In what must rank as one of the most successful operations in post-apartheid South Africa, a police colonel who controlled the Gauteng firearms register was sent to jail for 18 years last week. Colonel Chris Lodewyk Prinsloo pleaded guilty in the Bellville Regional Court to over 20 charges of racketeering, corruption and money laundering. For at least six years the top cop and a colleague sold an estimated R9-million worth of lethal illegal weapons and ammunition to Cape Flats ganglords as well as right wing extremists in Gauteng. Considering this victory one would think SAPS Acting Commissioner Lieutenant-General Khomotso Phahlane would lead this small team of detectives in a victory parade through the country. Instead he has sidelined their superiors. By MARIANNE THAMM.
On 15 September 2012 a six-year-old child, Leeyana van Wyk, was playing with friends in the street outside her home in Hanover Park, a gang-infested Cape Flats suburb. Here a bitter power struggle between members of the Mongrels gang has seen a relentless and terrifying war playing out on its streets. It was during one of these regular shootouts that a “stray” bullet slammed into Leeyana’s head.
She is one of several thousand South Africans – many of them children – maimed or killed in the ongoing and seemingly intractable orgy of gang violence that has terrorised many working-class suburbs that surround Cape Town.
In recent years there had been a puzzling and deeply troubling upsurge in this type of gang-related violence. Gang warfare usually confined to specific known areas began to spill out across the Cape Flats. The toll of the dead and maimed, those who belonged to gangs and those residents caught in the crossfire began to rise. C0mmunities despaired as police seemed unable to curb the violence and destruction.
Little wonder as it turns out it was the police themselves who were aiding and abetting the criminals and killers – and not the cops on the beat, the ones close to these communities. No, big brass; men with uniforms with pips and leather gloves who safely lived thousands of kilometers away.
If this were part of a comedy routine, it would be too soon to point out that the only positive spin on this tragic and obscene story is that South Africans no longer needed to fear home invasions by criminals in search of guns and weapons.
Police were supplying them directly.
More than 2,000 guns and weapons worth about R9-million flooded South African communities this way.
Leeyana spent two months in hospital undergoing multiple surgeries. But the bullet that tore through her head has left her brain damaged. Today she is nine years old and attends a school in Cape Town for children with special needs.
The gun that was used in the shootout that has irrevocably altered this child’s life was sold to the gangsters who used it by a man whose job was to protect the citizens of South Africa.
For two years Colonel Chris Lodewyk Prinsloo – once a respected policeman who was considered the firearms “guru” in the SAPS – did not touch his police salary. Instead he and his family comfortably lived off the proceeds of crime, travelling overseas, paying university fees, buying safe cars.
And in what must be an unprecedented move in a criminal matter, the small Western Cape-based team of detectives who made up “Operation Combat” and who spent years doggedly investigating this crime that has national and international repercussions, added the names of those who had been maimed or killed by guns Prinsloo had sold to the preliminary charge sheet.
In insisting that Leeyana van Wyk’s name appear there, the detectives were making a moral point that while Prinsloo might have lived in Vereeniging, far away from the Cape Flats, his illegal actions had a direct impact on Leeyana’s life. Hers and many others, those named in the charge sheet.
Until his dramatic arrest in 2015 by this team of dedicated detectives, Prinsloo was not only the “go-to” guy in the SAPS when it came to legislation and licensing but he was also, along with his colleague, a Colonel DC Naidoo, custodian of an SAPS armoury in which all manner of firearms (including those illegal arms surrendered by law-abiding citizens) were meant to be tracked, stored or destroyed.
Prinsloo, after a plea bargain, was sentenced in the Bellville Magistrate’s Court to 18 years in jail on 21 June. One of Prinsloo’s accomplices, Cape Town businessman Irshaad “Hunter” Laher, owner of two Spur franchises in Cape Town as well as part owner of a Nando’s, is still to face charges of corruption, theft of firearms and ammunition, possession of prohibited firearms, selling and money laundering. He is currently out on R100,000 bail and his trial will take place later this month.
Shockingly, according to Prinsloo’s statement, some of the alleged arms deals with Laher went down in crowded popular fast-food family restaurants close to those Laher owned.
The story of rogue cops brought down by a small group of detectives reads like the playbook for a season of The Wire, or some such reality-based gritty crime series.
But this is no fiction and the horrific body count in South Africa from violence and murder bears grim testimony to the cause of effect of men like Prinsloo and those who will go down with him.
This case is also a testament to the integrity, grit and commitment of those honest, hard-working SAPS members who seldom make headlines. It is usually those who chase the Finance Minister or who work overtime protecting political principals who hog the limelight.
The exposure of Prinsloo and his cohorts and their national gun running syndicate – linked also to taxi violence in Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu Natal – is a major good news story, yet neither the Minister of Police Nathi Nhleko, the Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo nor acting National Commissioner Phahlane have claimed this victory. Their focus is clearly elsewhere.
The remarkable story is set out in court papers under the headline “Background to the Criminal Case” and which makes for compelling reading. It begins with Captain Clive Joseph Ontong, a member of the SAPS stationed at the Western Cape Provincial Detectives: Special Crimes: Firearms Section “affectionately known as Operation Combat”.
It is important to note at this juncture that the Provincial Commander of Operation Combat is none other than Major General Jeremy Vearey who, along with the Western Cape Crime Intelligence head, Major General Peter Jacobs, were both sidelined by Phahlane only a few days before Prinsloo’s sentencing. Vearey and Solomons are fighting their demotion.
Back to September 2013 when the Ballistics Unit of the SAPS Forensic Science Lab in the Western Cape reported that it had received several – about 22 – unlicensed firearms that had been seized by members of the SAPS from members of gangs operating in and around the greater Cape Town area.
In his statement Captain Ontong remarked that the ballistics unit found that all the unlicensed firearms had been altered identically in such a way that the firearms could not be linked to the SAPS database which recorded the history of firearms that had previously been seized.
“The alterations to the firearms had been done in such a professional manner that even the Integrated Ballistic Identification System (IBIS) could not detect its prior examination of these firearms,” the statement sets out.
However, the ballistics guys did manage to recover certain serial and laboratory numbers which identified the firearms as having, in the past, being sent by SAPS in the Western Cape to the SAPS Head Office in Pretoria for destruction. Also, of the 22 identified firearms, 19 were recorded as previously belonging to the SAPS while three had been privately owned.
“As a result of aforesaid report, a suspicion arose that there could be someone responsible for the smuggling of firearms to the Western Cape from the police firearms stores held in Gauteng where the destruction of firearms takes place,” reads the statement.
An inquiry was registered and Ontong was appointed as the investigating officer. In August 2014 Ontong and his team, which included members from the Ballistics Unit of the FSL Western Cape, inspected the firearm stores in Gauteng. Here they discovered five firearms in different stages of being altered. They also established that these firearms were identical to the type of firearms seized from gang members in the Western Cape.
From here the Western Cape team began to conduct surveillance on the firearm stores. The detectives learnt that unregistered firearms were being stolen from the safes of firearms stores in Gauteng and that these thefts took place more or less around the same time of the dates of scheduled firearms destructions. These guns were altered and then tested at shooting ranges to determine whether they were still functional. All this time the Western Cape detectives were watching and waiting.
“On 8 January 2015 Ontong received information from a reliable source that the defendant [Prinsloo] was seen removing heavy boxes from the Silverton firearm stores and went to his residential address.”
Two days later Prinsloo was seen visiting a shooting range in Walkerville.
A source close to the investigation told Daily Maverick that when then Commissioner Riah Phiyega had been informed of the imminent arrest of Colonel Prinsloo she had been incredulous.
“Her jaw dropped. This man was the go-to guy when it came to firearms and gun legislation. He looked clean as a whistle. No one could believe it,” said the source.
Operation Combat detectives struck on 16 January 2015 after obtaining a search warrant and raided Prinsloo’s home where they found ammunition, weapons as well as R120,000 in cash.
Prinsloo, who had 35 years service with the SAPS, soon buckled and admitted his culpability. In his statement Prinsloo said that he had been involved in the control of firearms in Gauteng since 2002. He was promoted to full Colonel Provincial Commander in 2005.
Prinsloo said that in 2002 he had met Colonel Naidoo when he [Prinsloo] was involved in the destruction of forfeited arms.
“Around about this time the destruction of firearms was decentralised from the office of the National Commissioner to the provinces in order to streamline the destruction process. I was tasked with the responsibility of supervising and documenting firearms in police stores in the Vaal area i.e at station level and Colonel Naidoo was tasked with removing these firearms, once documented, to a safekeeping facility in Silverton, Pretoria,” said Prinsloo.
Naidoo was responsible for destroying the weapons, said Prinsloo; however, in 2008 he had “complained to me one evening, whist under the influence of alcohol, about being short of money, yet he was sitting on what he termed to be a gold mine”.
Prinsloo later connected Naidoo with a dealer, Alan Raves, who is also a registered firearms collector and a National Heritage inspector of firearms. Raves is currently facing numerous charges of racketeering and theft.
In his statement Prinsloo said that he had become aware that Raves had “begun to associate with a person with known right wing connections and I formed the view that Raves might be selling unlicensed semi-automatic rifles to the right wing so I ceased being involved in any transactions where he purchased firearms from Colonel Naidoo”.
The Daily Maverick source disclosed that right wing extremist, Dylann Roof, who shot dead nine black congregants during a prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, North Carolina on 17 June 2015, is allegedly linked to the right wing person Prinsloo refers to in his statement.
Roof posted a picture of himself on Facebook after the murders wearing Rhodesian and old South African flags.
South Africa is a deeply traumatised country when it comes to high levels of crime and violence. Each day brings with it fresh horrors and blood-curdling headlines with no apparent respite or solution in sight.
The significance of the success of Operation Combat in relation to taking down Prinsloo (who, considering his length of service, must have served the SAPS in apartheid South Africa) and his ilk is that while we cannot bring back the dead or undo the damage, it is cops like those who made up this unit who are heroes who defend the country’s citizens and democracy.
That two of Operation Combat’s leaders have been sidelined speaks volumes. Honest, hard working police officers deserve the support and praise of their superiors, not to be sidelined. That it has happened is scandalous. DM
Photo: Chris Prinsloo in court on 8 July 2015. (ADRIAN DE KOCK/TimesLive)