 minutes to take a bakkie-load of food across the river. If the army brings their dogs, we move to where the fence ends and walk around it.”
A soldier, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Not everyone coming across the river is a criminal. Most are starving. We find mothers who, when we arrest them, beg us not to send them home. They beg to be taken somewhere where they can eat.”
He said instead of closing the border, which has not stopped people crossing, the government should open it and test everyone who crosses for the virus.
The fence follows a servitude road patrolled by soldiers, police, private security firms and anti-poaching units.
It was erected over three weeks by Magwa Construction, which was carrying out maintenance work at the Beitbridge border post when the national lockdown was declared in late March.
Magwa’s Bertram Pringle said: “Our internal auditors are here. The external auditors are coming. SA will soon know that we did nothing wrong.”
Kawia Rural Anti-Poaching owner Izak Nel, who conducts security for the contractors, said the fence breaches were really bad, especially on the eastern fence section.
“Last week my guys found 90 steel fence poles, which were taken from a 1km section of fence, in a donkey cart. They were about to be smuggled across the border.
“On Tuesday 22 holes were cut, with 14 on Wednesday. The breaches happen every day, all the time, especially during the day. That shows people’s desperation.”
Farmer Hannes Nel, whose property borders the fence, has been fighting for the fence to be repaired and upgraded. He said that though it addressed some security issues, it had been erected without any proper thought.
“The border closure cut people off from Musina, where they buy food supplies. People will do anything to feed their families, including cutting through the fence,” he said.
Mother of two Tracey Mabua, speaking moments after crossing the Limpopo River, said it cost her R3,000 to smuggle food into Zimbabwe.
“I don’t want to break the law but I have to. We are starving. The food our shops sell is too expensive. A 50kg bag of mealie meal costs R500. In Musina it is R150,” she said.
Jakkie Cilliers of the Institute for Security Studies said the current fencing system and lack of additional security systems reflect how far the country has rolled backwards since the 1980s, “when for all its mistakes and issues the country had an effective border management system, which has now fallen into disuse”.
“It is a complete waste of money to put up such a border fence unless it is under constant control and surveillance with patrols who are backed up by reaction forces,” said Cilliers.
Tait said that border security needs to be tightened up, but there needs to be careful management of and oversight over how the money is spent.
“Like the Strandfontein shelter for the homeless in Cape Town, the border fence construction raises questions,” he said.
“There are a number of things about how the government has responded to Covid-19 that need to be investigated.”
Eldred de Klerk, a comparative policing and social conflict specialist at the African Centre for Security and Intelligence Praxis, said: “We need to be spending the money very wisely, and in a targeted manner.”
He said a rudimentary border fence, which in extraordinary times could be seen as a stopgap measure, may not be a deterrent on its own.
Public works & infrastructure minister Patricia de Lille, whose department approved the construction, later asked the auditor-general to probe possible irregularities.
In e-mailed responses to questions from the Sunday Times this week, De Lille said critical areas relating to land borders, which need immediate securing, have been identified.
“The intervention was to ensure no persons cross into or out of the country … to contain the virus,” said De Lille.
“Magwa is appropriately qualified and was already working on a repair and maintenance project at Beitbridge. The overall sum, funded through the department’s infrastructure budget, covers materials; disposal of old damaged fence, accelerated construction, additional security.”
She said the fence, which was completed on April 20 as planned, was considered urgent because of the state of disaster that had been proclaimed.
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