Series Editor: Jonathan Crush

Southern African Migration Project

Migration Policy Series No. 26

PLEASE NOTE: Readers are welcome to reproduce and reference
this article as long as appropriate acknowledgments are given.


It is impractical to treat Lesotho like any other foreign country in regulating movement across borders. Until 1963 no passports were required to enter South Africa from Lesotho, and it was only the security concerns of the apartheid government that led to travel documents being required. Following South Africa’s transition to democracy, border controls with Lesotho might reasonably be subject to review. The report argues that streamlining, integration, and relaxation of immigration services at the Free State Border posts would not only be less costly and more cost-effective, but also mutually beneficial for com-munities and government agencies on both sides of the border. While Lesotho citizens are covered by the same South African immigration regulations as those of any other country, in practice quite different regulations, permits, concessions, and arrangements are also in place and national policies are often ignored in accommodation to local realities.

There is an assumption in South Africa that liberalised border regulation would be to the exclusive benefit of citizens of neighbouring countries seeking economic advantages to the detriment of South Africa and South Africans. In the Free State towns along the Lesotho border, however, South African businesses would be the major beneficiaries of rationalised border regulation. More important, the economic development of the entire Caledon River valley depends upon such rationalisation.

The report thus establishes the principles of bi-lateral relationship that should underlie management of the border with Lesotho. Second, it offers a portrait of how the border actually operates within the context of current immigration regulation and practice. Third, it reviews the problems that have arisen from the character and development of that operational context. Four, it provides a limited set of possible solu-tions to those problems and alternatives for post operations in specific relation to the probable costs and benefits of each potential course of action (or inaction).

In view of the limited period available for the study, the decision was taken to focus on the two most important posts in the Free State where cross-border traffic of all kinds is greatest, Maseru and Ficksburg Bridges. Border officials at both places argue that border operations ought to be made more efficient and effective. To this end, they argue for the commitment of greater, not fewer resources, specifically the provision of more numerous, better trained staff, physical plant, and computer technology.

They did not consider how such improvements might generate any portion of the revenues required to pay for them. Nor had they considered the possibility that removing immigration officials from the Lesotho border altogether and redeploying them to other stations where staffing was more necessary might be the most cost-effective and rational solution for the DHA.

Lesotho contributes over 40% of the movement of people across South Africa’s borders from all neighbouring countries. Maseru and Ficksburg Bridges handle, by a very great margin, more travellers than any other border posts with any country. As a result, thousands of six months concession permits have to be issued at these posts, drastically reducing the monitoring of cross border traffic. Only a massive provision of additional resources would eliminate the necessity for six months concessions. Junior DHA staff and security guards at the two posts complain of overwork and poor conditions of pay and service, and additional resources would be required to address these problems as well.

A control-oriented policy to operate the posts with even limited effectiveness would need new resources for the following:
1) A new, larger building with more staff and windows open during the daylight shifts at Maseru Bridge.
2) Separate windows for South African, Lesotho, and third state passport holders, and "streams" for goods lorries, private light vehicles, and pedestrians
3) An end to the 6 months concession system, with every traveller reporting to immigration at the windows.
4) Electrically charged fencing along the entire Free State border.
5) More police patrols and road blocks, operated away from the border posts themselves, where inquiries from officials are anticipated
6) Better training both prior to and during service for all ranks
7) Connections to the central MCS system and the input of data on people crossing, along with accessibility of police and immigration records through Pretoria, providing information on the frequency, nature and pattern of individual crossings.

These changes could only be implemented at enormous additional expense.

The physical, social, economic, and regulatory conditions in place at Maseru and Ficksburg Bridges create an environment in which circumvention of immigration and passport control regulations for personal gain is greatly facilitated, and transparent attention to legal responsibilities and procedures is discouraged. There is no document, permit, regulation, or procedure required by South Africa at the border that cannot be obtained, ignored, or circumvented at a price. There is no form of regulation that would do anything but exacerbate the environment for corruption without the commitment of very significant additional resources. In the absence of such an increased outlay, border control produces border corruption. This report argues, conversely, that the harmonisation of regulations among the three services working at the border, the easing of travel requirements for Lesotho and South African citizens, and the scaling down of immigration service operations would do much to reduce or even eliminate this environment for corruption.

Are existing border controls at all effective in controlling the movement of unauthorized migrants from both Lesotho to South Africa? Immigration officials say that in practice they are not. Nor is this simply a result of corruption. Lesotho citizens are given visitors’ visas as long as they have valid passports, and South African identity documents have never been difficult for them to obtain. Those who really wish to cross without documents can easily use the river or "jump the fence".

The SAMP surveys reported here demonstrate the great number of Basotho who have significant regular involvement in South African society; the difficulty of separating Lesotho nationals from the rest of South Africa’s population; and the futility and waste involved in efforts to keep them out. The data show that a most of those who cross the border to South Africa go to the border towns and the neighbouring areas, and soon return to Lesotho. Most Basotho go to South Africa to purchase goods and attend to personal matters. Based on the annual statistics from DHA, large numbers of Basotho go to South Africa for business purposes and thus help to support the economies of the border towns. The economies of the border towns are heavily dependant upon Basotho who buy goods and services. Stringent border controls would impact negatively on the economic situation in the border towns. Some 63% of respondents interviewed in a survey of border-crossers noted that they experienced problems crossing the border. The problems mentioned by most respondents were long queues and slow service.

Other complaints included irregular and corrupt procedures, unfair and hostile attitudes and behaviour on the part of SA officials, poor facilities, discrimination against black travellers, overly stringent and inconvenient restrictions on travel, and favouritism towards certain known individuals.

Asked what should be done to improve border crossing, 47% said it should be easier for people to get six-month permits. Almost 72% noted that it is not at all likely for someone to be caught while crossing the border illegally. It is hard to justify the expenditure on border controls when these have so little effect on the ability of people to cross the border when and where they choose. Results of the surveys indicate that the border between Lesotho and South Africa is a hindrance to movement but that it is not insurmountable. People are able to cross with or without documents with little fear of being arrested. They also do not mind if they are arrested and returned to Lesotho.

There is no official revenue to be derived from passport control. Stamps, visas, concessions, and permits are graciously issued without charge. Unfortunately the delays (at times seemingly deliberate) and inefficiencies at Maseru and Ficksburg Bridges lead to the collection of significant personal revenue by officials and those members of the public who assist them, but these payments do not find their way into the government account.

The attempt to require customs gate passes was found to be unenforceable at Maseru Bridge, and would not in any case have brought in significant additional customs or tax revenue. It does not appear that any increase in the monitoring of customs and tax regulation would justify the budgetary resources and major inconvenience to the general travelling public that such monitoring would incur.

The stamping of every South African citizen and permanent resident travelling to and from Lesotho has no economic benefits. With regard to Lesotho nationals, unauthorized immigration, employment, free use of South African social services, and criminal activity in general have been cited as reasons why control of Lesotho passports must be maintained. This report suggests, however, that immigration and passport control are entirely ineffective in dealing with these problems, and do not repay the costs incurred in providing them. Within South Africa, Lesotho citizens must have study or work permits or labour contracts in order to legally remain. In brief, it is simply not worthwhile to maintain border controls for the purpose of protecting the South African labour market.

Recent statistics indicate that citizens of third states may use Lesotho and its border posts to obtain entry to and even six months concessions enabling them to reside illegally in South Africa. Immigration officials at Maseru Bridge, however, argued that such persons could be more effectively monitored at South Africa’s international airports, if cooperation with Lesotho officials stationed at Johannesburg International could be arranged. While SAPS officers emphasised how useful it might be if computers at passport control had information on wanted criminals, the legal status of the passport holder, or even on when and how often a particular person crossed the border, at present DHA neither collects nor has access to any such information. Immigration officers merely check whether the traveller has valid documents. At present 10 percent of travellers are "spot searched", and of those caught in violation of the law, 80 percent have valid six months concessions. Criminals wish to avoid the inconvenience, delay, and risk of illegal crossing just like everyone else, and officials of both services noted that the documents of criminals are most often quite in order.

Rivalries and an underlying lack of coordination among the public agencies serving at the border emerged when senior police officers were asked to comment on whether, as at smaller posts, the SAPS might run all operations, as they did before 1994. If some of the savings would be given over to them for expanded and improved services, senior police officers at both Maseru and Ficksburg Bridges favoured this plan, since they regarded immigration as of little use in itself. This would allow police to concentrate on crime control while facilitating the freer and more productive movement of the ordinary public, and to coordinate passport, permit, and crime control operations with the MCS within a single service.

While free movement through the posts might encourage Basotho to attempt to work illegally, better police services, coordinated at a higher level, would be a more effective means of dealing with this. Senior officers at Ladybrand pointed out, however, that SAPS investigators regularly arrest members of their own service for taking bribes, and for assisting criminal escapes and the transport of stolen vehicles and contraband at posts on all South Africa’s borders.

If South Africa wished to withdraw immigration services from the border this could be more than compensated for by increasing resources and cooperation in policing. This would allow for a more effective concentration on both undocumented migration and cross-border crime, as passport control presently does little to control either one, without inconveniencing the law-abiding public. Joint patrols for illegal crossing and smuggling along the river itself might become feasible, along with more effective cooperative efforts to control the crime syndicates that span the border. An example is the current close cooperation between the Lesotho vehicle theft unit and the SAPS. Criminals based in Lesotho who steal livestock and attack farms in the Free State use the river to cross and re-cross, and immigration and passport control at the posts play virtually no role in controlling these sorts of crime.

The river crossings for the most part connect Free State farms with Lesotho villages, and most illegal crossings take place where there is not a formal border post for a considerable distance, such as between Maseru and Van Rooyen’s Gate. Border fencing, where it has not been completely destroyed, has no practical effect on crime or unauthorized crossing.

Beefing up the SANDF presence on the Free State-Lesotho border, with its attendant increase in expenditure, is in any event not what the government or the army desire, and there are currently plans to close down the SANDF base at Ladybrand altogether.

Officials of the Lesotho Government might well agree to the removal of South African DHA services from the border. If the DHA feels passports must be stamped, all Basotho could be allowed to get an automatic and free six months concession, which would provide a stamp and put them in the system twice a year at least.

Virtually every business and professional leader in both Ladybrand/Manyatseng and Ficksburg/Meqheleng has important interests, enterprises and associations across the border in Lesotho. Their activities generate economic development, and thereby the private employment and public revenue that benefit government and help pay for border services. According to this view, DHA operations would be more productive for the region and the country if they facilitated rather than hindered such legitimate, taxable economic activity. Eastern Free State business people believe they could not survive in business without personal "connections" at the border. Border service officials, they claim, have turned the border into an "own income-generating scheme", and that official forms and procedures are required simply to encourage business to pay on the spot to circumvent or manipulate them. Business leaders suggest that passport control might well be abandoned, as it encourages rather than reduces illegal activity. In any case, they insist that it is impossible to do business at all without six months concessions, which ought to be automatic for business travellers.

They further request that business people on both sides of the valley should have special permits or a reciprocal bi-national arrangement, as a good deal of time is wasted at the border. Good cross-border relations, especially in the form of harmonisation of legal regulations, reciprocal permissions and agreements, and better working relationships are desired by businesses on both sides. The problem of poor bi-lateral relations was particularly emphasized by black business located in the border townships. Business people in Ladybrand/Manyatseng and Ficksburg/ Meqheleng feel that free movement for Lesotho and South Africa citizens would encourage and promote cross-border economic activity without cost or disadvantage to South Africa.

Tourism is currently the fastest growing sector of the Eastern Free State economy. Such growth depends directly upon the integration of the Eastern Free State and Lesotho into a single complex of attractions, with routes crossing and re-crossing the border at various points within a single tour. Rather than eyesores that delay, obstruct, and spoil the cross-border travel enjoyment of tourists, the border posts ought to be the gateways to the pleasures of the valley, with public conveniences, pleasant settings, and tourist information and fast, friendly services. The models of post operation need to shift from movement control to tourist movement incentive and facilitation.

Public transport services are very poorly managed at the border posts. Lesotho and Free State taxis cannot (officially) cross the border to deliver passengers to the other side without a special and expensive (R300 for three months) group-tour permit. After Lesotho passengers are dropped at the Lesotho side, they must walk with their baggage across the bridge to the South Africa post, stand in line at passport control if they have no six months concession, and then walk again a half a kilometre up the long hill on the Ladybrand road, where taxis heading to towns in the Free State and Gauteng are allowed to load.

On the issue of farm labour, it is extremely difficult to prevent Basotho who have been crossing the river without documentation for generations from doing so now. They are aware, conversely, that the permit system can serve positively as a legal protection, as it prevents farmers who employ Basotho without permits from simply having them arrested and deported when the time comes to pay them their small wages. There is simply no way to prevent the daily casual use of the informal river and fence crossings visible every few hundred metres along the entire length of the Free State - Lesotho border.

In conclusion, certain benefits might follow directly from the reduction or removal of passport control at the posts. The governments would be able to provide other necessary services in with physically more manageable and attractive infrastructure in the same space. South Africa could create a more friendly, supportive atmosphere among the general public, including valued business people, tourists, and professionals, as well as ordinary travellers. Business, agriculture, transport, tourism, cultural education, and cross-border co-operation could be greatly enhanced in the Caledon Valley through the easing and harmonisation of border regulations, leading to economic development, job creation, increased public revenue and public services in the border districts.

The first principle underlying maximum utilisation of resources, increase of revenues, and mutually beneficial inter-state relations is that Lesotho be accorded particular status and treatment in border management. This is because of the tremendous volumes of traffic crossing in both directions at the border posts, reflecting a high degree of economic and social integration.

Against this background, the report identifies the following alternatives:

While there would be returns in the form of improved control combined with service to the public, the question must be asked whether such a result would be worth the investment required to produce it. There is little gain for South Africa, and much loss to the people and economy of the border region, in control for control’s sake.