South Africa

OP-ED

Massive ammunition theft in Durban raises fears of increased volatility and political violence in KwaZulu-Natal

(Photo: Unsplash / Jay Rembert)

Amid the political violence and looting that gripped South Africa after the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma, about 1.2 million rounds of ammunition were stolen from a container yard in Durban in July. The ammunition was not in a high-security facility, raising urgent questions about how this high-risk shipment was handled. In conjunction with the flood of illegal weapons in recent years, this theft may help fuel criminal and political violence in this already volatile region which has the highest rate of political assassinations in the country.

This article is an extract from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s September 2021 Observatory of Illicit Economies in East and southern Africa.

In July 2021, about 1.2 million rounds of ammunition were looted from a shipping container in Durban. The ammunition, worth more than R3-million, was taken from a privately operated container yard and was not being stored in a high-security facility at the time of the theft. This is the largest known loss of ammunition in South Africa from a civilian source to date.

The theft comes at a particularly volatile time, with KwaZulu-Natal the epicentre of the looting and violence that followed the conviction and imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma. The ammunition theft also adds fuel to the fire of illicit firearms in South Africa, following several scandals surrounding state regulation of firearms, and could have a serious impact on violence and crime in the province.

Ammunition in the illicit firearms economy

While illicit firearms have a long lifespan, their utility to criminal organisations relies on the availability of ammunition. In this they are aided by the fact that ammunition often receives the least monitoring and oversight of any product in the arms sector.

Jonathan Rickell, a field investigator at Conflict Armament Research, explains that ammunition is “the easiest [of arms products] to divert and the most challenging to trace back to the source”. Countries experiencing periods of instability often saw an increase in demand for ammunition as it “is a single-use component and therefore an item that requires consistent resupply to support”.

It is difficult to estimate accurately how much ammunition is lost and stolen from state and civilian sources in South Africa since most losses go undetected. While statistics on firearms that are reported lost and stolen from police and civilians in the country are routinely released by the South African Police Service, no such statistics are routinely released for ammunition.

However, some details have become available on state losses of ammunition from answers to questions in Parliament addressed to the ministers of defence and military veterans and of police. In August 2019, the Police Minister Bheki Cele told Parliament the SAPS had “lost” more than 9.5 million rounds of ammunition over the past six financial years. Further details on how this data was collected are not publicly available. Responses to parliamentary questions also revealed several losses and thefts of ammunition from the South African National Defence Force since 2013, including the loss of 32,400 rounds for R4 assault rifles that were allegedly stolen from the Lenasia military base south of Johannesburg in April 2013.

Based on the (admittedly scant) available evidence, it seems that the theft in Durban is one of the biggest ammunition thefts in South Africa from any source, civilian or police. It also shines a light on the lack of public transparency about ammunition losses in South Africa.

It also outweighs seizures of ammunition made in police operations. In the 2019-20 reporting year, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (Hawks) seized 341,179 rounds across all operations: less than a third of the total ammunition in the Durban shipment. Tactical response teams, which conduct operations in high-risk areas such as those affected by very high levels of gang violence involving firearms, reported 43,833 rounds of ammunition seized in this period.

Was the Durban arms cache a vulnerable target for looters?

Imported from Brazil, the shipment was destined for Pretoria. The bulk (more than 800,000 rounds) of the shipment comprised 9mm rounds, the most popular form of ammunition for various handgun brands available in the country, alongside a substantial number of 380 and 45 ACP cartridges, which are also common ammunition for pistols. Also present were more than 100,000 .38 Special, 357 and 44 Magnum rounds, commonly used in revolvers. One firearm dealer estimated that the volume of ammunition, if sold to private handgun owners, would meet the needs of all such owners in South Africa for three to four months. 

ammunition breakdown
Breakdown of the ammunition in the Durban arms cache.

The cache was imported by Formalito, a subsidiary of Outdoor Investment Holdings, the largest distributor of arms and ammunition in South Africa. It has been distributing firearms for more than 55 years and is responsible for about 30% of all ammunition imported into South Africa each year. The company said the 14-ton shipment was intended for sale to private citizens and security forces.

According to a police source and two businesspeople who operate in the street where the theft occurred, the yard was not under heavy guard. Security experts and activists on gun violence in KZN said the theft raises urgent questions about how the shipment came to be at that location, and who was responsible for protecting the ammunition.

Megan Piller, the owner of Blu Logistics, which specialises in the import of firearms, ammunition and explosives to South Africa, told the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime that authorities ordinarily follow strict procedures when transporting ammunition and demand that storage facilities and transporters be registered with a “Class 1” (dangerous goods) certification.

Specific high-security warehouses are the usual recipients of ammunition transfers. In Gauteng, for example, such cargo would go to the Guardforce bonded warehouse, which Andrew Saulter, a firearms dealer, described as “like Fort Knox”.

Piller said the movement of such goods is governed by three pieces of legislation: the Firearms Control Act or the Explosives Act; the Dangerous Goods Act; and the Customs & Excise Act. “But the laws don’t define standard operating procedures, which is incredibly frustrating because different authorities in different towns and provinces interpret these laws differently.”

Piller said normal procedure would have demanded that the container be cleared with customs one week before the vessel arrived in port. Apart from the import permit, both the shipping line and the police would have had to have the transporter’s details, the truck registration and the driver’s details on record. When the vessel docked, the fire department and the police would have to be on standby at the port. Ammunition containers get priority to be taken off the vessel first by transporters, who proceed directly to a nominated depot where the cargo is placed in secure holding until police inspect the container. Once inspected, the cargo can proceed to its destination.

The police and Outdoor Investment Holdings are now at loggerheads over who was responsible for the ammunition when it was stolen. The ammunition importer told the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime it was satisfied that it had followed normal procedures and that, at the time the ammunition was stolen, the consignment fell under the authority and control of the clearing agents, customs and port authorities and SAPS.

Because of the nature of the cargo, it was not permitted to remain at the port unprotected and the company claims an armed escort accompanied the shipment to the transport yard ahead of the inspection. (It was impossible to deliver the shipment directly to the inspection depot because it was closed due to the violence.) A spokesperson for the company said all documentation relating to the movement and transfer of the shipment had been forwarded to the Hawks, who are handling the investigation of the theft.

However, Cele claimed the police were informed the ammunition had been taken from the port without their permission. A source close to the investigation also said it was unclear how the container came to be in the yard where the theft occurred.

But DA MP Andrew Whitfield, who sits on Parliament’s police portfolio committee, does not credit the idea that the police were left in the dark. In an interview with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, he said “the importer alleged that there were numerous attempts to get SAPS to inspect the shipment, so SAPS definitely knew about the shipment”. He accused authorities of being secretive about the theft or “clueless”.

In addition to questions about who was responsible for the ammunition at the time of the theft, some observers have raised suspicions about whether the incident was part of the general looting in Durban at the time, or whether it was premeditated. The police source close to the investigation said he believed the theft was part of general looting rather than an organised heist.

Neighbouring businesspeople attested to the fact that there was looting along most of the street and that the area was particularly badly hit, the worst hit out of several container yards in the surrounding area. They said looters ransacked several businesses and took “everything”, from buckets of rice to computers. The yard office was gutted by fire and a huge forklift was torched during the looting.

But there are also signs that the theft was premeditated. About 50m from the site of the ammunition theft is a truck repair shop. The looters stole four rigs — eight- and 12-ton trucks that require specialist knowledge to drive — evidence that they were well organised, according to a director of the business. The owner of Lee Trans, the company in which the shipment was stored at the time of the theft, did not respond to questions.

In the days following the incident, several ammunition seizures were made in Mobeni, where the ammunition was looted. Police reported that several thousand rounds of ammunition thought to have originated from the Durban shipment were recovered, which would still leave more than one million rounds unaccounted for.

Fuel to the fire of illicit firearms in South Africa

Illicit supplies of ammunition are vital for armed criminal networks, especially in South Africa, where the criminal underworld has received a huge influx of illicit firearms in recent years, with corrupt police officers taking advantage of poor management systems to channel guns to gangs. In the most prominent case, former police officer Christiaan Prinsloo, who was responsible for managing several provincial armouries and firearm stores, admitted in court to being part of a network that had supplied at least 2,400 firearms to criminal groups. The investigation into Prinsloo and the network ascertained that at least 2,400 firearms had been sold to criminals in the Western Cape. They were able to link 900 of these seized firearms to 1,060 murders.

Systemic corruption at the police’s Central Firearm Registry has also allowed firearm licences to be granted to suspected gangsters. Digital systems designed to create an accurate and comprehensive database of firearm licensing are not fully operational, leaving them open to manipulation. During 2020, police arrested 28 people, including high-ranking police officers and Cape Town-based underworld figures, for their involvement in the fraudulent procurement of firearm licences. Of those arrested, 17 were police officials, including two retired police officers, and 11 were civilians with links to the underworld. In some cases, gangsters have been able to use fraudulently acquired firearms licences to buy large amounts of ammunition.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that a lack of transparency and effective oversight mechanisms means that the scale of illicit firearms and ammunition flowing to criminal networks may be underestimated. SAPS statistics show that between 2013/14 and 2018/19, more than 47,028 licensed civilian firearms were reported lost or stolen, as many as 18,000 of which remain unaccounted for. SAPS statistics also show that 26,277 police-issue firearms were lost or stolen between 2002/3 and 2018/19.

armaments and ammunition
Armaments and ammunition in South Africa.

 However, the true figures for lost and stolen firearms may be significantly higher. About 20,291 civilian-owned firearms were recovered between 2003 and 2014 that had never been reported as lost or stolen by their owners. Changes in the way statistics for lost and stolen police firearms were recorded after 2010 also means that guns that are “unaccounted for” in police stocks are not included in the statistics, but only those actively reported as lost or stolen.

In addition, many firearms under the control of other government departments may not be included in the statistics. For example, metropolitan police services, which fall under the control of metropolitan councils, do not have readily available data on lost and stolen firearms. One of the reasons cited for this is the fact that in these departments the loss of firearms is treated as loss of council property, rather than the loss of a lethal weapon.

The impact of the ammunition theft

Guns are overwhelmingly the weapons most used in South Africa to kill, injure and intimidate. Between 2018 and 2019, 41.3% of recorded murders and 80% of attempted murders involved a firearm. Increased access to firearms has led to more deadly gang violence. From 2010 to 2016 — the period in which Prinsloo and his network were shipping guns wholesale to Western Cape gangs — gun-related murders in the province more than doubled. It is into this context that the 1.2 million stolen rounds from Durban have now flowed. The calibres of ammunition in the stolen cache include those most often used in gang fights and robberies (9mm, 45 ACP) and in targeted assassinations (.38 Special and Magnum rounds).

The theft also takes place in a province beset by criminal violence and targeted assassinations, particularly intra-party violence and assassinations in the ruling ANC. Analysis by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime of assassination trends has found that, between 2015 and 2020, 38% of all recorded assassinations in South Africa were in KZN — the highest of all provinces. KZN recorded the highest number of hits across all different categories isolated by the analysis, including assassinations linked to the taxi industry, assassinations in personal feuds, assassinations linked to organised crime and political assassinations.

The rate of political assassinations in KZN between 2015 and 2020 was almost five times that of the next-highest scoring province, Gauteng. Previous Global Initiative analysis of political assassinations in the province found that violence spikes particularly around election time. In the wake of violence and looting that has centred on the province in the aftermath of Zuma’s imprisonment — which has claimed the lives of more than 330 people nationwide, the majority in KZN — there are concerns of a spike in violence in the local government elections in November 2021.

Questions for future investigations

There are a lot of questions about this ammunition theft that any investigation or inquiry would have to answer. Whose responsibility the consignment was at the time of the theft is clearly an issue of contention between the police and the importer. The questions of why the consignment was not in a higher security facility, how as much as 14 tons of ammunition was able to be taken away, and whether the targeting of this container yard was deliberate, also remain open.

However, while the scale of this theft was extraordinary, it was only the latest in a series of extraordinary episodes in South African firearms control that has empowered criminal groups and made criminal violence in the country more deadly. DM

The Global Initiative is a network of more than 500 experts on organised crime drawn from law enforcement, academia, conservation, technology, media, the private sector and development agencies. It publishes research and analysis on emerging criminal threats and works to develop innovative strategies to counter organised crime globally. To receive monthly Risk Bulletin updates, please sign up here.

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  • What is happening at Durban harbour? The lax controls on the import of ammunitìon is inexplicable. Hidden agendas? Corruption? Just don’t care? All three?