South Africa

AGE OF THE ASSASSIN

Murder of KZN anti-crime activist leaves local community in fear of more violence from cross-border syndicates 

Murder of KZN anti-crime activist leaves local community in fear of more violence from cross-border syndicates 
UCCSA Bbishop Linda Mandindi preaches to the mourners during the funeral of activist Judah Mthethwa who was gunned down a week ago.Photo:Supplied

Daily Maverick has been reporting on cross-border crime syndicates that have been terrorising northern KwaZulu-Natal towns and villages bordering Mozambique for over a year, yet residents say police and the government have done little to address the scourge of criminality and violence in Umhlabuyalingana. Many suspect criminal syndicates and the South African authorities are in cahoots.

On the fateful night of Thursday 16 February 2023 when 58-year-old Judah Mthethwa arrived home in Thengane village, outside Manguzi following a trip to Durban trip, he was unaware that unknown men were lying in wait for him.

As soon as Mthethwa emerged from his vehicle, the yet-to-be-identified assailants fired at him indiscriminately, killing him instantly. A family member who was in the house fled the scene and ran into the bushes until after the assailants had left. 

When the relative returned, he found Mthethwa lying dead in a pool of blood. Mthethwa was the chairperson of the Umhlabuyalingana Society Against Crime (Usac) and was at the forefront of the fight against cross-border crime in areas around uMkhanyakude.

Judah Mthethwa. (Photo: Supplied)

Read more in Daily Maverick:Violent criminal torchings add to deadly cocktail of unchecked KZN-Mozambique cross-border crime

Mthethwa was the resolute face of the campaign against brazen cross-border crime encompassing numerous criminal activities. The typical modus operandi of criminals in the area involves hijacking vehicles, abducting their owners and taking the vehicle to the border fence separating Mozambique and South Africa. There, the vehicle owners are typically dumped by the roadside before their vehicles are illegally transported across the border into the Mozambican wilderness.

The area in which Mthethwa and his Usac operated is regarded as a gangsters’ paradise where vehicle smuggling, people smuggling, cigarettes and illegal goods smuggling are rife.

Minister of Water and Sanitation Senzo Mchunu, Mkhanyakude Mayor Siphile Mdaka, Police Minister Bheki Cele, KZN Premier Nomusa Dube-Ncube and mourners attend the funeral service of Judah Mthethwa. (Photo: Supplied)

Children of the late Judah Mthethwa pay tribute to their father during his funeral in Manguzi over the past weekend. (Photo: Supplied)

Fear and uncertainty

Mthethwa’s death has been seen as a turning point by community members. Some say his murder is 10 steps backwards in the fight against cross-border crime, while others argue his death will propel and strengthen the fight against lawlessness. But all were in agreement that Mthethwa had been targeted and killed by cross-border crime syndicates as an example to all that the syndicates are in charge and ready to unleash deadly force against anyone who stands in their way.

Sipho Hlomuka, KZN MEC for Transport, Community Safety and Liaison, visited the community a day after the murder of Mthethwa. He said the murder was a tragic loss in the fight against cross-border crime but that the local community should not despair.

“We are confident that the law enforcement agencies will clamp down on the challenge of cross-border crime. The killing of Mr Mthethwa is the biggest blow however we are convinced that the spirit of the community, working with the police, will resolve the current crime challenges. 

“Mr Mthethwa was leading from the front and demonstrated community activism. We need to work with all community structures, including Amakhosi, [the] business community and all community organisations to fight crime and promote stability in the area of uMkhanyakude,” said Hlomuka.

Mthethwa’s sombre funeral was attended by scores of angry community members, many of whom said they feared being even more vulnerable now that the champion against cross-border crime has been silenced.

The attack against Mthethwa follows a series of events in the past few years, months, weeks and days.

Read more in Daily Maverick:KZN border area under siege: Car theft syndicates abduct – and kill – to feed Mozambique smuggling route


Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations


Spike in cross-border crime

In recent months cross-border crime syndicates seemed to have upped the ante in their attacks on rural families, holding them hostage, robbing them, taking their valuables and cash, forcing them into their own vehicles and abducting them before dropping them off near the Mozambique border fence.

This was happening in Manguzi and surrounding towns and villages. Cross-border crime in Manguzi and surrounding areas became prevalent in the 2000s and various government efforts to root it out had failed to produce results. Community members believe that local and international crime syndicates have targeted the area and are given carte blanche to operate because they allegedly have top politicians, police officers and other government officials in their pockets.

Late in January, angry communities in Mbazwana set fire to a Mozambican truck on the R22 highway between Hluhluwe and Mbazwana. A few minutes later they stopped a Mozambican luxury bus from Maputo headed for Durban, before forcing Mozambican and South African tourists out of the vehicle and torching it.

The tourists were compelled to walk some three kilometres to find help. Days later the torching of Mozambican-owned vehicles continued on the R22 road between Hluhluwe and Mbazwana. Police said seven vehicles, including a bus and a truck, were torched in the area.

Police Commissioner General Fannie Masemola led a delegation to the area, to try and pacify the angry community. But the continuing spate of hijackings and the killing of Mthethwa shows clearly that nothing or very little has really changed.

Security during the funeral service of Judah Mthethwa. (Photo: SABC)

Anger at government lip service

The funeral of Mthethwa was draped in ANC colours, South Africa’s ruling party of which he was a long-standing member. Mthethwa was a teacher and a principal but had also served as an ANC councillor and the party’s Chief Whip in the Umhlabuyalingana Local Municipality.

His funeral was also attended by top ANC and government leaders including Police Minister Bheki Cele, his Water and Sanitation counterpart Senzo Mchunu, KZN Premier Nomusa Dube-Ncube and many others.

Dube-Ncube urged Umhlabuyalingana community members to work with the police and other law-enforcement agencies to combat rampant crime and killing.

Also addressing the mourners Cele said he understood the anger of the community. He said he is engaging Mozambican officials to get their cooperation in fighting cross-border crime.

He repeated the assertion he made when he addressed the Parliament Portfolio Committee on Police, saying “the laws in the different countries make it difficult to pursue criminals across borders”.

“In SA if you buy stolen goods, you are not innocent, but there, the buyers [are] always innocent. Which means once the car is on the other side and is bought, you can’t take it from that owner because the buyer is innocent.” 

Police Minister Bheki Cele addresses the community and gives an update regarding the murder of activist and community leader Judah Mthethwa, who stood against crime in the area. (Photo: Supplied)

He said South Africa is trying to convince the Mozambican officials to change this attitude to limit the incentives for hijacking cars in South Africa and taking them over to Mozambique.

But many mourners accused government officials of talking the talk but failing to deliver when it matters most, thus leaving community members defenceless against heavily armed and brazen syndicate members. 

They said that the fact that nobody has been arrested for Mthethwa’s death proves that law-enforcement is a joke and that the killers would never be arrested.

Siya Khumalo, a local resident, said South Africans must forget that there is a government or the police protecting them.

“When you die, your family members must know that nobody will be arrested for your brutal murder. If your car is hijacked or stolen, forget that you will ever get it. If you are lucky to be left alive, you will have to work harder and buy another car.   

“What kind of a life is that? Comrade Judah was our hope in fighting cross-border crime. He did not fold his arms, like many government officials, when our areas were under siege from these cross-border gangs. He took action. He was the one who drove into Mozambique to negotiate for the cars to come back to their owners in South Africa.”

Echoing these words was Nkosikhona Mathenjwa, another local community member. “The assassination of Cde Judah Mthethwa in cold blood simply tells us that, behind the car-hijacking syndicate around Umhlabuyalingana, there are people in higher places involved. This shows us that it’s not just those young boys that are usually caught driving those stolen cars across the border but there are powerful, ruthless and untouchable masters who do not hesitate in eliminating anyone who dares fight such heinous crimes.”

A member of the Umkhanyakude District community policing forum, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution from members of the cross-border crime syndicates, said Mthethwa’s murder is the turning point in the fight against cross-border crime.

“We will not surrender. If anything, the murder of Juda Mthethwa has galvanised community members to be stronger and more vigilant in the fight against this scourge. All we need is support from the police and the government,” he said. DM

The writer bylines are being withheld for safety reasons and ongoing investigations into cross-border crime.

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