Smoke and mirrors with new Border Authority Act 

.……article first appeared 2 February 2021……..

Chair Bongani Bongo calls for oversight……

The controversial Border Management Authority (BMA) law, which was first tabled in Parliament in 2016, passed its final law-making hurdle in March 2020 being voted on by the National Assembly and signed into law by the President last July, has not yet been instituted.    Neither is the new authority yet on the ground, nor can any evidence of new multi-department border controls be seen.

The fact that no BMA exists at all, nor even staffed, was llustrated by the sorry affairs at South African borders over Christmas and New Year.  According to a team of MPs from Parliament, who have exercised oversight by first establishing the facts with a visit to Beit Bridge, “The failures in establishing the new authority are due to  a lack of political will on the part of the Department of Home Affairs (DOH).”

Apparently, the scheme has only reached a point where an intial advertisement is to be placed inviting applications for a commissioner to head up the new unit.

The event at a number of northern crossings also became also an international embarrassment for South Aftica in December as it developed into a human crisis, visually displaying involving poor immigration disciplines and lack of disease management. Notable were the failures in immigration controls  a subject known to be important to the governing party, but the matter was totally ignored in subsequent January ANC lekgotla meetings.  Little in the way of explanation from government has been offered for the ongoing crisis, still not solved by mid-February.

Wrong messages

The results of poor management at the Beit Bridge border post paticularly resulting in human crisis and which was displayed persistently over Christmas and New Year on television screens and in news reports in the Middle East, Europe, UK, Africa, pointed in common to a major failure in basic government service delivery in South Africa.

Minister of Home Affairs, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, just managed to escape without too much damage to his reputation in publicity terms when first grilled by the media as the event gathered momentum.  When interviewed he obviously had little knowledge of what had being going on in Home Affairs on border control but instead broadly gave out a generalised picture of how SA was to create multi-service border points in the future. How things had got into such a mess has never been discussed outside of Parliament.


To rewind the story, in the light of reported events at Beit Bridge and in an unprecedented move during the Christams/New Year recess, Parliament despatched in haste the entire Home Affairs Portfolio Committee to three northern customs points to see why things were messing up.     MPs said as they left they were to check up on the implementation of the Act painfully processed by them over two years beforehand.

The party soon established that the problems could be attributed to “incompetence and the failure to institute on the ground any of the proposals promulgated in the Act”.   They said there had been no attempt to even establish even a basic presence nor was there a sign of the proposed Border Management Authority.

Also established was the fact that trade complaints had been piling up at the doors of Home Affairs from around the country regarding the consequences of non-delivery of necessary and important goods to suppliers and vast agricultural losses were occurring to unseasonable hot weather and refrigeration failures. When deaths started occurring, so in came the queries from the President’s office as well.   As a result, Minister Aarom Motsoloaedi immediately found himself embroiled in a major news story, only finally much later extinguished by national Covid 19 developments.

On their return from their oversight trip the feedback from MPs was explicit, a special video meeting having been arranged to voice this.

What they saw

The committee said it visited three northern border posts — Beitbridge, Lebombo and Mbuzini – where they saw first-hand the congestion and confusion. They confirmed that in the mêlée, the numbers of undocumented foreigners illegally entering the country was extensive.

The whole area was described as a “pandemic high risk situation” and out of control at times but the major problem, MPs said, was the human one of heat exhaustion, no facilities, no food resources, no direction, no management, enormous traffic backups giving rise to anger as frustration spiked because of bureaucratic tangles.  The parliamentary committee noted that two of the three border posts visited, Beitbridge and Lembobo, are South Africa’s busiest in term of land crossings points and that the Lembobo crossing is not staffed as a 24-hour operation thus further contributing to poor Covid 19 controls, queues and poor social distancing over busy periods.

At all crossings, the many hundreds of passengers in buses and taxis are continually stalled “in the middle of nowhere” for days without proper food, ablution and and medical facilities.

No plan

At none of the borders was there any operational plan, it was noted by MPs, or any particular interest expressed to handle the Christmas rush in terms of time frames for staffing or to handle trade volumes and commercial paperwork.  Nor was there any forward plan to deal with traditional movement of communities between countries for the festive season. No plan was received from DOH prior to the holiday period  to deal with the Covid crisis or, in any case, what to do in anticipation of any problems of any kind.  DHA staff, MPs said, seem poorly motivated and generally disinterested and felt isolated.

Delays for trucks sunday times

Adv. Bongani Bongo said MPs heard from department officials on site that there had been no commitment shown by DOH to either fund and operationalise any Border Management Authority.  Staff knew vaguely about this plan, had heard of the idea to replace about 18 government departments and agencies that play different roles at border control points, MPs reported in the video meeting, but that was all by staff in situ.

Some public servants said they were worried about their jobs and others felt the idea of a BMA would not work.

What neighbours?

There was little evidence, MPs found, of any co-operation between the South African government and any the six neighbouring countries with respect to common ground on border management over the known-to-be difficult holiday period.  The was absolutly no official communication on security matters over the period in question, this being reserved for the odd one-on-one encounters, mostly casual at operational level.

MPs noted that if one country closed its borders due to its own Covid regulations, as had happened in the case of  Zimbabwe, innocent citizens had been caught in no man’s land, with either their destination route or route back to safety frozen. This had resulted in a lot of panic, said MPs.  Home Affairs officials in Pretoria, when contacted by ANC and DA MPs seprately during the visit, had expressed no intention to assist with a response; any understanding of the issues involved, nor any wish to give any direction of what to do

The BMA story

The Bill to establish such a common authority at each of South Africa’s 52 border crossings with six major border control establishments dates back to Jacob Zuma’s presidency at the time of Home Affairs was moved into the security cluster of ministers.  The Bill was on of the first products of the new “security committee”. The instigator of the Bill was the then Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, and the move by the then Jacob Zuma presidency to re-design certain government clusters combining immigration, police and defence.     After two years, a final draft Bill enabling a BMA was finally produced, public comment having been called for on two occasions.

In 2017 a target schedule was presented to Parliament by Home Affairs,indicating that by 2018/2019 the BMA authority would be established. Little happened for another two years but finally in 2019 a final draft  was produced  which was debated despite the anger generated over certain clauses. New Home Affairs Minister, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, welcomed the passing of the Border Management Authority Bill in July 2020.

Parliamentary focus of late has fallen upon South Africa’s northern border with the installation by Public Works Dept. of a fence – 40km long and only 1.8 meters high – for 20km on either side of the Beitbridge land port at cost of R37m, the tender being investigated after public outcry by the SIU, not yet resolved.  More recently, nt budget cuts exercised by Minister Mboweni are  understood to be limiting Home Affairs in their work at border crossings, the department complaining that it could only be expected to exercise control over four of the ten segments that represent South Africa’s total land border.

The BMA Bill

Looking back, one would have thought that not much more could have gone wrong with the implementation of a Border Management Control system, a concept known as a “one stop shop”, and the first of six BMA crossing points.  However, the Christmas border incident added one further chapter of accidents.  Adv. Bongo’s parliamentary trip may, however, have illustrated what is behind this endlless list of failures.

From the start of the plan, the odd cocktail mix of agencies, government departments and SOE’s, military, police and Treasury could agree on very little, illustrated in parliamentary meetings as the legislation progressed. Such a plan had to include, it was said, the disciplines of customs, immigration, border guarding, policing of the points, and border control movements. Business chambers expressed their extreme objections to the idea of moving customs and excise matters away from Treasury into ambit of the Home Affair.s

Blue and brown helmets

For policing, there was early on a memorandum of understanding between SAPS and DOH for SAPS officers to be ‘deployed’ by BMA officials, but the Ministry of Police seemingly frowned on what was seen as an invasion of SAPS territory and a violation of the rule of law. This is according to reports to Parliament. No such MOU eas ever existed between Ministry of Defence and Home Affairs, Minister of Defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, being known to detest paper work. Parliament was told that semi-informal discussions had taken place.

However, Parliament was told that the project proceeded on the grounds that DHA had “promised SADNF that a BMA budget would eventually in alll likelehood pay for the guarding by soldiers, and MOD had said it had that various units being stood down as a result of budget cuts could be transferred upon the establishment of the BMA. No such written agreement had been minuted, it seemed.  Certainly nothing to this effect has appeared in Cabinet statements.   Defence found they had to pay for the soldiers at Beit Bridge over the Christmas crisis. One cannot therefore avoid the impression that total confusion exists.

Always the money

Also, after a year of disagreements in Parliament between Treasury, represented by Ismail Momoniat, and DOH represented by any number of appointees, a compromise was eventually found in Committee, it being agreed that Treasury staff would remaining in situ at borders to handle all customs and excise matters. Momoniat made it clear that revenues would go straight to the fiscus as normal.

Co-operation between the various government departments on any such mixed projects is never very good but in the case of the four main elements of the BMA plan, SAPS, Ministry of Defence, Home Affairs and Treasury,it was said. These were to be consolidated under the new Border Control Authority, the legislation being crafted accordingly.  Opposition parties objected and never voted for the Bill in committee, abstaining in the final vote.

In 2017 a target schedule was presented to Parliament by Home Affairs, when the Bill was first discussed, indicating that by 2018/2019 the BMA authority would be established. Little happened for two years but finally in 2019 debate on a draft and by July 2020 new Home Affairs Minister, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, welcomed the passing of the Border Management Authority Bill.

Still working hard

Fast forward to a few days ago.   On 27 January, Deputy Home Affairs Minister, Nbyjabulo Nzuza, was asked about the readiness of a BMA following the Beit Bridge failure. He said that coming up shortly was the announcement that DHA had picked the man to head up the BMA.  He said, “The appointment of the head of a new agency that will mean the country’s borders will take place soon through a single command and control structure which will secure all ports of entry, something which DHA wants”. MPs said they knew all about this.

Minister Nzuza followed this with an equally vague and blithering comment, “In the drive to put the agency into operation, the appointment of the new head of the BMA will be an important step.”    When asked by MPs why so little had been done, Minister Nzuza dodged the bullet with with a complicete fabrication as an excuse.  He said, “We had to make sure the legislation was passed first”.  He added,” We are in a period where we are developing the regulations now. We also had to make sure the proclamation is signed for us to start the process of the appointment of the Authority’s commissioner.”

Final point

ANC’s Moses Chabane said Parliament and the Home Affairs Committee had not still received any regulations for gazetting which Parliament had to see first by law to ensure that the tenets of the Bill were being adhered to, so it appeared the Minister was talking nonsense. But the result is that the Department of Home Affairs is apparently no nearer running integrated and efficient border posts than it was four or five years ago.

Worse, nobody in SAPS, Defence and Treasury seem to have a clue as to what is going on either.


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