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AGE OF THE ASSASSIN

Another life lost as cross-border crime in northern KZN spirals out of control

Another life lost as cross-border crime in northern KZN spirals out of control
(Photo: Gallo Images/Fani Mahuntsi)

The volatile uMkhanyakude District in northern KwaZulu-Natal was rocked after yet another crime fighter was gunned down in cold blood at the weekend.

Sandile “Mteshe” Tembe was shot dead shortly after 9pm on Saturday outside a tuck shop near his home at eMfihlweni Royal Residence in Manguzi, northern KZN.

The 32-year-old Tembe was a nephew of the Tembe clan’s chief, Inkosi Mabhudu Tembe, and was a prominent member of the Manguzi Policing Forum which helps to combat cross-border crime in the area.

His death came just two weeks after the ambush and killing of Judah Mthethwa, who was the chairperson of the Umhlabuyalingana Society Against Crime and at the forefront in the fight against cross-border crime in areas around uMkhanyakude.

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

Mthembu and Tembe were among those who play a prominent role in efforts to stop syndicates from moving stolen cars across the border into Mozambique.

Cross-border syndicates

The violent deaths of Tembe and Mthembu are believed to be the work of crime syndicates that have local communities under siege. There are regular armed robberies at homes, family members are abducted and vehicles hijacked, then driven through the bush into Mozambique.

The syndicates are also involved in human trafficking, money laundering and smuggling of cigarettes and other illegal goods.

The syndicates are believed to have members on either side of the porous border fence separating South Africa and Mozambique.

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

They are also believed to have senior government and police protection on either side of the border, thus allowing them to operate with virtual impunity.

Several people opposed to the gangs have been attacked and killed. No one has been arrested for the deaths of Tembe and Mthethwa and community members have little hope that the culprits will be brought to book.

Police must ‘scour’ every corner

KZN Premier Nomusa Dube-Ncube – who was one of the main speakers at Mthethwa’s funeral – expressed her shock at the latest killing and sent her condolences to the Tembe royal family.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the Tembe royal family, the Tembe clan and community as they mourn their immense loss of Mr Sandile Tembe, who was an activist leading the fight against cross-border crime,” said Dube-Ncube.

“What is more concerning is that this incident comes just a week after the murder of another prominent fighter against the Manguzi cross-border crime syndicate, Judah Mthethwa. Police must scour every corner to find those responsible for these callous murders.

“We will be engaging with the national government because we believe there should be better and urgent coordination and alignment between South Africa and its neighbours to combat escalating cross-border crimes. 

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“We remain resolute in our resolve to take the war to criminals in our pursuit of ensuring safety and justice in our province, as well as beyond our borders.”

Local residents said they have heard these promises before, all of which turned out to be empty.

Patience Sithole, a resident of uMkhanyakude, said: “The government has failed to combat crime in this area… that is why people like Tembe and Mthethwa took it upon themselves to fight this crime. Now the syndicate is assassinating them one by one. Hhayi! We don’t know what else to say to this useless government. Come 2024! Rest in peace, Tembe.”

Others suggested the army should be deployed in the area because the police have either failed or are afraid of the syndicates.

Speculation of a hit list

A member of the police team assigned to the area, who asked not to be named, said they believed there was a hit list compiled by the syndicates with a view to eliminating anyone who gave the syndicate members a hard time.

“Before the killing of Tembe and Mthethwa, there were several murders of [ordinary] people who are opposed to cross-border crime. Now we don’t know who will be next on the list… these syndicates mean business and they will take on anyone who gives them a problem,” the officer said.

He said Tembe had received several calls before he was killed.

“He went to the venue to meet his friends and that is when he was killed. It is clear that government agencies can use cellphone technology to track who was calling him on his phone.

“There are a number of other resources the government can use to end cross-border crime activities, but these resources are not used, thus allowing the syndicates to act in a brazen manner, without any fear,” he said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Cross-border  crime – SIU probe into stalled R85.7-million Mozambican border wall nears completion

Mozambican car torched

Meanwhile, tensions are mounting between local communities along the border and their Mozambican counterparts.

On Saturday, the day on which Tembe was killed, a vehicle belonging to a Mozambican was set alight on the R22 between Mbazwana and Hluhluwe.

Locals say this was sending a message to the Mozambicans that they have had enough of rampant cross-border crime.

Late in January, angry residents torched a Mozambican truck on the same highway. A few minutes later, they stopped a Mozambican luxury bus heading to Durban. They forced the tourists out of the vehicle before setting it on fire.

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

The tourists had to walk three kilometres to find help. 

Days later, the torching of Mozambican-owned vehicles continued on the R22 between Hluhluwe and Mbazwana. Police said seven vehicles, including a bus and a truck, were set alight.

National police commissioner General Fannie Masemola led a delegation to the area in the hope of calming the angry community. But with the deaths of Tembe and Mthethwa, and hijackings showing no signs of abating, it seems very little has changed.

Police Minister Bheki Cele has said he was in talks with his Mozambican counterpart about joint efforts to end cross-border crime. DM

The writers’ bylines are being withheld for safety reasons and due to ongoing investigations into cross-border crime.

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