ISS Today

South Africa’s Border Management Authority dream could be a nightmare


By Bugs Bunny
07. Sep. 2020 0

With its deep management problems, centralising border functions under Home Affairs is an expensive and curious decision.

First published by ISS Today
Until recently, managing South Africa’s borders was the task of at least
seven different government departments working at land, air and sea
ports of entry. This proved taxing, particularly as movement in and out
of South Africa continues to rise.
The new Border Management Authority (BMA) Act is meant to improve
efficiencies by providing a single authority to oversee all aspects of the
border environment. The law also requires coordination with other
government bodies and border communities.
In principle, the idea of more streamlined border management that
reduces corruption, prevents illicit trafficking and facilitates movement
of people and goods is welcome. However the BMA alone won’t resolve
these problems. It will be costly to the country, and places more
responsibility on an already strained Department of Home Affairs.
Before the BMA was established, coordination between the various
government departments wasn’t always smooth sailing. In 2010, an
Inter-Agency Clearing Forum was created for the Soccer World Cup. It
comprised Home Affairs, the South African Police Service (SAPS), the
South African Revenue Service (SARS), and the departments responsible
for agriculture, health, public works and state security. The team
improved coordination among the departments and ensured effective
border management and law enforcement.

Until recently, managing South Africa’s borders was the task of at least
seven different government departments working at land, air and sea
ports of entry. This proved taxing, particularly as movement in and out
of South Africa continues to rise.

The BMA is an attempt to replicate this forum and make it a permanent
fixture. The lengthy process of enacting the BMA law wasn’t without
controversy. One critic called the BMA Bill ‘one of the worst pieces of
legislation to ever hit the House.’ Cabinet proposed the new authority in
2013 and the bill was introduced to Parliament in May 2016.
Concerns raised by SARS, SAPS and the SA National Defence Force led
to several revisions. In its 2018 submission on the bill, the Institute for
Security Studies raised concerns about the securitisation of borders, the
threat of corruption and abuses, and Home Affairs’ capacity to lead the
initiative. The bill was revised in October 2019, then adopted and signed
into law in July 2020.

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photos: GCIS / EPA)

Now most border management functions will be centralised under Home
Affairs. The law creates ‘border management areas’ in a radius of 10 km
from land and sea borders, under the BMA’s control. It includes the
establishment of an armed border guard with law enforcement
The authority has until 21 January 2021 to conclude implementation
protocols with the army, police and revenue service, who together with
postal services will retain their core functions in border areas. The state
anticipates that establishing a functioning authority could take up to 15
years. It estimates the initial phase to cost R3.8 billion a year and R10.3
billion annually when fully implemented – probably a vast
With borders still closed for most travel due to COVID-19, Home Affairs
and its counterparts in the BMA inter-ministerial committee can get to
work on protocol agreement. The committee comprises the following
departments: Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; Defence and Military
Veterans; Environmental Affairs; Finance; Health; Police; State Security;
Trade and Industry; and Transport.
On paper all seems in order, but major implementation challenges lie
ahead. Home Affairs is a large department with a mostly administrative
mandate. Its deep management and legal problems have led judges to
describe the running of the department as ‘incompetent’ and
There are numerous accounts of abuse and corruption by department
officials and this culture will probably extend to the new authority.
Armed border guards with expanded powers could lead to increased
arrests and detention of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.
Meanwhile, Home Affairs’ current annual employment budget is R3.5
billion. The BMA is expected to ask Treasury for R3 billion more,
doubling the department’s budget to bring 21 000 border employees
under its charge. Given Home Affairs’ already abysmal management
track record, how will it effectively oversee this increased staff
Less than a month before Parliament passed the BMA Act, the Auditor-
General shared a report that found a notable regression in the
department’s management of illegal migrants since the last audit in
2007. The report said it would take 68 years to finalise the current
asylum case backlog even with no new cases.
The new law is also criticised as xenophobic and seeking, above all, to
restrict access to migrants and violate their rights. The act requires BMA

officers to respect fundamental rights, including of vulnerable groups
such as trafficking victims, refugees and asylum seekers. But with Home
Affairs’ poor track record on managing xenophobia, concerns about its
added powers are valid.
While the act purports to address other national security concerns, its
anti-migrant overtones are clear. Throughout BMA debates, members of
Parliament and the Home Affairs minister disproportionately focused on
irregular migration. Highly inaccurate cause-effect statements blamed
rampant xenophobia in South Africa on a lack of border management.
This follows a pattern of blaming foreigners for South Africa’s problems.
The BMA is the latest in a series of regressive measures that negatively
affect African migrants. In January, amendments to the Refugee Act
increased the probability of asylum seekers and refugees being
unlawfully detained and deported. In May, the Portfolio Committee on
Home Affairs heard presentations on establishing one-stop border posts
and processing centres for refugees near the borders that will inevitably
prejudice asylum seekers.
Meanwhile progressive proposals made in Home Affairs’ 2017 White
Paper to roll out Southern African Development Community visas for
economic migrants and offer visa regularisation schemes for people
already in the country remain stalled.
As the African Union (AU) works towards progressive border agendas,
free trade and free movement, South Africa’s move to militarise its
borders will serve as a barrier. As current AU chair, South African
President Cyril Ramaphosa should consider the message the BMA Act
sends to the continent.
The country should be championing safe and legal avenues for low-
skilled migrants, workers and traders. These robust migration
management tools are most likely to reduce irregular movement. DM

Ottilia Anna Maunganidze, Head of Special Projects and Aimée-Noël
Mbiyozo, Senior Research Consultant, Migration, ISS Pretoria

Absa OBP

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