THE CROOKED BLUE LINE EXCLUSIVE
Bheki Cele in the firing line of critical class action against police over the smuggling of guns to gangsters
Families of those murdered with firearms that were smuggled from cops to gangsters aim to hold the SA Police Service accountable.
Police bosses must be held accountable for crimes carried out with firearms that were smuggled from cops to gangsters. This is the core of a class action that is shaping up in South Africa’s gangsterism capital, the Western Cape.
A group of families of those murdered with cop-smuggled firearms, as well as survivors of such crimes, want compensation for what they have been through.
The issue of firearms meant to be in cop custody and instead ending up with criminals has previously and repeatedly emerged as a massive problem in the South African Police Service (SAPS).
Gun Free South Africa (GFSA) is now driving class action proceedings, in which damages will be sought from the Police Minister.
Thousands maimed and murdered
The proceedings are linked to one of South Africa’s biggest firearm-smuggling investigations – codenamed Project Impi – which led to former policeman Chris Prinsloo’s conviction seven years ago, and which certain cop investigators alleged was derailed on the orders of police management.
Cop-smuggled guns, according to Project Impi investigations focusing on the period from 2010 to 2016, had allegedly resulted in:
- The shooting of 261 children (according to GFSA, 187 children were killed);
- At least 1,666 murders; and
- At least 1,403 attempted murders.
This week, a GFSA statement confirmed the class action. It said: “Litigants in the class action include the parents and guardians of children who were injured, [dependants] of victims killed, and those who survived a shooting with a Prinsloo gun.
“Several families have already given witness statements and work continues to identify further claimants. A large firm of attorneys has taken the case [pro bono], and [has] secured prominent senior and junior legal counsel to represent the litigants in the Western Cape High Court.”
Given security risks associated with the class action matter, DM168 will not yet detail all of those involved with the case.
In its statement, GFSA said that, as required by law, it gave notice of the class action proceedings to police bosses.
“Specifically,” it said, “that an application for the certification of class action proceedings will be lodged with the Western Cape High Court in 60 days.”
Adèle Kirsten, GFSA’s director, added: “As the virus of gun violence spreads, it’s time to hold the police accountable for their negligence.”
*This week Police Minister Bheki Cele’s spokesperson Lirandzu Themba was checking with their legal department to see if the notice of the class action proceedings had been received. National Police spokesperson Athlenda Mathe confirmed to DM168 that the SAPS received it. “It’s currently being studied and considered by our legal division,” she said. “For now, the organisation will await for the normal court processes to unfold.”
Project Impi and Chris Prinsloo
According to GFSA, both the now defunct Project Impi and Prinsloo, who in 2016 confessed to smuggling guns that were meant to have been destroyed, are central to the class action proceedings.
Prinsloo and a second police officer, David Naidoo, were previously identified as suspects in Project Impi. It has never been made clear what happened to Naidoo, despite his name appearing in court papers.
Former policeman Jeremy Vearey and his colleague Peter Jacobs launched Project Impi in December 2013.
A focus of the investigation was on how firearms, meant to be kept in police storage ahead of being destroyed, were instead stolen and smuggled to others, including gangsters. In June 2016, while conducting Project Impi investigations, Vearey and Jacobs were suddenly transferred, or as some in cop circles viewed it, in effect demoted.
That same month, Prinsloo was sentenced to an effective 18 years in jail for selling firearms that ended up with gang members in the Western Cape – although he spent a fraction of that time behind bars.
According to GFSA’s statement this week, “at least a thousand ‘Prinsloo’ guns remained in circulation and continued to maim and kill people across the country”.
Lynn Phillips, chairperson of the Cape Flats Safety Forum, said this week: “These guns continue to circulate in our communities and they pose the biggest threat to our right to life.
“This is why the police need to have dedicated teams that go after these guns, find them, and destroy them.”
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SAPS liability warnings
Meanwhile, Vearey and Jacobs went on to successfully challenge their 2016 transfers in the Labour Court in Cape Town.
In an October 2016 affidavit linked to the labour court proceedings, Vearey warned police bosses they could be held liable for crimes committed with the thousands of firearms they were meant to be storing. “Instead, we have been transferred and [Project] Impi has been decimated on the orders of SAPS management,” Vearey said.
“This has the opposite effect to what is in the interest of the SAPS, their constitutional mandate and the public interest.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Labour court delivers victory for Crime Intelligence’s (status unknown) Peter Jacobs“
Prison, parole, protection
In terms of Prinsloo, matters surrounding him still appear to be murky.
He was sentenced to an effective 18 years in jail in June 2016, but served less than a quarter of this – four years.
In response to parliamentary questions, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola previously explained, without naming Prinsloo, that he had qualified for remission of sentence, which reduced his sentence by a year.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Police are still arming criminals, despite ‘plans’ to stop the scourge“
“He then became eligible to be considered for parole as part of the Special Parole Dispensation and his placement on parole was approved by the parole board,” Lamola said.
Prinsloo was placed under witness protection. According to 2021 court papers relating to another case stemming from Project Impi investigations, Prinsloo “agreed to become a State witness in [that] trial”.
DM168 understands that Prinsloo left the witness protection programme at some stage.
Assassinations and danger
The firearm-smuggling arena in which cops are suspects is exceptionally dangerous.
In November 2016, Noorudien Hassan, a lawyer representing an accused in a case that is a spinoff from the Prinsloo matter, was assassinated.
At the end of October 2018, his colleague, Advocate Pete Mihalik, who wanted Prinsloo to be charged with more than a thousand murders linked to the guns he had smuggled, was murdered.
And in September 2020, Lieutenant Colonel Charl Kinnear was assassinated. It later emerged his murder meant that cases involving corrupt cops who were getting firearms and gun licences to criminal suspects could collapse.
While the motive behind each of the three killings is not yet clear, each target was ambushed in a shooting in Cape Town, and each was involved with cases relating to firearms allegedly linked to cops but which ended up with criminals.
How the class action process against cop bosses may unfold
Family members and survivors need to become certified members of the class action so it can proceed properly.
This could take years and will involve members, who won’t necessarily testify, providing lawyers with information.
The state may settle or a court could decide whether financial relief will be granted to members of the class action.
The South African Police Service may have to tighten its weapon controls. DM168
* This article was updated This article was updated on Sunday 5 March following the SAPS providing a response.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.