Sunday Times 21 June 2020

Two months after holes started appearing in SA’s hastily built northern border fence, they have multiplied – and some have grown big enough to drive a truck through.

Thousands of Zimbabweans are now wading across the Limpopo every day, either to buy groceries from bakkies that drive through the fence to the river bank, or to seek their fortune in SA.

The collapse of large sections of the R37m fence – hurriedly erected at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, ostensibly to curb the spread of the virus – comes as a report into its construction reached the desk of public works & infrastructure minister Patricia de Lille this weekend.

The report, compiled by public works anti-corruption investigators with Special Investigating Unit (SIU) assistance, will also go to auditor-general Kimi Makwetu, who is conducting a separate inquiry into the procurement of the Beitbridge fence.

A senior public works official close to the internal investigation, and speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “The report makes adverse findings on the planning and execution of the project, which constitutes irregular expenditure.”

SIU spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago said public works deputy director-general Imtiaz Faizal asked for assistance with the investigation, and the unit seconded staff.

“On May 29 an interim report was submitted to the department,” he said. “As we speak we are engaging the department over the final report.”

De Lille’s spokesperson, Zara Nicholson, said the fence contract is being investigated by the public works anti-corruption unit and Makwetu, emphasising that there is no official SIU probe.

So far, the contractor has been paid R21m. “All further payments to the contractor have stopped pending the outcome of the investigations,” she said.

“Once the fence was completed at the end of April it became the responsibility of the South African National Defence Force to patrol and secure the border, as this is their mandate.”

The razor-wire fence is now the scene of what one resident described as a “frenzy” of smuggling, which is ignored by patrolling troops.

“What is happening here is total madness,” said Izak Nel, the owner of Kawia Rural Anti-Poaching, who is assisting with border patrols.

“Delivery vans have been lining up along the road, transporting food and supplies. From the counts we did, nearly 500 people crossed through a single 10km stretch [of the fence] in one day last week.

“There have been so many accidents that at one point it looked like a multi-car pile-up on the N1.”

When the Sunday Times visited the fence in April, it found holes that people were sneaking through one at a time under cover of darkness. This week, the team found nearly 100 people crossing the fence simultaneously in daylight, using a hole created by a bakkie.

Despite soldiers patrolling on motorbikes 1km away, people carrying food and building supplies chatted and laughed loudly as they crossed.

Whole sections of the fence are missing. Holes to the west of Beitbridge begin 2km from the border post, with some nearly 10m wide.

Videos obtained by the Sunday Times show people pouring into SA through holes the size of trucks, with the breaches occurring during the middle of the day last week.

In one, an army of porters can be seen offloading groceries from a bakkie, driven through the fence and down to the river.

Other videos, also filmed at midday 400m from an army observation post, show a trail of people crossing the Limpopo back into Zimbabwe, carrying groceries.

The 1.8m-high fence, consisting of six rolls of coiled razor wire and razor wire mesh, was erected by Magwa Construction in March. It follows a servitude road used by farmers whose properties border the Limpopo, and is generally between 50m and 80m from the river.

Victor Baloyi, a Zimbabwean man interviewed moments after he walked into SA and encountered three soldiers on foot patrol this week, said he is looking for work.

“There is nothing back home. My family has no food. I have to work so that I can feed them. It was easy to come across.”

A soldier, speaking anonymously, said what is happening is understandable. “It’s not just hungry civilians coming across the fence. It’s police officers, soldiers, and nurses. We have come across lots.”

He said it has become almost impossible to stop the surge. “We have stepped up patrols, but there are just too many people coming across.”

He said instead of confiscating goods, they often turn the vehicles around and send them back to Musina. “You see bakkies and Toyota Corollas coming packed with food. The parcels are wrapped tightly in plastic and taped. That’s to make them waterproof.”

The auditor-general’s spokesperson, Africa Boso, said: “We are currently engaging with the public works department to finalise the process of how our audit of this matter will proceed.”

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