South Africa's fence of death

Issue 

South Africa's fence of death

By Hugh McCullum

It coils and slithers across the barren rocky soil between Mozambique and South Africa like a sinister electric eel. Someone once called it "the devil's fence". South Africa built it in 1985 to keep Mozambican refugees out, a cruel and lethal 40-foot wide barrier consisting of six coils of razor wire on each side of an eight-strand electrified fence.

It has killed at least 900 people in six years — more than the guards at the Berlin Wall — and thousands more bear the scars of slashing razor wire and the burns from near-lethal levels of electricity in the fence. South Africa says it has now turned down the voltage to below-lethal levels, and refugees are more often caught in the entangling coils of the razor-sharp wire, from which there is usually no escape.

Young white conscripts at the South African Defence Force monitoring posts along the line describe the gruesome sight of terrified children caught in the wire or of bodies sprawled across the high-voltage fence. Bleached bones of those who failed to survive escape attempts can be seen as mute testimonials to the human desire to live in relative safety, far from the marauding bands of the South African-backed Mozambique National Resistance (MNR or Renamo).

The fence runs about 40 miles from the Swazi border to the edge of Kruger National Park at the South African town of Komatipoort, cutting off escape routes into the KaNgwane bantustan in eastern Transvaal. Another segment of the electrified barrier runs north between Mozambique and Kruger Park, where refugees face hunger and death from wild animals.

KaNgwane, a Swazi-speaking region of South Africa, is the smallest and poorest of the 10 ethnically divided homelands, but its policy has always been to support Mozambique's struggle against destabilisation by providing some sanctuary to friends and relations across the border. Once in the homeland, the refugees are integrated into local villages, where it is difficult to identify them among the 500,000 or so KaNgwane residents.

But there is no money, and Mozambicans are desperate. Along with the local men in KaNgwane, many soon drift to the white farms as cheap labour. The lucky ones work for two to three rand (about US$1) a day. Others become indentured labourers working only for food.

The "guides" who bring the Mozambicans across the fence often sell indigent refugees to white farmers for as little as US$30. Outright slavery is not unknown. But while everyone deplores the conditions and the police deny the buying and selling of people, peasants say they would rather stay in South Africa as slaves than return to the horrific conditions caused by MNR 255D>
[From Horizon (Harare, Zimbabwe) via Pegasus.]

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