Protecting South Africa's borders: Rocky roads and unrelenting conditions

A SANDF soldier uses binoculars to survey the border post between Mozambique and South Africa in the Mpumalanga province.  (Photographer: Alex Mitchley)
A SANDF soldier uses binoculars to survey the border post between Mozambique and South Africa in the Mpumalanga province. (Photographer: Alex Mitchley)

Despite unrelenting terrain, the beating sun and vast tracks of land to patrol, South African Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers on the borders have still managed to apprehend more than 6 000 people - allegedly for trying to illegally enter South Africa from Mozambique since January. 

News24 visited the Macadamia military base in Mpumalanga near the Lebombo border post on Thursday.

There, base commander Major Marvin Manganye spoke about their mission to maintain South African sovereignty.

"Due to economic decline and political unrest in the neighbouring countries and the rest of Africa, the province has seen an increase of illegal foreigners settling in the area or moving through the area into the interior of South Africa," said Manganye.

He added that soldiers also dealt with foreigners who smuggled contraband cigarettes, drugs, alcohol and vehicles across the borders. 

SANDF successes

The precise number of people apprehended since the beginning of the year, for allegedly attempting to enter the country illegally, was 6 462.

In addition, 89 hijacked vehicles worth more than R28m, which were allegedly smuggled into Mozambique, were seized.

SANDF, Soldier, Army

              Lance Corporal Sisa Foxi stationed at his outpost in the Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga. (Photo: Alex Mitchley) 

The SANDF also arrested 159 people in connection with other smuggling crimes since the beginning of the year. 

On Thursday morning, News24 witnessed how patrolling soldiers chased several people who allegedly entered South Africa through a hole in the border fence. The group fled into no man's land on the Mozambican side of the border. 

Soldiers stationed at Macadamia Military Base say they have had to deal with 14 undocumented persons trying to enter South Africa since the start of November.

Along the 168km border of Mozambique and Swaziland, which borders Mpumalanga, the fence has been destroyed at various points.

This part of the border is protected by soldiers deployed in Macadamia. 

SANDF in the Kruger Park 

News24 also visited the Sand River Military Base in the Kruger National Park (KNP) and accompanied soldiers patrolling along the 189-kilometre-long border.

In the KNP, soldiers rarely have to deal with vehicle smuggling or undocumented persons trying to enter the country.

Instead, they have been deployed to protect the borders from rhino and elephant poachers.

According to the defence force, 344 rhino carcasses and the remains of 65 elephants have been discovered in the park since January. Four hundred and six suspected poachers have been arrested and 156 weapons have been confiscated. 

Rhino, Carcass, poaching

                         A carcass of a rhino that was poached in the Kruger National Park (Photo: Alex Mitchley) 

Lieutenant Nsovo Tshelele, who is a platoon commander overseeing soldiers deployed in five-man squads that protect a 70km area in the park, told News24 that three rhinos were recently poached near the border.

Tshelele explained that the poachers used homemade silencers, either made from PVC piping or from two-litre plastic bottles, and that they must have struck at night when soldiers were not allowed to patrol.

Difficulties in protecting the border

Tshelele explained that it is immensely difficult to patrol vast tracks in "terrain that is not forgiving".

She added that getting to certain sections of the park along the border could take hours because of the terrain. Certain parts of the border were even difficult to access by vehicle. 

Within the KNP, soldiers have to be wary of dangerous animals roaming the area, including lions, leopards and highly venomous snakes. 

"Some of the roads are not moving straight to the fence. We have to move away from the fence, and [patrolling] to the fence, we come across dangerous lions, but luckily we have been taught about animal behaviour," said Lance Corporal Sisa Foxi.

While patrolling with soldiers on Wednesday and Thursday, two patrol vehicles had flat tyres as they wrestled with the rugged and rocky terrain, and steep inclines and declines along the border fences.

Soldier, vehicle, flat tyre, SANDF

               A soldier changes a flat tyre during a patrol along the border of Mozambique in Mpumalanga (Photo: Alex Mitchley)

Mpumalanga shares a 780km border with Mozambique and Swaziland combined. 

One battalion, consisting of three companies, has been deployed by the SANDF to protect this border, which has 11 ports of entry, including three commercial ports.

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