South Africa has launched a crackdown against immigrants who continue flocking to the economic giant without the necessary documentation. After rounding up the illegal migrants, the South African government first takes them to holding centres for vetting, before deporting them to their respective countries. Basotho have not been spared this clampdown and are mostly dumped at the Maseru Bridge Border Post when they are being booted out of South Africa. In this wide-ranging interview, Maseru District Administrator (DA), (Retired) Major General Samuel Makoro, tells Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, how his office becomes involved once the deportees are offloaded at the bridge.
LT: Basotho, as with other foreigners found to be illegally staying in South Africa, continue to be deported from the regional economic giant yet this does not appear to deter them from returning once again. A fortnight ago, hundreds of our people were dumped at the border once again, and your office was left to pick up the pieces, so to speak. Could you tell us how your office deals with this issue?
Makoro: It is true that Basotho are being arrested in large numbers in South Africa because they would be in that country illegally. Most are arrested because their travel documents would be invalid or due to expired visas. When they are arrested alongside other foreign nationals, they are taken to a detention centre called Lindela. From Lindela, the South African police organise buses to transport them to their respective countries’ main borders. For Basotho, the buses normally dump them at the Maseru border. It is then the responsibility of my office to get them from the Maseru border and distribute them to their respective districts across the country. Just last week, eight buses dropped hundreds of them at the border and my office had to do something to make sure those people arrive home safely.
LT: How do you plan for this?
Makoro: For years now this task has remained the most difficult function this office has had to perform. This issue involves vehicles to fetch these people from the border and then ferry them to their respective destinations. We do not have such vehicles at this office to transport them in such large numbers. We always rely on borrowing Quantum minibuses from government ministries. We have also made an arrangement to liaise with DA offices in the districts. Through the arrangement, my office only has to deliver the deportees to Mafeteng, for the entire Southern region, and Berea, for the North. However, the bigger challenge remains transporting deportees from Thaba-Tseka. Because the district, like Maseru, is in the Central region, the deportees cannot be dropped either in Berea or Maseru, yet because of the terrain, Thaba-Tseka is difficult to reach considering the type of vehicles we use, and the fact that they are only borrowed. The other difficult place to reach is Semonkong.
LT: Are there other challenges concerning transportation of the deportees?
Makoro: Budget constraints is a big issue. You might be aware that DA offices fall under the Ministry of Local Government and Chieftainship, which is a new ministry established after the enactment of the Local Government Act of 1997. Before the ministry came into being, offices of the DA were an arm of the Ministry of Home Affairs. Through the latter’s Immigration Department, the issue of deportees from South Africa could be well managed and budgeted for. But with the Ministry of Local Government, even as we speak about the budget proposal presented in parliament earlier this month, there is no specific funding proposed for this function of dealing with deportees. Throughout all these years we have always had to fork out our monies to perform this function. However, to our relief, some deportees, after being dumped at the border or dropped at our offices here, are quick to find their way home through their own means. Some even go to radio stations to notify their family members to come and pick them up. The other challenge is that because we use government-borrowed vehicles to distribute the deportees, we encounter instances whereby we have to pay more for accommodation and meals for drivers who normally do not work beyond 4:30pm. Even the vehicles they drive, if a special arrangement is not made, they automatically lock themselves up at 4:30pm, and the driver would be stuck.
LT: On average, how many deportees do you deal with in a month?
Makoro: Plus or minus 500 a month. Sometimes we have to provide accommodation for them. And we then have to use our own premises for the accommodation because we cannot afford to rent. Sometimes you find that there are foreigners among Basotho deportees sent here. We have cases of some Mozambicans, Swazis and other nationals who were mistakenly deported to the Maseru border alongside Basotho. I think because these people are detained together at Lindela, when the buses arrive to deport them, that process is sometimes rushed through and when there is pressure, mistakes happen. In such cases, we have to again fork out our monies to send the foreigners back to South Africa, or we sometimes send them to the South African High Commission, which is also a problem because in most cases these people do not have identity documents with them. We cannot directly send them to their countries because we do not know how they would have been arrested in South Africa.
LT: But why do so many Basotho risk their lives and go to a country where they are clearly not wanted? There was even a report in a certain South African newspaper which quoted South African police as saying at least one corpse is fished out of Caledon river every month of a Mosotho who would have tried to illegally get to South Africa…
Makoro: Job opportunities are the main reason people end up taking such risks. South Africa has a better economy and Basotho are looking for opportunities to earn a living. They don’t mind overstaying in South Africa illegally. You will be surprised that we have since noticed that some of these deportees actually surrender themselves to the police to be taken to Lindela so that they have free transport to travel back home. They then bring whatever wealth they would have attained in South Africa to their families in Lesotho and go back again to that country to make more money and return the same way, repeatedly. Most of them, as they arrive here after being deported, return to South Africa on the same day without even visiting their homes. They immediately follow the buses which would have dropped them at the border.
LT: What about this issue of people drowning while trying to cross Caledon river? Do you have more information regarding such deaths?
Makoro: I cannot really confirm what this publication was saying. However, I can only confirm that there are many Basotho who cross the border through illegal routes as they seek to go to their respective destinations in South Africa. Some even know people who stay at the border to assist people cross illegally into South Africa. It is an unlawful practice which unfortunately happens every day at our porous borders, and which the authorities continue to try and stop but appear unable to.
LT: What could be done to solve this issue?
Makoro: Personally, in my own opinion, I think a lasting solution would only come if the South African authorities can agree to relax conditions on cross-border movement between the two countries. I am saying this because we are completely landlocked by South Africa and there is nowhere we can go without first having to go to South Africa. Maybe a lot of people might not agree with me on this one, but I think South Africa should just allow free movement between our two countries. Because of the economic hardship in Lesotho, Basotho always want to try better things in South Africa. I know many may view this as almost selling Lesotho into becoming South Africa’s 10th province, but with adequate and accurate cross-border systems available for the process, it could be easy to control the movement without stringent conditions which South African authorities continue to impose on us. Other than that, I can say we are currently working directly together with the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Police, Social Development, Health and Home Affairs to see how best this issue could be addressed.