An orderly movement of people through our borders is what we need.
A gate left open and unguarded along the border fence between South Africa and Zimbabwe near the Beit Bridge Border crossing in Limpopo, 5 January 2021. Picture: Jacques Nelles
Fences meant to clearly demarcate boundaries between countries and their neighbours can sometimes
In 2003, Botswana – known for its many cattle – saw the government of President
Ian Khama building a 480km electric fence on the part of its border with Zimbabwe to stop the movement of livestock, due to phytosanitary concerns stemming from the risk of transmission of foot-and-mouth disease.
The then Zimbabwean high commissioner to Gaborone, Phelekeza Mphoko, wasted no time in branding Khama’s move as “Botswana trying to create a Gaza Strip”, with an agenda to block an uncontrolled influx of illegal Zimbabwean immigrants crossing the border.
With Zimbabwean government officials convinced about Mphoko’s narrative, it soured relations with Botswana.
Southern Africa’s immigration problem has largely been economic in nature.
Traced to the discovery of gold and diamonds – followed by the aggressive expansion of the mining industry in the last decades of the 19th century – a constant demand for cheap labour has boosted the industry, drawing many people from neighbouring countries to SA.
This was before the successive resistance campaigns against apartheid and the birth of militant trade unions.
The migration at that time was strictly controlled and had a fixed contract system that allowed workers to stay only for a limited time – being prevented from bringing their families.
Another factor behind this movement in colonial times was the taxation imposed by the British administration and dispossession of the land, if one takes the case of Bechuanaland, now Botswana, whose population was decimated by the mineral rush in neighbouring SA.
During this week’s media briefing of the National Coronavirus Command Council, Home Affairs Minister Dr Aaron Motsoledi reflected on an aspect of communities on the South African and Zimbabwean part of the divide, with one traditional leader recognised on both sides of the fence.
Communities on either side of the border have for years peacefully coexisted – sharing the same language, culture, water, food and other resources.
Along the Botswana-Zimbabwe border and elsewhere in southern Africa, you are likely to come across something similar.
People in Maseru and Mangaung regard Lesotho King Letsie III as their traditional leader – despite being separated by a border.
Managing borders has always been a source a challenge for governments, especially in considering how best to deal with an influx of people.
With SA going through a recession, a high unemployment rate, a stagnant economy and the coronavirus, the grass is not always greener on the other side.
The uncontrollable influx of people dying to go through Beitbridge and other land borders into SA bears testimony to years of inefficiencies in managing land immigration – compounded by corrupt officials who are ready to take bribes.
It was encouraging to hear Motsoaledi making mention of the establishment of the Border Management Authority, which will be independently managed and staffed.
For it to be effective, we hope it will be led by people who subscribe to zero tolerance on any form of corruption.
While asylum seekers from war-torn African countries have found South Africa politically stable, the biggest challenge has been in dealing with the army of economic migrants – leading to a fight over scarce resources.
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