Gaping holes in fences separating SA from Botswana and inadequate patrols are facilitating stock theft, drug smuggling and other misdeeds
A huge gap in the fence marking South Africa’s border with Botswana is likely to trigger suspicion, but white toilet paper loosely hanging on nearby shrubs is unlikely to raise any alarm – unless you are a local.
For North West villagers living close to the double-fenced border, white toilet paper hanging as if it was rolled out over a distance from the wide hole in the fence is a sign that a stolen vehicle made it across, at that very spot.
In several border villages, including Phitsane-Molopo on the Botswana side, life is unhurried, with residents whiling away their days under trees in the scorching heat.
Cattle, goats and donkeys graze close to the fence on the Botswana side, crossing the parched Molopo riverbed across which water has not flowed in abo
The fence is supposed to be a barrier, preventing all sorts of illegal cross-border activity.
But the holes and network of footpaths bear testimony to how secure the border really is.
In some areas, illegal access over the border has been taken to another level, with criminals resorting to cutting the barbed wire with pliers, allowing for stolen cars and cattle to be driven through.
The villagers know all about what is going on, but say they would rather not talk about it for fear of their safety.
Those who did talk to City Press requested that they not be identified.
“The white toilet paper is normally rolled out twice, a few metres apart, said a resident of Tlapeng village, located along the Botswana border west of Mahikeng.
“And for a stolen vehicle crossing the border with lights off at night, the toilet roll serves as a guide for the driver, who will follow it until they are close to a proper road.
“Once you see the paper rolled out from the spot where the fence was cut, then you will know a stolen vehicle has crossed. It may all seem quiet during the day, but there is lots happening on the border at night. It is not always stolen vehicles crossing but stolen cattle as well.”
A local councillor in Phitsane-Molopo, who was introduced as Mme Pandor, told mourners at a funeral recently that they were worried about the level of cross-border crime.
“Our cattle are stolen and led across the border. Our wealth is being stolen, and all we are getting from the other side (South Africa) are those that are killing us,” she said.
At the same funeral service, a police representative told mourners to report any suspicious activities along the border and reiterated Pandor’s words that crime was on the rise.
Although Pandor did not say what the “bad things” coming from South Africa were, just on the other side of the fence in Makgobistad village, residents said marijuana and other drugs were carried over the fence from their side.
Meanwhile, close to one of the spots where the fence has clearly been cut and pulled back, forming a large gap, fresh vehicle tracks could be seen last week.
The stony track and the erosion of the grass bear testimony to its frequent use.
A villager living nearby believes, however, that the fresh tracks were caused by police or army vehicles patrolling the gap – notorious as a crossing for stolen property – albeit irregularly.
“You can see that no car has crossed here in a while, but they (the police and army) are aware that cars do cross here, with at least two having been found on the Botswana side stuck in the bushes in 2018 alone,” said a Makgobistad villager.
“This is not the only spot. There are several others, and in other villages the crossing spots are used mainly for stock theft purposes. We do see things, but we would not want to put our lives in danger, especially because these people are not stealing from us.
“It appears that they are just taking advantage of our poorly patrolled border line and wobbly fences.”
Meanwhile, a woman in Phitsane-Molopo village had her Ford Ranger stolen from her house uphill from the infamous stolen vehicle crossing spot.
Although she could not be traced this week, the story of how she woke up to find only the tracks and her bakkie gone in late November spread like wildfire through the area.
“Police were seen following the tracks all the way down to the fence. The bakkie was driven to South Africa through the same spot where the gap remains open even today,” said a villager.
“We used to live together in harmony, though divided by the border. But now the crime is just like the fence, dividing us even further. Yes, it is not necessarily our immediate neighbours who steal from us, but with all these holes in the fence, the border has totally lost its meaning.”
A resident of the South African side of Tshidilamolomo village said stock theft was their main problem.
“The neglected fence became an opportunity for thieves. Not all cattle were led through gaps where the fence was cut, but they have on their own grazed with their heads down. And, being animals, they are unaware that they are walking into foreign country at several spots where the fence has been totally nonexistent for many years,” the resident said.
“I hear news reports that Botswana has banned meat products from South Africa due to the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Limpopo, but with the fence being in this poor state and in dire need of maintenance and policing, is it going to help having live animals crossing freely into either of the two countries?”
Many villagers on the border will tell you that they were only separated by the fence, and were once one with those on the other side. Many of their villages still bear the same names, like Tshidilamolomo, Mabule and Makgori.
With the border gate situated in Makgobistad, those in other villages complain that there is very little in the way of a border patrol in their areas from the South African side. However, Botswana’s Phitsane-Molopo has regular patrols, with those crossing illegally rounded up, arrested and fined up to 1 000 Pula (R1 308.55).
Several SA Police Service sources told City Press they knew of the gaps in the fence where stolen vehicles were driven through.
“There is a lot happening on the border under the blanket of darkness, with lots of money exchanging hands, drugs, illicit cigarettes and other illegal goods crossing either into Botswana or South Africa,” said an officer.
“People have been arrested, and drugs and illegal cigarettes confiscated, but with this shoulder-length fence and with no electricity and limited police resources, it is unlikely that there will be a total clampdown on these crimes.”
Kgosi Sandylands Motseoakhumo, a traditional leader in Makgobistad, blames the cross-border crime on poor policing and the lack of patrols and visibility.
“Criminals would not be coming to our villages, cut fences and do as they please if there was strong police and army visibility. They are taking advantage of the fact that our borderline is made up of a wobbly fence which cannot even keep a goat away,” he said.
“I talk to the police and army officers, who also complain that they are a small number who are expected to patrol about 10km every day, and I doubt if this is happening in the evening when criminals get to work.”
North West police spokesperson, colonel Adele Myburgh, said: “At this stage, we are unable to respond in detail as we are still engaging with all relevant role players who are involved in policing of borders”.
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