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OPINION | Siseko Maposa: Is The Border Management Agency The Answer To Border Security?

Transparency and accountability will be pivotal in determining the success of the Border Management Act, which was signed in law last year, writes Siseko Maposa.

In July 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed into law the Border Management Authority Act (BMA act) aimed at improving South Africa’s border security. Flowing from that, the government announced its intention to launch a new state-owned entity in 2022, the Border Management Authority (BMA), to manage all border security-related affairs in South Africa, including the lawful movement of people and goods.

The BMA represents a comprehensive approach to border management by South Africa. It establishes an Inter-Ministerial Committee chaired by the Minister of Home Affairs and comprises the Ministers of Defense, Police, State Security, Agriculture, Finance, Environmental Affairs, Health, Trade and Industry, and Transport. It also establishes a Border Technical Committee from the relevant state departments and institutions and an Advisory Committees that the Minister of Home Affairs may appoint.

Cash injection

The government’s plans to strengthen South Africa’s borders are welcomed, particularly considering South Africa’s current porous borders, which have resulted in the influx of undocumented migrants into the country. The government’s 2017 White Paper on International Migration for South Africa raised concerns about irregular immigration, noting that it led “to unacceptable levels of corruption, human rights abuse, and national security risks”. Many have also argued that the increasing number of undocumented migrants in the country has led to devastating socio-economic ills, including a rise in crime levels. This has also fueled xenophobic tensions, particularly against African immigrants.

To get the BMA fully operational, an estimated cash injection of over R3 billion will be needed to compensate employees and an additional R5.28 billion is budgeted for goods and services. According to its strategic millstones, by the end of May 2022, all key positions of the BMA are targeted to be filled. For the time being, the BMA is set to remain incubated as a branch of the Department of Home Affairs until March 2023. By 1 April 2023, the agency is set to operate as a standing Schedule 3A public entity reporting to the Minister of Home Affairs.

The establishment of the BMA and the costs associated with its operationalization have not escaped public scrutiny. While some have argued that the costs associated with establishing the BMA are excessive, others have noted that the government’s posture as espoused in the BMA Act represents a dangerous divergence from South Africa’s liberal foreign policy. There have also been arguments that the BMA will lead to gross human rights violations and increased xenophobia against immigrants in the country.

READ | SA’s Border Management Authority needs R3bn to pay salaries

This latter argument does not hold, for it does not account for how an entity such as BMA, founded in law, would necessarily lead to human rights abuses and xenophobia. It also flows from the restrictive view that enforcement of immigration laws must be xenophobic. It ignores the genuine concern that South Africa’s immigration system is weak and border management non-existent. If something is not done to remedy this situation, genuine concerns of poor black South Africans will continue to be exploited by xenophobes such as Herman Mashaba for their own political ends.

South Africa is a nation-state guided by its Constitution, domestic and international law to secure and maintain its sovereignty, which accords the government the responsibility to secure its borders, land, and people. For far too long, the South African government has approached issues of border security lethargically. This has worsened the flow of undocumented migrants and transnational organized crime such as illicit trade and smuggling of stolen goods, which has a negative impact on South Africa’s economic activity.

Poor policy

The cost-benefit analysis of the BMA must be located within the overall context of the government’s responsibility to provide social and economic stability. Open, honest, and fair conversations must be had on how government can practically give effect its legal mandate to protect the country and all who live in it.

Having said that, the government will need to attend to critical issues that may stifle the BMA from achieving its vision. South Africa’s porous borders are a result of poor policy development, coordination, and implementation, as well as venal immigration officials who have undermined vaunted state capacity to tackle illegal immigration. Undoubtedly, the BMA will fail if the current systemic, governance, and institutional weaknesses, at the state level, are not addressed forthrightly.

Additionally, a balance needs to be struck among various aspects of effective border management, as articulated in the BMA Act. Government should avoid the temptation of over-relying on the military to secure its borders. In regions that have opted to increase border militarization, such as the European Union, incidences of grave human rights abuses against immigrants and asylum seekers, both documented and undocumented, have been noted, which is highly unpalatable in the context of liberal democracy.

Furthermore, despite an increase in headcount and budget of patrol officers, the United States has not won the war on illegal immigrants. For example, along its border with Mexico, since 1986 to date, the number of border officers has ballooned over the years from 2 000 to 20 000 and has seen the border patrol budget increase from $200 million to $5 billion. However, this has failed to contain the problem as the undocumented population has swelled from around 2 million to 11 million people.

Dangerous routes

Usually, such as in the European case, undocumented immigrants simply find different and more dangerous routes of entry, which not only leads to increased deaths but also the need for increases in border security budgets. Without diminishing its objectives, the BMA must learn from such cases and implement border militarisation in a way that allocates resources optimally while safeguarding the human rights of asylum seekers.

Additionally, transparency and accountability will be pivotal in determining the success of the BMA. Both the President, as the head of the national executive, and Parliament must play their part in providing comprehensive oversight of the IMC.

Furthermore, there is a need for improvements to the current vetting system for border security bureaucrats and officers to rid the system of corruption. Another success determining factor will be how diligently government peruses a regional approach to border security. This will require robust diplomatic engagements and increased coordination with neighboring states, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), African Union (AU) member states, and the broader international community.

South Africa has been notorious for creating entities and coming up with new terminology to address issues of national importance, with little result. Can the BMA be a game-changer it is envisaged?

– Siseko Maposa is a Public Policy and Stakeholder Relations Officer at Frontline Africa Advisory.

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