The Border Fence at Beitbridge

Briefing Paper 527                                                         July 2021

                          The Border Fence at Beitbridge

1. Introduction                                       that “the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) wanted
                                                      an order declaring null and void the department’s
On 16th March 2021, Minister of Public Works and      contracts with the service providers Caledon River
Infrastructure, Patricia de Lille, and the Deputy     Properties CC, Magwa Construction and
Minister of Public Enterprises, Phumulo Masualle,     Profteam,” and that the matter would be heard by
engaged with the National Council of Provinces on     the SIU’s Special Tribunal.7 The Minister said that
issues pertaining to the border fence near the        at this point there was no justifiable reason to
Beitbridge border post.1 The Minister told            terminate the contracts, though the Department
members of the NCOP that, after a technical team      would review them.8 She also pointed out that 13
had visited the site in December2, the fence (also    officials in her Department were facing
known as the ‘washing line’3 due to its flimsiness    disciplinary hearings stemming from their
and inability to secure the land borders, while       involvement in this affair.9
often being strewn with abandoned clothes) was
deemed to be ‘not fit for purpose and not             Ms de Lille emphasised that the Department was
compliant with specifications.’4 She advised that     looking for fresh ideas and best practices around
her department would not spend any more money         durable solutions for managing “our very porous
on either repairs or maintenance.5 The                borders,” and spoke of the management of the
Department would be embarking on a clearance          border in terms of “an integrated border fence
project to rid the area of the fence, and it was      solution.”10 This is an important policy
estimated that the clearance would be finished by     consideration with regard to the government’s
June 2021.6                                           thinking around this contested issue. There have
                                                      in the past been several calls from diverse
                                                      quarters for fresh ideas and a new paradigm for
2. Background                                         the management of borders and migration in
                                                      South Africa. The International Organisation for
The fence was constructed at the beginning of the     Migration (IOM) put it thus: “The need for
national lockdown in April 2020, after the            enhanced        and    harmonized       migration
President had closed all borders. It was hoped that   management policies is therefore a critical
it would deter migrants from crossing the border      priority for the Government of South Africa.”11
into South Africa and thus curb the spread of the
Coronavirus. But it was obvious within days that      While the decision to clear the fence and to think
the fence was ineffectual; holes had appeared and     again about border and migration management is
parts were trampled over.                             laudable, it seems a pity that the Minister’s vision,
                                                      together with that of her colleagues in the
The R40 million project was mired in controversy      Departments of Home Affairs and Defence, is
since its inception. The Minister told the NCOP       conceptualised around ‘an integrated border
fence solution.’ It can be argued that, in tying          Trump’s wall between the USA and Mexico, the
border management to physical barriers, the               Pope said, “Builders of walls, be they made of razor
Minister is missing the possibility of exploring          wire or bricks, will end up becoming prisoners of
alternative, creative, and just means of keeping the      the walls they build.” “I realize that with this
borders safe and managing migration.                      problem (of migration), a government has a
                                                          hot potato in its hands, but it must be resolved
Pope Francis has also spoken of the importance of         differently, humanely, not with razor wire.”16
exploring diverse policy options with regard to
migrant peoples and borders. Calling for “broader         Two issues are very clear from the Minister’s
options for migrants and refugees to enter                insistence on this frame of reference. One is that
destination countries safely and legally,” he said        those advising the Department have learnt little
that the human rights and dignity of all migrants         from other parts of the world, where one example
had to be respected, regardless of their legal            after the other shows that this ‘fence and
status.12 This is a vital starting point for any policy   gatekeeping approach’ does not work. Migrants
discussion around border and migration                    will find other ways of crossing the borders or
management.                                               extending their stays illegally if they first entered
                                                          legally. This will inevitably involve riskier and
                                                          more dangerous strategies.
3. South Africa’s Envisaged Policy
                                                          Secondly, it is clear that sound migration
The Minister’s policy option appears to be                management cannot be at the behest of one
completely within the paradigm of ‘fencing and            country. This is especially true of Southern Africa.
gatekeeping’, relying heavily on a hybrid system of       It needs to be a regional effort geared towards
physical barriers and control via visas and               finding solutions that benefit the region. In the
documentation.13 It is commonly accepted that the         SADC countries some fundamentals of this
more that controls are put in place, and that             approach are already present in the Declaration
regular paths for migration are made difficult or         and Treaty of SADC of 1992 and the SADC Protocol
complicated, the greater is the shift by mobile           on the Facilitation of the Movement of Persons,
people towards using irregular paths.14 This has          2005, which lays the foundation for the free
been clearly seen over the past years in the              movement of persons in the region. In this regard
Mediterranean Sea, across the English Channel, on         it is worth noting that 78% of all migrants to South
the border between Mexico and the USA, and                Africa come from other parts of Africa. 68% come
along the border between South Africa and its             from SADC countries, and 15% are from
neighbours.                                               Zimbabwe alone.17

For a full sense of the shape of the South African        It is self-evident that a regional approach would go
government’s policy option and the degree to              a very long way to easing migration management
which the policy is entrenched in the ‘fence and          in terms of personal human costs, finances (the
gatekeeping’ paradigm, this policy option needs to        government spent more than R20m last year in
be read alongside (and as a strengthening of) the         deporting illegal foreigners) and administration
Border Management Authority Act of 2020, and              (DHA has no idea how many of the ‘live’ cases –
especially chapter 6 of that Act. That chapter            almost a million, according to the Auditor General
underlines what is commonly referred to as the            – are still in SA and thus needing processing). It is
‘militarisation and securitisation’ of the borders.15     also worth noting that there is a long history of
For example, the Act gives law enforcement                migrants crossing borders into South Africa for
agencies very wide powers, including the power to         work on the mines, in the agricultural sector, and
detain and arrest, to question people, and to             in the domestic services domain. This practice
apprehend and impound goods. It also envisages            dates back well over a century.
the use of high technology in securing the borders.       According to the IOM,
All of these provisions taken together gear border
and migration management to an ineffective and                “insecurity, lack of economic livelihood,
outdated policy paradigm.                                     drought and crop failure are some of the push
                                                              factors that motivate migrants seeking better
It is worth recalling Pope Francis’s words about              opportunities to undertake risky migratory
those who rely on walls to keep others out. In                routes. Labour migration remains one of the
response to a direct question about President                 dominant forms of population movement in
BP 527: The Border Fence at Beitbridge
the region. Some migrants experience                      concerned. This easier sharing of
    xenophobia, including negative social                     resources and skills is a way of caring for
    attitudes, discrimination and, at times,                  each other and desiring the best for each
    violence.”18                                              other. Pope Francis spoke of this solidarity
                                                              in these terms: “Loving our neighbour as
Lastly, in this connection, a paper by the academic           ourselves means being firmly committed
Aditya Sarkar gives very accurate description of              to building a more just world, in which
migration dynamics:                                           everyone has access to the goods of the
                                                              earth, in which all can develop as
    “Today mobility in the region is (i) motivated            individuals and as families, and in which
    by a combination of diverse social, political             fundamental rights and dignity are
    and economic reasons, (ii) shaped by long-                guaranteed to all.”21 As pointed out above
    standing historical movements and reshaped                there is already a basis for this in our
    by newer patterns of urbanization and                     region in terms of SADC protocols.
    displacement, (iii) organized through various
    legal and extra-legal means, and (iv) governed           Secondly, of a similar nature, but more
    by      fragmented      and      contradictory            confined, would be bilateral agreements
    frameworks.”19                                            between two specific countries for
                                                              managed migration between the two
                                                              countries. This is a model often used
4. Elements of a Different Policy Discussion                  where seasonal work is involved.

Two days after the Minister’s engagement with the            A third option for consideration is a
NCOP, in comments on the increased numbers of                 sponsorship programme where people
migrants on the USA/Mexico border, Donald                     come into another country under specific
Kerwin, of New York’s Center for Migration                    sponsorship agreements. This is based on
Studies, presented a different lens for thinking              the model of those who cross borders with
about border policy:                                          job offers in hand. We add for the sake of
                                                              completeness that provision should be
    “The real immigration crisis is not at the                made for humanitarian corridors,
    border, but in the failure to respond                     especially in situations of conflict where
    effectively to the conditions driving forced              vulnerable migrants can be given
    migration, to establish orderly and viable                supervised, secure conditions and
    legal immigration policies, to legalize the               maximum protection into safe countries.
    increasingly long-tenured undocumented                    This is not envisaged as a regular means of
    population, and to reform and invest                      crossing borders.
    sufficiently in the US asylum and immigration
    court systems. These real needs can be met, but    In a well thought-through article, Laura Bartolini
    it will require much more than the normal          argues that flexible migration regimes would
    political grandstanding.”20                        benefit greatly by introducing the following
While it obvious that he writes of the US situation,
the same policy co-ordinates would apply for               “(a) A variable geometry approach: Different
discussions in our country and in the region. In the       types of schemes for different types of
light of the above, the following points should be         migrants and for different sets of countries –
taken into account in developing a ‘policy cocktail’       regional and bilateral regimes offer
for immigration:                                           important insights here. (b) A smart
                                                           approach: A focus on migration pressures and
       Firstly, there should be regional regimes          on populations at risk of turning to irregular
        for the freer movement of peoples across           migration when regular migration or asylum-
        the region, coupled with clear rights and          seeking pathways are not available to them.
        obligations and built-in protections for all       We need to devise focused policy tools that
        parties, but premised on the rubric of             alleviate these pressures before they erupt
        greater movement for the common good               into a crisis – a smarter understanding of
        and as part of broader political economic          contextual factors driving irregular migration.
        agreements between the countries                   (c) A balanced approach that responds to
BP 527: The Border Fence at Beitbridge
labour markets and other considerations of              ultimately undermine the important international
    destination countries, developed in co-                 conventions and protocols to which it is a
    operation with origin countries and which               signatory. In what has been regarded by some as a
    acknowledges the needs of migrants and their            controversial statement, Pope Francis has
    families.”22                                            asserted that “the principle of the centrality of the
                                                            human person ... obliges us to always prioritize
The above considerations are critical starting              personal safety over national security.”23
points for a fresh discussion on border and
migration management. It honours the human
rights and dignity paradigm insisted on by Pope             5. Conclusion
Francis. In this regard border governance should
be careful to ensure non-discriminatory practices           There are compelling reasons to think differently
and should ensure that it does not offend the               about migration management and border
principles of non-refoulement or indulge in                 controls. Even at this stage we hope that the
collective expulsions. There should also be careful         discussion generated by the Beitbridge fence and
consideration of a presumption against detention,           its failure to stop migrants from crossing the
as well as no default position of irregular entry           borders irregularly will in fact deepen the
being criminalised. In this connection, many                conversation about a more humane way of
voices today urge that the term ‘illegal’ be dropped        balancing all the concerns that should be part of
in favour of ‘irregular’ when referring to migrants         these policies. A key inspiration for whatever
and the crossing of borders.                                arrangements we make to manage the movement
                                                            of peoples must be around how the policies
The South African government would do well to               enhance people’s dignity and how they respect
examine its ‘fence and gatekeeping’ approach                and protect human rights. The maturity of any
against    these   important    human      rights           country’s democratic culture is measured by its
considerations, and to make sure that its present           respect for the vulnerable groups in its societies
policies are not found wanting. Nor can South               and, indeed, on its borders.
Africa afford to find that its policy options

Peter-John Pearson










BP 527: The Border Fence at Beitbridge



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BP 527: The Border Fence at Beitbridge
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