Daily Maverick

Corruption fuels cash-in-transit heists

A protest was held on Tuesday 12 March, 2018, against attacks on cash-van heists in Johannesburg. Photo: Nkateko Mbasa

South Africa’s new anti-crime plan must identify and prosecute corrupt police, prosecutors and magistrates. By Johan Burger 

First published by ISS Today

Cash-in-transit robbery is one of the fastest growing forms of aggravated robbery in South Africa. It poses a significant threat to public safety and South Africa’s economy.

What is particularly striking about these robberies is the brazenness of the criminals involved, and the violence associated with them. Equally concerning is the apparent inability of the criminal justice system to stop them.

Against this background, the South African Banking Risk Information Centre (Sabric) has made available the most recent statistics on cash-in-transit robberies. The data shows an increase of 110 percent in the past four years – from 179 incidents in 2014 to 376 in 2017.

Although not directly comparable with Sabric figures, the South African Police Service’s statistics also show an increase from 119 incidents in 2014/15 to 152 in 2016/17. The police figures are problematic as they are already over a year old, and cover only the period until the end of March 2017. The police use financial years to show crime trends, whereas Sabrics’s figures cover calendar years.

Another difference is that Sabric includes cross-pavement robberies in its definition of cash-in-transit robberies. These occur when guards are robbed while carrying cash from the vans to a business or vice versa.

Speaking at an industry expert discussion in May, chief executive officer at retail cash management company Cash Connect Richard Phillips said the sharp increase in cash-in-transit robberies was “unprecedented” and an “onslaught” against business.

The growth in these heists may be partly explained by the year-on-year increases in the amounts of cash in circulation in South Africa. Citing figures from the South African Reserve Bank, Phillips said this cash had increased by 75 percent from R80 billion to R140 billion over the past four years.

Cash is the main target in most forms of aggravated robbery (including street, home and business robberies), and trucks transporting cash are a lucrative target for organised criminal gangs.

The police are under pressure to stop these heists. On June 4, Police Minister Bheki Cele and National Police Commissioner Khehla Sitole announced a new plan to fight all serious crime threats, including cash-in-transit robberies.

Then on June 13, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Police was told that a five-point intelligence-led plan involving 104 high-performance vehicles had been put into action to tackle cash-in-transit gangs.

However, these criminals seem largely unaffected by what the police do. For example, according to Gauteng Police Commissioner Deliwe de Lange, out of 74 cash-in-transit robberies in Gauteng between January and May, the police made arrests (28) in only 11 of these cases.

Phillips believes that the rise in heists is due to failures by “law enforcement, crime intelligence and [the] criminal justice community”. Supporting this view are the findings of research into cash-in-transit gangs that found a high level of complicity by criminal justice officials.

Dr Mahlogonolo Thobane, a senior lecturer at the University of South Africa’s Department of Criminology and Security, interviewed 40 jailed armed robbers in various correctional facilities in Gauteng in 2014. Her study, on the criminal careers of armed robbers and particularly cash-in-transit robbers, uncovered the extent to which they relied on help from police members and employees in the industry.

Interviewees claimed that police members often became actively involved in the robbery itself or accepted bribes to help in various ways. This could take the form of providing access to information contained in police case dockets (including the names of witnesses who could be intimidated or eliminated), the disappearance of vital physical evidence, providing safe houses, and transporting stolen cash.

Thobane’s findings were corroborated in a later study by Dr Hennie Lochner, a senior lecturer in the Department of Police Practice at Unisa. In 2016, Lochner interviewed 21 jailed cash-in-transit robbers on their modus operandi.

Those interviewed claimed they were able to bribe prosecutors to decline to prosecute, and to bribe magistrates to ensure a positive outcome of a case if they were pursued by incorruptible prosecutors. They also briefed attorneys who, despite being fully aware of their criminal activities, were immediately ready to represent them if they were arrested and brought to court.

The cash-in-transit criminals themselves believe that without the complicity of the police, other justice officials and those in the cash-in-transit industry, these robberies would be extremely difficult to execute.

The police minister and the national commissioner should – if it isn’t already in their crime-fighting plan – consider establishing a dedicated anti-corruption unitthat focuses on identifying and prosecuting corrupt police officers, prosecutors and magistrates.

Monthly arrests and prosecutions of these officials should be announced publicly to serve as a warning to others who may consider taking bribes. Without this as a key component of an anti-crime strategy, it will be hard to contain what are well resourced and highly organised criminal gangs.

Johan Burger is a Senior Research Consultant, Justice and Violence Prevention Programme, ISS Pretoria.

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