South Africa

CROSS-BORDER CRIME FILES: PART TWO

Abduction case studies: The horror of being at the mercy of car theft syndicates

A Toyota Fortuner was being smuggled across the border, but it missed the ramp and plunged into the jersey barrier wall which is being set up to separate SA and Mozambique (the project has stalled and is the subject of an SIU investigation). This incident happened in July. It is not clear whether this vehicle burnt upon plunging into the wall or was burnt deliberately by the syndicate. Photo: Supplied

These are six case studies from the Manguzi area over the past two years – the stories of a few of the many victims of brazen and murderous car smuggling syndicates.

Case Study 1

Animal health technician survives hijacking, then killed in second hit in July

Melisizwe Mnikathi, a 32-year-old animal health technician, had been sent to an animal auction centre near Manguzi in July 2021 to take livestock samples to check for foot-and-mouth disease. He was attacked by three men who forced their way on to the premises and pointed guns at him.

Only three years earlier, in 2018, Mnikathi had been with a female colleague when they were hijacked in a Department of Agriculture bakkie in the area and taken to the forest near the border, gagged and tied to the tree. They managed to free themselves and make the long trek to the local police station.

In July 2021, hijackers forced him to drive his 2019 Ford Ranger 4×4 out of the facility and not to alert anyone that he was being hijacked, but he decided to ram the gate to alert the security guards. The hijackers shot him in the chest and stomach, pulled him out of the vehicle and drove off. Mnikathi was certified dead on arrival at the local Manguzi hospital.

Mnikathi’s fearful colleagues said he was a good man who responded when subsistence livestock farmers needed his skills and expertise. “He was still young but he was one of the best,” said a senior colleague. “He had worked here since he graduated more than 10 years ago. When he died he was in the process of taking a wife, having paid lobola [bride price].”

Another woman colleague said: “We are always fearful because it seems like we are targeted by these syndicates. Now we cannot go to outlying areas, where our services are most needed, because we are fearful for our lives. Government must do something about syndicates who are hijacking and taking our cars to Mozambique. The most distressing thing is that we are scared to speak about these incidents because you don’t know who within our communities is working with these criminals. We are tired of this thing. One man from Manguzi said he had been talking openly about his frustration about cross-border crime. He then got a call from a cellphone from a prisoner who said he was serving time at Qalakabusha Prison [in Empangeni] warning him to stop talking about these things if he still values his life.”

 Case Study 2

Durban businessman and three workers abducted for three nights, ransom demanded from his family

*Ismail had advertised his refrigeration and air-conditioning company on social media, including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. 

“It was in August [2021] when one male client called me, asking about our air-conditioning services and ordering equipment to be installed in his house near Jozini. He also sent me pictures of the property in which the installation was to be done. He seemed to be in a hurry and he promised to pay as soon as I start the job. He said I must come with all my equipment so that I could finish the job and go home with the money.

“But I said I will have to come and do the measuring and other assessment so that I could come with the exact material.

“Everything seemed legitimate and my ‘client’ seemed to be a gentleman who went out of his way to assure me. So, on Friday, 20 August, myself and my three assistants (all Indian descent) drove in my Isuzu 2017 D-Max to Jozini.

“The ‘client’ told me to meet at Jozini Spar but when I called him he said let’s rather meet at Ntikini Primary School. We were not familiar with the place and were calling him, since there is no address there,” he told Daily Maverick.

The “client” kept calling.

“He said we must pick up his brother on the way to the house, but as soon as we picked up his brother that was where our ordeal started. When we were driving in a bushy area we were ambushed by six men, armed with two handguns each. They put us in the back of the van and covered our heads, took us to the dark forest and (Umgodi Wezimnvubu). Two guys drove in my vehicle and the other four stayed behind, ordering us to walk deeper into the dark forest.”

Ismail said when his wife called his phone, the men ordered him to tell her he was fine. He believes the syndicate wanted to ensure his bakkie was across the border before demanding a ransom.

“Later that night, when my wife called, they ordered me to tell her that we have been hijacked and abducted and she must give them R500,000 or we will be killed. They were also assaulting us, some asking us about the Phoenix killing between Indians and Africans. We told them we are simple businesspeople and we had nothing to do with the killings,” he said.

“On Saturday, my wife said she could only raise R150,000. They asked her to bring it to Jozini town. My wife asked a male relative to accompany her. When she reached the town she got a call from the syndicate members saying she must drive to a forested area. She said she was scared and the abductors must rather come to Jozini with all the hostages and they would get the cash. But they were scared that she might bring along police officers.”

When it got dark his wife and the relative drove back to Durban but kept the communication channels open between them and the abductors.

The abductors gave the hostages water and bread. On Sunday, his wife returned to Jozini, this time with another male relative. 

Ismail said he met his “client” who told him that he will “show” because his wife was refusing to give him money. “They also forced me to use my phone to transfer about R16,000 through an e-wallet and they withdrew it at the Spar nearby.

“When my wife arrived in Jozini on Sunday morning there was a stalemate, again, because the abductors wanted her to drive into the bush and she refused, saying she was scared. I think by this time the police had got wind of our abduction and by the afternoon the police officers started scouring the Umgodi Wezimnvubu forest. The abductors started moving us frantically around the forest. They became even more aggressive in assaulting us and when their spotters told them that police are on the way.

“At about midnight on Sunday, the abductors said we must walk away from the forest and never look back. We walked and walked for hours until we reached the main road. Luckily, the abductors had given me an old cellphone and I used it to call my wife and the police from Manguzi police station were alerted and they came to pick us up. On Monday morning we opened cases and my wife and other family arrived to pick us up at the police station. We left the area because all of us needed medical attention and we wanted to get away from the area as soon as possible.”

He said his bakkie was last tracked when it crossed the Mozambican border.

*Name changed for the safety of the survivor.

Case Study 3 

Teacher and wife robbed, forced to accompany abductors to the Mozambican border 

Themba Mnguni*, a 43-year-old teacher, was sleeping at home in Thengani Location, near Manguzi, on the night of Sunday, 17 October 2021, when four heavily armed men forced their way in. “They demanded money, laptops, a gun and I told them I didn’t have one. They asked for keys to my Mazda CX5 (2019). They ransacked the house. My wife and I were kept in separate rooms.

“They forced my wife and I to dress up warmly because they are going with us to the Mozambique border. They forced us to accompany them to our car and they told us they were not fighting but only working. In fear for our life we followed their orders.”

Once on the road the abductors called other syndicate members to tell them where they were and ask whether the police were on their route. “They were using the forest to avoid the police. You could tell by the way they were communicating that their job was well planned and it consisted of well-organised people who are well connected.”

At the border, three of the abductors leapt out and bent the fence so the car could get through. On the Mozambique side they drove for a few minutes and stopped. “I thought it was the end of us, I thought they were gonna shoot us, but I thank God they spared our lives.” The abductors then ordered the couple out of the car, helped them back over the fence and told them to walk away and never look back. “It was still dark in the forest. We were scared…”

After walking for hours they found a house where the owner called the police. “We were able to open a case but no arrest was made. No trace of my car as well.”

Mnguni added: “Every evening memories come back and worse I never heard anything about my car and the tracker failed to locate it, I don’t think I will be able to buy or drive a car anytime soon. I’m scared and traumatised. I almost died just for my hard-earned vehicle.”

He believes the syndicates “are working closely with people in our communities… we don’t know who to trust any more… Just a week after our ordeal the syndicate went for one of the neighbours, a teacher, took her Toyota RAV4 and forced her and her three granddaughters to drive to the border fence where they were abandoned and the car taken to Mozambique. This shows that someone very close to us is selling us to the criminals.”

*Name changed for the safety of the survivor.  

The Toyota Legend is one of the vehicles seized by the police near the Mozambican border fence. (Photo: Supplied)

Case Study 4

Teacher robbed of two cars 

Phelandaba location, Manguzi: At about midnight on 17 September 2019, three heavily armed men barged into Sipho Vundla’s* house, tying up him and his wife and demanding the keys to his two cars, a Toyota 4×4 (2011) and a Nissan Hardbody.

“They asked for money and took R1,000 and the spare keys for both vehicles. They were beating me, demanding that I show them where the trackers are. I told them I had uninstalled them because I couldn’t afford them.”

When the attackers couldn’t open the Nissan “they came back to the house and kicked me while I was naked and tied up. I was forced  to go outside and unlock my car for them… the locker was jammed, one man picked up a spade and broke the side window. They again locked us inside the house and drove off in our vehicles.”

The Toyota was found near the border fence on the South African side. Police found the Nissan on the Mozambican side and took it to the Nomahasha police station.

Police in Mozambique arrested suspects who outed their accomplices in South Africa. Vundla said three men, including a minor, are on trial in the Manguzi Regional Court where there have been several postponements due Covid-19 regulations.

“All I can say is that I was so shocked to learn that two suspects were my neighbours, people who know me well. They were learners in the school I am teaching at,” he said.

“I am pleading with the government to take this issue of hijacking and taking cars to Mozambique seriously. Communities must form community forums and work together with the police to catch the syndicates and criminals. Our government is failing us because when communities take the law in their hands the government punishes them instead of the criminals. What kind of country is this? We are living in democracy. What is freedom when you work very hard but you cannot even buy yourself a car or cellphone?”

*Name changed for the safety of the survivor.  

Case study 5

Lured with the promise of a big contract, hijacked and killed

Vryheid businessman Gert Pretorius’s family didn’t suspect anything when he drove a Toyota Hilux bearing the emblem of his company, Majuba Glass & Aluminium, from home to meet a client in Manguzi on Sunday morning, 22 September 2019.

It was the last time his family saw him. Pretorius’s company specialised in aluminium fittings and covered the whole of Umkhanyakude district.

Weeks earlier he had received a call from a “client” who said he’d seen his advert on social media and was keen to make a big order. But Pretorius had to go to Manguzi to deliver the quotation. The client deposited petrol money into Pretorius’s account to make the whole thing look legitimate.

Manguzi SAPS station commander Colonel Frank Saunders said at the time they believed Pretorius arrived in the Escabazini area and was hijacked and taken to Umgodi Wezimnvubu, to which his last cellphone call was traced.

Police found the Hilux close to the border fence and at 11pm Pretorius’s body was discovered with a gunshot wound next to the P522 road. No arrests have been made yet, added Saunders.

Pretorius’s eldest son told Daily Maverick he was too emotional to talk. “I still cannot talk about this, even now,” he said before hanging up.

Pretorius’s brother, Marius, told the Northern Natal News his brother’s death had affected the family.

“We did not know about the hijacking syndicate at the time. We are very safety conscious and would not have taken a risk, if we were aware. When Gert’s phone was off, we knew something was wrong. His phone was never off… He had been lured into an ambush by a group of guys who knew what he was driving. They were after his Toyota Hilux,” he said.

“Gert was not a violent guy, but he was the type of person who would have fought for his life and for his family.”

Police say they were alerted by Jozini residents to the Hilux being driven recklessly by suspicious-looking men. They gave chase but the men managed to get out of the vehicle and flee.

This was before Pretorius’s body was discovered.

Case Study 6

Hospital worker dumped at border with three grandchildren

Gloria Mnguni* (54) was sleeping with her three granddaughters at home in the Thengani area of Manguzi on Wednesday, 27 October 2021, when three armed men forced their way in through the kitchen door.

This was not her first ordeal – in 2006, armed men barged into her home and shot her husband dead. No one has been arrested.

“When they were inside they asked me where my late husband’s firearm was. I told them it was taken by the police who were investigating his murder. They then forced me and my grandchildren to sit on the bed while they were ransacking the house. They asked for the phones, for money. They took takkies, they took everything they could lay their hands on. They also asked for the keys to the Toyota RAV4.

“They tied us using shoelaces and made us sit as they carefully opened things, saying they don’t want to alert neighbours and my 31-year-old son and his wife, who were sleeping in the outbuilding.

“They drove out of the house with us. When we entered the gravel there was another man who was keeping watch, he entered the car. As we were driving I could see a stationary police vehicle and I was hopeful that they would stop the car. The police ignored us and the car passed. Our tormentors did not seem to worry about the presence of police. We passed another police van. Here, too, I thought the police would stop us as it was long after midnight and the Covid-19 curfew had passed. But the police ignored us.

“The hijackers were making calls, asking the person on the other side of the line if everything is fine. The guy said they must drive slowly as there were cars on the gravel road. We saw a teenager standing on the side of the gravel road in the dark. I thought he is the person they were talking to to spot danger for them. One of the hijackers said, ‘you can now go and sleep, Mshana [nephew or lad]. Your job is done.’ We drove through a dark forest and they were frantically phoning. At some point they stopped the vehicle and they all got out. They were asking if everything is fine and if the person has finished cutting the border fence. After about 30 minutes they returned to the vehicle and the driver was driving faster now. Soon we reached the border fence. They ordered us out of the car and said we must walk on the side of the border fence. They said we will reach the SANDF camp where we can ask for assistance.

“We walked for kilometres until I could see the camp and we asked for assistance. The SANDF members at the camp were sleeping and we had to scream and plead for help. They woke up and two of them got into their vehicle and drove in the opposite direction to where we said the hijackers had left. They came back a while later and told us they cannot even spot car tracks. I thought, why would they go east when I told them the car had gone west. However, I was still too traumatised to ask them these questions.

“We waited in the camp until 9.30 when police arrived. One officer apologised for not assisting us at night, saying they were only on the lookout for vehicles heading to Manguzi and not those going the other way. I wondered where he could have gotten the information as I had not told him that. But perhaps he had been told by SANDF members to whom we had related the story.”

Mnguni said she opened a case at Manguzi police station but has not heard anything about her car or the arrest of the culprits. The insurance company has still not responded to her claim.

“I don’t have a car, I am traumatised and so are my grandchildren. I don’t know why we have to go through all this hardship. We are at the mercy of ruthless criminals who strike at will without any government assistance,” she said.

*Name withheld to protect the survivor.

KwaZulu-Natal police respond

Colonel Thembeka Mbele confirmed these incidents without going into detail, and warned residents to be extra vigilant.

She said some people are hijacked at night in their homes and others are lured into the region from other areas, hijacked, robbed and even abducted.

“Police would like to warn the community of Emanguzi and Umkhanyakude district about the car hijacking trend that is taking place in the area. Many people have been targeted from different areas in the province and outside the province. The criminals target individuals who conduct businesses such as building, carpentry and truck-hire services which transport goods. The criminals identify these individuals and offer them jobs, especially those that own cars. Once the individual agrees to do the job, they are sent to the ‘intended’ destination. On their arrival someone will be waiting for the drivers to hijack them. Their vehicles are allegedly taken to neighbouring countries.” DM

Read Part One in the series.

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  • Technology can help.

    Some tracking systems can automatically raise the alarm if the vehicle location is in defined areas. Then trace the numbers the perpetrators called.

  • What terrible stories. An entire cross section of South African society, brutalized by crime, poverty and government incompetence. And the desensitization of their own neighbors.