Border politics

Right-wing populists in South Africa have started copying their American counterparts by calling for a border wall.

Barbed fencing lines the South Africa-Zimbabwe border. Image credit Simon Davis for UKaid via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

Dramatic scenes at the US-Mexico border in recent months have highlighted the surge in migration across the globe: from people fleeing wars to political instability and violence, poverty, and the pursuit of better social and economic conditions. Border officials in the US said they had more than 225,000 encounters with migrants at the border in December alone, the highest number in over two decades. 

Some estimates suggest there were around 10 million people who attempted to enter the US without the proper documentation between 2019 and January 2024. These historically high levels of migration to the US have cast a spotlight on a system weakened by decades of inaction by Congress. 

Few global political issues command as compelling and polarizing a spotlight as that of border politics in the US. At the heart of this discourse is a structure as old as it is controversial—the border wall. Conservatives and those further to the right on the political spectrum believe that the border wall is the answer to the country’s national security woes, while others see the border wall as a monument to and a symbol of deeper geopolitical divisions. 

What often gets ignored—whether in the US Congress or among opportunistic politicians in South Africa who have shamelessly embraced the crude populism we’ve seen creep across the world—is that border walls and fences don’t work. They are at best a temporary deterrent, a band-aid on deeper socio-economic and political cracks. These border walls and fences serve as a physical reminder of the persistent efforts to fortify boundaries. Yet, they fail to address the root causes behind the surge in global migration, namely structural violence, systemic poverty, and the search for a better life. 

At the beginning of this year in South Africa, there was a surge in people crossing over the Limpopo River from Zimbabwe. This prompted Gayton McKenzie (a highly divisive, populist politician) and a handful of his Patriotic Alliance members to further embrace the crude chauvinistic politics they have come to embody, and “patrol” the border along the river. McKenzie and members of his party were making a spectacle of “intercepting” those crossing into South Africa irregularly. McKenzie shared videos on social media of himself and PA members (some carrying firearms) running up and down the border.

But it’s not just the PA embracing this crude and populistic political theater in South Africa. Smaller parties preparing for the elections have all embraced the rhetoric of closing and securitization of the borders, while pushing for other oppressive policies against immigrants including mass deportations and camps for refugees and asylum-seekers. 

The African Christian Democratic Party’s (ACDP) Rev Kenneth Meshoe recently tweeted “the first thing we will do is to close the borders.” The African Transformation Movement’s (ATM) Vuyolwethu Zungula has pushed for restrictions on immigrants and immigrant-owned businesses, while regularly promoting the idea of building walls and fences. 

Following the recent announcement about the construction of a wall between Mozambique and KwaZulu-Natal to prevent smugglers from predominantly moving stolen cars between the two countries, Zungula tweeted: “This should be done in all borders to stop cross border crimes, smuggling of drugs/people/weapons/vehicles and stop illegal immigration. Especially in the hotspot areas like Beitbridge!!!!”

ActionSA’s Herman Mashaba has also often lamented the state of the border fences, particularly in Limpopo and Free State provinces. In February, he led a delegation of his party to the border shared between Ficksburg in the Free State and Maputsoe in Lesotho and posted a video where he pointed out the “gaping holes in the border fence allowing people to pass freely through.”

“There, 200m away is the Ficksburg border control office where people coming in and out of South Africa, between South Africa and Lesotho have to go through. But as you can see, it is a free-for-all,” he said, pointing to a gap in the fence.

Meanwhile, Loren Landau, a professor and  Co-Director of the Wits-Oxford Mobility Governance Lab, said economic and physical security remained the most pressing concerns for the citizenry, despite all the rhetoric around immigration. “Were there any parties out there with a genuine plan, the migration issue would return to the margins,” he said. 

Yet the obsessions with porous borders, border walls, and fences remain. “The fence-fantasy has taken hold across Europe, North America, and Australia. It was only a matter of time before it resurfaced in South Africa… In essence, the fence is a hammer looking for a nail to hit,” Landau said. 

“It is politically appealing but ineffective. It is unclear what problem it is intended to solve,” he added, “South Africa has 4,862 km of land borders. This is effectively impossible to seal. Moreover, the costs of doing so—in Rands and lives—far outweigh any potential benefit.” 

Landau said the rhetoric around the number of migrants (and more specifically illegal immigrants) and the supposed threat it posed to the country’s sovereignty were brought together because of the demise of truth-telling in South African politics. “What we have instead is perceptions and fears masquerading as evidence,” he said. 

“So if there is a threat to the country’s sovereignty, it comes from police, politicians and gangsters who govern the borders, cities, and townships in their own self-interest. It comes from leaders who have disavowed the courts and constitution,” Landau argued. 

The demise of truth-telling, the steady embrace of exaggerated claims and figures, and outright deceit and dishonesty are common in the rhetoric of most politicians. Whether it is McKenzie’s insistence that undocumented people in South Africa are responsible for the majority of violent crime or Mashaba misrepresenting figures around access to documentation in South Africa, nobody is offering new or realistic solutions to any of the socioeconomic problems faced by the majority of South Africans.

The embrace of border wall politics is nothing but pandering to a voter base that is fed up with recurrent empty promises, a way to score cheap political points, and a lack of understanding of the research and literature around border politics. The belief that border walls are universally effective is widely misguided. 

Studies show that rather than controlling migration, border walls simply redirect movements along alternative routes. This redirection increases reliance on smugglers, boosts their profits, and strengthens organized crime. They symbolize a failure to engage with the complexities of migration and international relations while contributing to a more fragmented world.

As we approach the upcoming election in South Africa, there will be more posturing and insistence that stricter immigration control and increased militarization are the only way forward, despite all the evidence that border walls and fences do not solve the problems they purport to address.

Further Reading