South African special forces troops have begun a six-month deployment along the troubled border with Zimbabwe, where rape, robbery and other crimes are commonplace, and the flow of desperate migrants continues unabated.
"This is a battle to stop people coming across the border illegally - it is not a war. The soldiers know they [migrants] are just trying to survive. It's very different from what they are trained to do, and it is very difficult," Colonel Gert Faul, the South African National Defence Force commander in Limpopo Province, told IRIN.
Two companies of Parabats - elite South African paratroopers deployed in recent years to Sudan, DRC and Burundi as peacekeepers - have arrived at a highly porous border in the first phase of a deployment that will see soldiers from various units return to all South Africa's land borders in the next few years.
The triple fence of razor-wire and an electric fence that marks the territorial limit is punctured at regular intervals by worn and rutted tracks weaving through it, a testimony to the heavy human traffic.
Former President Thabo Mbeki's administration removed border security from the army and handed it to the police in 2003, just as the effects of the Zimbabwe crisis began to gather momentum, spilling economic migrants in search of employment into the neighbouring states.
The army is re-establishing the border's decommissioned radio network, insisting on the resumption of malarial spraying programmes by the health department, and imposing a "24/7" approach to border security, rather than the "shift-work" of the police. Even so, Faul concedes, the number of troops falls far short of what is required to staunch the flow of border-jumpers.
A survey in 2005 by army trackers, who compared human tracks through the fence to those apprehended by the police, found that about 15 percent of undocumented migrants were caught.
The border fence, inherited from the apartheid era, is set a few hundred metres south of the international border, which runs down the centre of the Limpopo River. It has three lines of razor wire with an electric fence between, and the voltage can be calibrated from deadly to the uncomfortable electric tingle used for game fencing.
At 10km intervals along the roughly 250km frontier there are Echo stations - brick and mortar buildings with sleeping quarters for 10 men, and dated but functional computer facilities that monitor and control the electricity range when the fence is switched on - which provide the precise location of any contacts or attempts to tamper with it.
The undulating bush terrain between Echo stations is where the troops have begun to engage with the marauding border gangs that are blamed for the sexual violence and robbery against migrants.
Cat and mouse games
In the few short weeks that the troops have been on the border, this has turned into a game of cat and mouse. L/Cpl John Molefe told IRIN at a temporary reconnaissance post with sweeping views across the river, that their job was "intelligence driven".
Their opponents, the guma-guma (a local name for the border gangs) held an advantage as they knew the border backwards, and it was "pretty much a family business" developed over the past 40 years of smuggling contraband - from people, cooking oil and Viagra to abalone poached in South African waters - between the countries in both directions.
|People should be able to just walk across the bridge; legally, that should happen|
Molefe is part of a "stick", a detachment of seven soldiers, who spend 14 days constantly on the move in the bush before being rotated to an Echo station. Their work begins at dusk, when they set up listening posts to find smuggling routes and apprehend people crossing illegally.
Private Donovan Smith told IRIN the guma-guma had quickly adapted to the presence of the troops and were sending out their own scouts to track the soldiers' movements.
"Yesterday we caught a woman and eight children, among them babies," Smith said, but the guma-guma were difficult opponents, as they blended in with the migrants, and the four that had been caught were found to be carrying both South African and Zimbabwean passports. The guma-guma, any contraband seized, and people crossing illegally were immediately handed over to the police.
David Maynier, the shadow Minister of Defence and Military Veterans in the opposition Democratic Alliance, told IRIN that during the period when soldiers were absent from the border, the police had "raised the white flag" on their attempt to impose border security.
At the main point of entry between the Zimbabwean town of Beitbridge and the South African town of Musina, illegal migrants enter the country using the bridge over the Limpopo River and then drop down onto the bank a few metres from a South African police station, avoiding immigration controls.
The police sit drinking tea and smoking cigarettes, oblivious to migrant families crawling under the broken fences with their bundles of belongings. Police minister Nathi Mthethwa told parliament recently that the police spent R123.8 million (US$16.4 million) securing South Africa's land and sea borders in 2009, of which Zimbabwe border accounted for about R25 million ($3.4 million).
"By law there is a way to come into the country," Director Modiri Matthews of South Africa's Inspectorate of the Department of Home Affairs told IRIN, but could not comment on the behaviour of other units responsible for border security.
Tara Polzer, a senior researcher at the Forced Migration Studies Programme (FMSP) at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, told IRIN "People should be able to just walk across the bridge; legally, that should happen."
In 2009 a proposed special permit for Zimbabweans was put on hold, but a moratorium on deportations was adopted, as well as a 90-day visa for nationals of countries belonging to the Southern African Development Community, provided it was accompanied by a valid travel document.
The vast majority of Zimbabwean economic migrants coming to South Africa apply for an asylum seekers permit, which allows them to work, but also clogs up the system and prejudices those with valid reasons seeking sanctuary from persecution.
Rape on the rise
Some estimates have put the number of Zimbabweans residing in South Africa at 4 milliion, although Polzer said her unit's estimate was that there were about 1.2 million or at most 1.5 million Zimbabweans in the country.
She said people opted to run the gauntlet of the border because they were ignorant of the regulations, and that was providing border gangs with a constant supply of rape and robbery victims.
Photo: Guy Oliver/IRIN
|South African soldiers apprehend illegal migrants from Zimbabwe|
Giuseppe de Mola, project coordinator in Musina of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the international medical charity, told IRIN the South African government was keeping up appearances by saying the border was "not open", when in reality it was.
It is estimated that nearly a third of people residing in Musina - which is said to have witnessed an annual growth rate of 50 percent - are from Zimbabwe, and at least 300 people a day arrive in South Africa. Among them are victims of rape and assault.
"I crossed the river with a group of four people. We were met by a gang of seven guma-guma on the South African side, who were armed with knives and guns. They forced me to have sex with the women in my group and I refused. Then one of the guma-guma forced his penis into my anus and ejaculated inside," according to testimony given to MSF.
From the beginning of 2010 to early May, MSF treated 103 survivors of sexual violence, of which 71 cases had occurred since 1 March. De Mola said these were reported rapes, as well as cases from questionnaires completed by rape victims.
Rape victims had also witnessed other, unreported, rapes while crossing the border, pushing up the number for March 2010 to more than 100. In March 2010 only four rapes were reported to Musina police.
MSF provides rape victims with post-exposure prophylactics if they seek assistance within 72 hours of the rape, counselling services, and HIV testing. De Mola said people might discover they were HIV-positive, not always as a consequence of rape, and experience a double shock.
"Sometimes it might be someone's first HIV test, and they find out they are HIV positive and then you have to counsel for both the rape and the HIV."