The fence worth R37 on the border of SA and Zimbabwe is cut open daily as Zimbabweans cross over into SA. ‘We create big holes on the fence so that we smuggle in suitcases with cigarettes through, people also use these holes to get into SA and groceries are also smuggled using these holes’ said one smuggler.
A lot of people are unlawfully transporting groceries and cigarettes between SA and Zimbabwe this week smugglers laughed at the hastily constructed SA’s fence worth R37m and said it was just a mere “joke” since it’s not helping anything.
The Sunday Times went to Beitbridge, where the border post between the two countries has been barred to nonessential traffic in an attempt to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.
“This is not a fence,” said Busani Sibanda while laughing soon after using the fence to cross the Limpopo River into SA.
“This thing only requires less than five minutes for me to cut it through.”
Soldiers who patrol the fence also confirmed that they are fighting a lost battle by trying to control the flow of people across the border.
So far the department of public works has paid R21m to Magwa Construction for the 40km fence job they did.At 1.8m high, it has six rolls of coiled razor wire and a razor wire grid.
The fence has been referred to by governance experts as a “knee-jerk reaction” to close off the border because of the Covid-19 crisis.
The contract is to being looked into by the auditor-general Kimi Makwetu for alleged procurement irregularities.
Makwetu this week said special measures need to be implemented inorder to stop the much-required public funds from falling into the wrong hands.
He has promised to deploy a team of auditors from his office to help the government in avoiding looting of the R500bn emergency coronavirus budget.
He warned that this budget was going to be spent through a system already infected with “internal weakness, especially in the area of procurement”.
This week the Sunday Times spent three days on the border observing smugglers and ordinary Zimbabweans cross the two countries, carrying groceries and contraband such as cigarettes.
A South African soldier chased people who crossed into SA from Zimbabwe unlawfully to purchase food in the border town of Musina.
Sibanda charges R500 to assist someone to cross the fence. He charges R2, 000 for organising food purchases in Musina which is the closest South African town to the border .
“We work as a big team. It takes us roughly 40 to 20 minutes to take a bakkie-load of food across the river. If the army come with their dogs, we move to where the fence ends and walk around it.”
A soldier, speaking on condition that he remains anonymous, said: “Not everyone crossing the river is a criminal. Most of these people are starving. We find mothers who, when we catch them, beg us not to send them home. They actually beg to be taken somewhere where they can eat.”
He said instead of closing the border, which has not really stopped people from crossing, the government should reopen it and test everyone who crosses for the virus.
The fence follows a servitude road guarded by soldiers, police, private security firms and anti-poaching units.
It was built within a period of three weeks by Magwa Construction, which was conducting a maintenance work at the Beitbridge border post when the national lockdown was started 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 not do anything wrong.”
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The economy was the biggest beneficiary from this.The Anti-Poaching owner Izak Nel, who provides security for the contractors, said the fence breaches were really bad, especially on the eastern fence section.
“Last week my guys discovered 90 steel fence poles, which were removed from a 1km section of fence, in a donkey cart. They were about to be illegally taken across the border.
“On Tuesday 22 holes were cut, and on Wednesday 14 holes were cut. The breaches occur almt every day, all the time, especially in the day time. This shows how desperate people are.”
Farmer Hannes Nel, whose property borders the fence, has been advocating for the fence to be fixed and upgraded. He said that though it fixed some security issues, it had been constructed without any proper thought.
“The closing of border cut people off from Musina, where they used to buy food supplies. People will go to any length just to feed their families, including cutting through the fence,” he said.
Mother of two Tracey Mabua, spoke moments after crossing the Limpopo River, said it cost her R3,000 to sneak food into Zimbabwe.
“I don’t want to break the law but I have no choice. We are starving,shops are now selling food at a very high price. A 50kg bag of mealie meal which is being sold for R500. In Musina it is sold at R150,” she said.
Jakkie Cilliers of the Institute for Security Studies said the recent fencing system and lack of additional security systems shows how far the country has moved backwards since the 1980s, “when for all its mistakes and issues the country had a strong border management system, which has now fallen into shatters”.
“It is a complete waste of money and time to put up such a border fence unless it is under continuous control and being watched by patrols who are supported by reaction forces,” said Cilliers.
Tait said that border security needs to be strengthened , but there needs to be careful management of how the money is spent.
“Like the Strandfontein shelter for the homeless in Cape Town, the border fence construction raises eyebrows,” he said.
“There are a number of things about how the government has reacted to Covid-19 that need to be looked into.”
Eldred de Klerk, a comparative policing and social conflict specialist at the African Centre for Security and Intelligence Praxis, said: “We need to be spend the money very wisely, and in a budgeted manner.”
Public works & infrastructure minister Patricia de Lille, whose department permitted the construction, later asked the auditor-general to look for possible irregularities.
In an e-mailed reply to questions from the Sunday Times this week, De Lille said important areas relating to land borders, which need quick securing, have been identified.
“The fence was to make sure no persons cross into or out of the country to manage the spread of the virus,” said De Lille.
“Magwa is well qualified and was already working on a repair and maintenance project at Beitbridge. The overall lump sum, funded through the department’s infrastructure budget, covers materials; throwing away of old damaged fence, increased construction, additional security.”
She said the fence, which was completed on April 20 as planned, was deemed urgent because of the state of disaster that had been announced.