In light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, on March 19th South African authorities outlined plans to construct a 40km fence on either side of the Beitbridge Land Port of Entry – the busiest border crossing between South Africa and Zimbabwe. According to South Africa’s Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille, the barrier will “ensure that no undocumented or infected persons cross into the country.” This is the South African government’s latest move to secure its borders in reaction to the spread of Covid-19 and, as Minister Lille stated, an important step in enforcing the closure of 35 of the country’s 53 land ports of entry announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on March 15th.
The Zimbabwean response to the project has been sympathetic. Government spokesman Nick Mangwana stated that South Africa has a “sovereign right” to control its borders, while Zimbabweans citizens interviewed by Al Jazeera similarly claimed they didn’t “think there is a problem if they [South Africa] are trying to ensure that people use designated border points to enter.” On the South African side, reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. Reports from SABC News have suggested that local residents and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) have welcomed the news, believing the fence can stem smuggling and illegal immigration.
The SANDF response hints at the project’s complicated political connotations. On the one hand, it is reassuring to see the South African government taking up the World Health Organization (WHO)’s plea that African nations ‘wake up’ to the imminent threat of coronavirus. On March 19th the number of coronavirus cases in South Africa surpassed 150 and, while Zimbabwe had no reported cases at the time the fence was proposed, any preventative measures are welcome in a country with fewer than 1,000 ICU beds for a population of 56 million. On the other hand, the fence can also been seen as the latest development in South Africa’s xenophobic war on labour migration from Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwean migrant work in South African has a long and fraught history. Today millions of Zimbabweans are rumoured to live and work in South Africa, although UN data from 2017 suggests that the number is closer to 650,000. Tensions between native South Africans and Zimbabwean immigrants has been brewing for some time, with the BBC reporting an eruption in xenophobic violence in 2019 when a Zimbabwean man was set on fire by rioters. The South African government has compounded these issues by doing little to protect migrants’ welfare and using severe measures to drive them out, such as harassing migrant-owned businesses in 2015 during Operation Fiela. If the newly proposed fence and other restrictions on migration into South African turn out to be long-term fixtures, a necessary emergency measure could become a tool of the South African governments’ anti-migrant agenda.
Ultimately, the proposed 40km fence between South Africa and Zimbabwe could, in combination with effective policies to halt the spread of Covid-19 inside South Africa, provide a useful safety net in one government’s fight against a growing pandemic. However, if such a measure becomes permanent it could also be used as a draconian weapon in South Africa’s ongoing fight against migration from Zimbabwe. Only time will tell.