Growing crisis as border posts buckle

10 January 2021 - 00:00
By Graeme Hosken
Trucks have to wait for days at the Lebombo border post in Komatipoort.
Image: Supplied Trucks have to wait for days at the Lebombo border post in Komatipoort.

SA’s land borders are being swamped and thousands of people are streaming into the country illegally as the government ramps up Covid-19 testing protocols for travellers — prompting the farming and transport industries to warn of a dire crisis.

As millions of migrant workers and South African holidaymakers return home, immigration officials have been caught on the backfoot, with passenger and vehicle queues on the Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Eswatini sides of their borders with SA stretching for up to 7km.

Home affairs sources said they are fast running out of options, with a rise in fake negative Covid-19 tests and reports of more and more people jumping border fences.

Last week home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi announced that additional officials will be sent to key border posts, and that the South African Military Health Services will provide personnel to assist with testing at borders.

Only travellers with valid negative Covid tests are being allowed into the country.

The worsening situation has seen Mozambican migrants walking for kilometres across the Lebombo mountains into SA.

This week TimesLIVE reported that seven people drowned while trying to cross the Caledon River from Lesotho into SA on a makeshift raft.

Free State Agricultural Union safety risk analyst Jane Buys said farmers living along the river are being overwhelmed by the number of people crossing their land.

She said the 26 hotspot border crossing points are teeming with people. “The crossings at these spots, especially around Fouriesburg, Hobhouse, Zastron and Wepener, are increasing daily.

“Daily we receive reports from farmers of foreigners crossing the border and through their farms. A Fouriesburg farmer has reported between 200 and 300 people crossing the river and through his farm this past weekend. Some farmers’ fences are cut up to 30 times a day.

“People are desperate to return to work in SA.”

Agri-Mpumalanga CEO Robert Davel said farmers along the country’s border with Eswatini and Mozambique are reporting increases in illegal crossings.

“It is a problem that is getting worse. We receive reports of people coming across in their hundreds daily.”

Agri-Piet Retief security and safety chair Joe Filter said there has been a spike in reports from members whose farms are on the border about the influx of people crossing illegally from Eswatini.

“The area has always been bad for illegal crossings, but now it’s out of control. It’s because of delays at the border posts.

“There are parts where the Eswatini and South African border are close to the N2 highway. There people stream across, with taxis picking them up.”

He said the border fence, which is meant to be barbed wire, is full of holes.

A Komatipoort farmer whose farm borders the Lebombo mountains said: “We have never seen it this bad. The volumes have tripled. Usually you have maybe 300 in a couple of days crossing. Now it’s hundreds a day.”

He said the people they stopped had legitimate passports.

“Because of the queues, which are nearly 5km long and with people taking three days to reach the border post, they now opt to walk across the mountains into SA.”

A senior Mpumalanga home affairs official said the situation is out of control.

“There have been test kit shortages, which compound the problem. People and taxis are just driving off the road and over the Lebombo mountains.

“There is a rise in fake tests. Those we have caught with fake tests say they pay R500 for a fake negative test document. We have no idea how many people are coming across with Covid-19. At Lebombo border post on Tuesday 47 people tested positive.”

He said the situation at Oshoek border post is “a total nightmare. Our officials are unable to cope.”

He added: “There are queues into Mozambique over 10km along, with people increasingly desperate.”

Road Freight Association CEO Gavin Kelly said there are severe challenges at Beitbridge, Lebombo and Skilpadshek border posts. “There are queues up to 7km long with some border posts taking three days to cross.”

Home affairs spokesperson Siya Qoza failed to respond to questions, referring the Sunday Times back to Motsoaledi’s speech.