South Africa

CROSS-BORDER CRIME FILES: PART THREE

‘Clash’ between police and soldiers revealed as killer car theft syndicates run rampant

The SAPS vehicles which were damaged by the SANDF shootings while they were pursuing cross-border syndicates and stolen vehicles near the SA/Mozambican border.Photo:Supplied

The South African Police Service (SAPS) and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) are both probing a 14 September 2021 incident in which SANDF members shot at SAPS members who were pursuing cross-border car thieves near the Mozambican border.

Information about these separate investigations emerged during Daily Maverick’s own investigation – and raises red flags in the war against cross-border vehicle smuggling. 

The September 14 skirmish is the latest in an alleged clash between the SAPS and the SANDF, who have kept the other incidents out of the public eye.

The tensions arose from the accusation made by both parties that the other is aiding and abetting cross-border crime syndicates.

On the night of Tuesday, 14 September 2021, Detective Constable MH Mthembu and Sergeant VJ Maphanga were driving a clearly marked police vehicle, following the tracks of a stolen vehicle near the border in Gazini. They came under fire from SANDF members guarding the border. 

A bullet grazed Maphanga’s skull, from which fragments were removed in hospital.

The police van was damaged and had to be taken by tow truck to the police garage in Jozini. It has not been repaired. 

The police van that was fired at along the Mozambican border. (Photo: Supplied)

A case of attempted murder was opened at the Manguzi police station the following day, 15 September.

According to sources, the SANDF has not cooperated and has yet to submit a statement from all the members who were involved, describing why they had to fire at the police van with occupants.

Both the SAPS and the SANDF have admitted that the incident took place, and both say it is being investigated.

Cross-border crime levels are so high that there are mounting accusations that this is because some members of both the SANDF and SAPS are on the payroll of syndicates to enable the latter to smuggle vehicles into Mozambique. 

Neither the SANDF nor the SAPS top brass has admitted to bribery claims against their members.

Sboniso Gumede, chairperson of the local community policing forum, said the bribery accusations and the tiff between SANDF and SAPS members is a concern for those who wish to see an end to cross-border crime. He said this is because it is emboldening the syndicates and escalating crime.

The SAPS and the SANDF are supposed to be cooperating under a joint agreement to fight organised crime, including hijacking and smuggling of vehicles to Mozambique. “The non-cooperation and one-upmanship between the police and the army has given the syndicates a free reign, they are operating with impunity,” Gumede claimed.

“If all the law enforcement agencies were to do their work diligently and forcefully, the smuggling and crime syndicates would be a thing of the past. But, clearly, there is no will to fight cross-border crime.”

A board of inquiry has been convened to investigate the circumstances that led to an attack on an SAPS vehicle. (Photo: Supplied)

Approached for comment, SANDF spokesperson Brigadier-General Andries Mahapa confirmed there was an incident in which SANDF members “accidentally” shot at SAPS members. “The SANDF confirms that we are aware of a particular incident that happened in/around Manguzi area on 14 September 2021. 

“Our understanding is that the SAPS are conducting their own case of attempted murder. A board of inquiry has been convened to investigate circumstances that led to the incident.”

However, he downplayed the alleged conflict: “The SANDF enjoys good working relations with all law enforcement agencies employed within the role of safeguarding our borders, especially the SA Police Service. In this regard, the SANDF has been working jointly with the SAPS and other law enforcement agencies to intercept vehicles from illegally crossing the border on a daily basis. The confiscated vehicles are handed over to the SAPS or SARS.

“The SANDF as the co-chairperson of the Provincial Joint Intelligence Structure in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, works jointly with the SAPS and there is cooperation between the two organisations. The agreements are implemented without any challenges.”

Mahapa added: “Specific to RSA/Mozambique border, cross-border crimes such as illegal smuggling of dagga, stolen vehicles and undocumented persons are common in the area.”

Police Minister Bheki Cele told Daily Maverick they are aware of the incident and that SAPS and SANDF leadership are dealing with it.

“There is an investigation by both the SAPS and the SANDF regarding this matter. It would be premature for me to comment until these investigations have been concluded and reports have been produced,” he said.

SAPS spokesperson Brigadier Vish Naidoo declined to answer questions, saying Cele had spoken for the ministry and the SAPS.

“He is the higher authority and once he has spoken I cannot say anything further,” said Naidoo.

The bigger picture

Richard Chelin, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), said cooperation and information-sharing between national and cross-border law enforcement agencies is critical if efforts to curb cross-border crime are to succeed.

“The information available is quite limited actually. While there have been media reports around cross-border crimes, there has been little on cross-border crime syndicates which are terrorising communities in the KZN border region with Mozambique.

An SAPS vehicle after it was allegedly fired on by SANDF members while the police were pursuing cross-border car thieves near the Mozambican border. (Photo: Supplied)

“I think it is important to contextualise this within the broader organised crime of vehicle theft. While the modus operandi of the various criminal groups may vary, the crime remains that of vehicle theft. Vehicle theft is one of the most prominent forms of organised crime in the southern African region. 

“As such, it has been listed as one of the priority areas for the Southern Africa Regional Police Chiefs Cooperation Organisation. As a crime type, it is systematic and transnational and organised criminal groups exploit routes and systems used by the legitimate economy. Yet, there is little research done on this issue.”

Other experts say the tensions between the SAPS and the SANDF along the border arose because there are many agencies operating there, including the Department of Home Affairs, all with their own heads and priorities.

After nine years of deliberation, the National Assembly passed the Border Management Authority Bill in June 2020. A month later, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed the bill into law and the Border Management Authority (BMA) was instituted as a single authority to manage the country’s borders.

In September 2021, Cabinet announced it had appointed Dr Nakampe Michael Masiapato as commissioner of the BMA agency and Major-General David Chilembe as deputy commissioner for operations. DM

Read Part One and Part Two of the series.

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  • Motor vehicles get smuggled through namibia,the high commissioner of police in namibia I think it was a colonel Naidoo told me telephonically that they had 300 impounded stolen cars in Windhoek,and that is only that they had caught a lot more goes through.I worked at vioolsdrift border post lots of times.Once I caught 2 stolen cars in 10 minutes trying to pass through.Firstva Mercedes Benz,it had two aap no and 1 to no , which meant it had been stolen 3 times .I inspected the vehicle and found in the boot a left tail light and a petrol accelerator pad in boxes for a Isuzu KB TDI(bought as spare parts in Littleton pretoria).The driver was a ovambo guy from Port nolloth.His explanation was that he was taking it for a friend in namibia.At that time an Isuzu KB TDI came in and the driver stalled and tried to reverse.I ran and forced the driver to stop.Guess what was missing ,left tail light and accelerator pad.Lots of inspection of chassis no etc eventually had it sorted out.The Isuzu KB TDI was hi jacked in Joburg 3 days earlier from a Zimbabwean citizen.I arrested both.This was late 1990 s.One night of duty I sat at the border post and a Toyota bakkie driven by a lady came through round about 2 o clock in the morning.Was funny a lady driving one so late at night.After inspection of the vehicle, with stolen number plates for a similar vehicle, and a copied license disk,it was found to have been stolen the previous night at the LORD Nelson Hotel vicinity.Thats only Namibia

  • Jcd, that was in the 1990s when there were still policemen who could do police work. No the only tings you expect the police to do is certify copies and take statements for insurance claims. It’s a sad state of affairs and nothing but a refection of the utter incompetence at the top. The police are more likely to be complicit in a crime than stopping it.

  • Did my last trip to vioolsdrift in 2003.Think 2001 not sure a suspicious driver made me search his green vw sedan.Under the spare wheel I got a credit card slip.Phoned nedbank and after much cajoling they were prepared to give the persons phone number somewhere in gauteng.Phoned him, and he verified it had been stolen few days ago.Syndicates use every border post.There are police immigration and sars offices.First thing they do is to get some of these officials on their pay roll.In Mitchell’s plain there was a syndicate who took cars to Botswana, 30 km before kimberley is a small place called Ritchie,they had 2 traffick officials that stayed there who organized fraudulent papers .

  • Interesting comments by JC. Reality is these syndicates, and cross border transfer of stolen vehicles have been going on since I was a teenager, saving for my first VW Beetle (which was stolen), some 50-odd years ago. This Cross-border crime series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and possibly more to come, like a Korean K-drama series) by Daily Maverick is like, well, 50 years too late. It happened during the apartheid years as well. Now suddenly it is big news, an expose. Its not

    • Coen in the early 90 s we used to book on duty and then go to radio control who gave us a print out of cars stolen in the last 24 hours (between 20 and 40)We would stick it on the dashboard and go patrolling in gugulethu/nyanga,a w/o and me held the record ,5 stolen cars in 1 shift of duty.You also get “hula hoops” which is where somebody takes your car into namibia for example, sells it there, you report it stolen, insurance pays out.You score twice. As far as my recollection goes Yuri the Russian was also involved in that.Once in Delft we hit a so called asbestos house .Long building/house .We lift up the asbestos side wall with a lot of effort and inside is 5 stolen vehicles all being altered.Never saw so called mechanics try and dive into obscurity so fast!!!!

      • Find your experiences fascinating. Of course, we all know there was something going on, and still is, but your first hand experience reads like a story book. In my life I have had 4 vehicle’s stolen, 2 from hi-jackings, and in one I was badly hurt, and ended up with serious concussion.
        Only 2 of those vehicle were ever found (a 2nd hand VW Beetle, and the other only because it was fitted with a tracker devise).