The re-militarisation of South Africa’s borders

Heightened border security has been enforced during international summits and sporting tournaments. This idea of permanent, non-conventional threat provides a legitimation for an extensive increase of defence spending and resources, eagerly cheerled by the private sector. 

Chris McMichael
20 July 2012

Border control and the consequent proliferation of militarised checkpoints, fences, deportation centres and surveillance systems is a central preoccupation of both politicians and the security industry throughout the world.  In the case of South Africa the country’s extensive land, aerial and maritime borders are becoming a site of gradual, but sustained, military build-up. The country has 4, 471 km of land borders, an air border of 7,660 km and one of the longest continuous coastlines in Africa, stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. National government has also tabled a claim with the United Nations for the extension of the county’s maritime territory which, if successful, would increase the area of state authority to over 4,340,000 km2 of water.  South Africa’s land borders overlap with Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho and much of this covers mountainous and bushy stretches of terrain which are difficult to comprehensively monitor.  Along with the millions of legal crossings which occur every year, this mix of size and topography provides coverage for illicit migration, smuggling, stock theft and poaching. In addition, the illegal transnational trade in rhino horn has gained a substantial deal of recent attention with heavily armed and organised poachers targeting game parks. 

Under the apartheid regime, South Africa’s land borders were fortified with electric fences, regular army patrols and auxiliary civilian commando units. This build-up was intended to establish what officials called a ‘trip wire’ against infiltration by guerrillas from the anti-apartheid movement.  In turn, these borders were linked into a wider repressive architecture which joined domestic clampdowns by the military and police with combat deployments, cross-border raids and covert operations in neighbouring ‘frontline states’. In particular, South Africa’s conflicts in Namibia and Angola were erroneously described as the  ‘Border War’ necessary to protect the country from the dual threats of communism and black nationalism, a cartographic fiction which disguised invasions of foreign territory. The attempts to fortify white supremacy across frontiers were marked by a blurring of the lines between the police and military, the foreign and the domestic.  While the army was deployed alongside the police to crush internal revolt within South Africa’s townships, police units such as the notorious ‘Koevoet’ (Afrikaans for crowbar) pursued brutal counter-insurgency warfare across the Namibia-Angola border.  In turn, these tactics were later applied within South Africa itself through the Vlakplaas death squad.  

With this recent history in mind, the post-apartheid period saw efforts to reduce the border presence of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). In 2003, the Thabo Mbeki administration decided that the deployment of the military at border crossings was to be gradually phased out and placed under the control of the South African Police Service (SAPS).  It was announced that army units were to be completely withdrawn by 2009. However, in September of that year, a presidential order authorised the SANDF’s continued presence until after the 2010 World Cup. In November 2009, it was officially confirmed that the SANDF was once again the primary statutory agency for ‘borderline control and protection’.  According to the SAPS, the reinstatement of the military is motivated by practical considerations as the police service does not have the force levels and capabilities to guard the country’s borders.  The military redeployment is intended to be complete by 2014, which will result in 22 infantry companies being active at land borders.  This has been defined as a ‘national security’ operation rather than a law enforcement exercise: for example, any illegal immigrants and poachers intercepted are supposed to be handed over to the police. However, defence officials have also made aggressive statements about the kind of tactics that may be used with one press statement taking ‘this opportunity to issue a stern warning to the illegal border-crossers and rhino poachers that we don’t want any casualties and that pulling a gun against a soldier is the last thing they should attempt to do’.

The post-apartheid defence force has long claimed that is woefully underfunded. For example, the public draft document of the 2012 Defence Review suggests that the government’s military budget has failed to keep apace with the boom in international defence spending leveraged by the War on Terror.

As a result, the Review calls for an extensive augmentation of military resources and material. In the case of land borders this includes a wish-list of additional protected vehicles, ‘surveillance equipment, such as fixed and mobile acoustic, optronic and radar sensors and unmanned air vehicles, particularly micro-UAVs for patrol-level use’ and data systems integrated with both Airforce and SAPS communication systems.  This speculative purchase list has already been augmented by the handover of the Mthatha  aiport in the Eastern Cape to the Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans, which will be used for both commercial traffic and as a strategic asset for borderline and regional deployments. The Defence Review also argues for the extended role of both the Airforce and Navy in aerial and maritime security, necessitating  new radar and surveillance systems, fighter jets and maritime patrol vessels to combat ‘Somali pirates’ and other threats at sea.

The presence of the military at borders is intended to link in with security measures at other government departments including the Police, Home Affairs, Health and the new State Security Agency, which is an umbrella grouping for domestic and international intelligence. Through support operations to the SAPS at major events such as the World Cup and COP 17, the SANDF has practised enforcing heightened border security at harbours, borders and land crossings during international summits and sporting tournaments. The Department of Home Affairs has also implemented an Enhanced Movement Control System to monitor migration at national points of entry and has established a ‘high security printing facility’ for passport production: this is especially pertinent as there have been substantial allegations of a thriving trade of fraudulent passports within the Department, with several cases of South African documents being linked to terror plots abroad.  This interdepartmental cooperation may also have significant future impacts on the nature of civilian agencies. According to the transcript of a 2011  parliamentary committee meeting on border security, the Director-General of Home Affairs suggested that ‘immigration and identity were at the heart of any national security system, and the two common objectives were state security and public safety’ and that this ‘vision required a determination of whether the DHA functions should be militarised or not’. The government has also discussed  the creation of a new Border Management Agency, fusing the functions of law enforcement and immigration and, which according to the Minister of State Security, will be partly based on the ‘fully-integrated model of border control’ used in the UK.

Within the official discourse, the military’s new focus on borderline control is presented as a response to a world of increasingly unpredictable security risks, from mass migration brought about through global warming to ‘cyber warfare’. This idea of permanent, non-conventional threat in turn provides a legitimation for an extensive increase of defence spending and resources, which is being eagerly cheerleadered by the private sector. For instance, a 2011 conference on border control was sponsored by the Swedish based Saab Defence Company, which has been heavily implicated in the notoriously corrupt 1999 South African arms deal.  This conference brought military officials and academics together with representatives from the state owned Denel arms manufacturer, Microsoft, Ericsson, Thales and Reutech Rader Systems.  More recently, the Stone Holding company has offered radar technology licensed from the US military as a counter-poaching measure: according to the sales pitch for the system the technology has already proven itself in Iraq, Afghanistan and along the border with Mexico.

This shared state-corporate project of building up a ‘fortress South Africa’ also reveals a deeply entrenched seam of xenophobia, in which undocumented migrants and refugees from African countries are painted as a security risk akin to terrorism and organised crime. Parliamentary discussions on border security are rife with claims that foreign nationals are attempting to drain social grants and economic opportunities from citizens. The packaging of illegal immigration as a national security threat, which often relies on unsubstantiated claims about the inherent criminality of foreign nationals, provides an official gloss on deeply entrenched governmental xenophobia, in which African immigrants are targets for regular harassment, rounding up and extortion by the police.  This normalisation of immigrants as figures of  resentment may also fuel outbreaks of xenophobic violence, such as the pogroms which occurred across the country in 2008 and in which both migrants and South African citizens were killed.  However, rather than attempting to challenge the social roots  of this violence, the dominant political and media culture in South Africa regards more militarisation and more fortification as the answer to xenophobia. For example, while the opposition Democratic Alliance was quick to claim anti-immigrant sentiments within the ruling  ANC as the root cause of the attacks, it had in the same year issued a report called

Sealing our borders’ which called for an extensive military build up to quell the ‘flood of refugees from other African countries.... (which) exacerbates other problems such as crime and pressure on the welfare system’.

Parodoxically, these efforts to fortify South Africa’s external borders are grounded within a conception of war which views the barriers between the national and the foreign as increasingly irrelevant.  The SANDF Defence Review argues that the ‘contemporary security threats dictate that solutions are often beyond the control or capability of any single state’ and require both interdepartmental and multilateral actions to defeat both international and ‘civil and sub-state threats to the constitutional order’.  In turn, this is seen to necessitate planning for both operations abroad and support missions to the police at home, particularly in quelling endemic community protests. Under this logic, joint police and military training in ‘Fighting-In-Built-Up-Areas (FIBUA)’ is applicable both to speculative foreign engagements and ‘civil unrest’ at home. As one approving  newspaper article about the Review put it ‘the army requires urban warfare training anyway, which has value both in fighting insurgents north of Limpopo and in arresting violent service delivery protesters’.

In a national context in which it is the SAPS, rather than the SANDF, which has a reputation for brutality and systematic violence against the public and corruption, this debordered conception of security may appear to be only a hypothetical problem. However, as Andile Mngxitama argues -  for many of South Africa’s black and poor majority,  social reality already consists of a series of internal borders:

‘truth is the many squatter camps which host millions of South Africans are nothing but permanent refugee camps. The multitudes that are trapped in these squatter camps are the excluded of our democracy. Their lives are punctuated by violence 24/7. The multiple violence of hunger, denigration, hopelessness and perpetual terror of what the state is going to do next, what dust bowl would follow are everyday accompaniments’.

In the same manner in which border security is intended to shield South Africa from poverty and disrepair in neighbouring states, everyday life in the country is made up of a series of physical and psychic checkpoints and barriers which separate wealth and privilege from dispossession. Gated suburbs, heavily surveillanced consumer spaces and  urban planning which still subscribes to the apartheid mentality of dumping people in peripheral townships and transit camps, all serve as reminders that South Africa is still profoundly a country of first and third world conditions overlaid on each other.  Under such conditions, it is no stretch to imagine that tactics of control honed at official borders will soon find application within these unofficial domestic borders of race, class and privilege.

Christopher McMichael has recently completed a PhD on the militarisation and securitisation of the 2010 World Cup

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData