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Russian Doll — an assassination, abductions and the mystery of the Lady R

Russian Doll — an assassination, abductions and the mystery of the Lady R

Colonel Frans Mathipa was shot in the head and killed by unknown assassins on Sunday, 6 August. Who are the skilled shooters who murdered a seasoned investigator in the Hawks’ Crimes Against the State Unit? Is there a link to a SANDF Special Forces unit that is alleged to have abducted civilians suspected of being Isis terrorists? What was this unit of Special Forces operatives doing on the quay in Simon’s Town when containers were loaded off and on the Russian vessel the Lady R in December 2022? Open Secrets investigates.

On 7 December 2022, the Russian-registered Lady R cargo ship docked in South Africa’s most important naval base — Simon’s Town. What was loaded on and off the vessel in the middle of the night under armed guard is the source of an international mystery and at the centre of a rift between the governments of South Africa and the United States. It has also caused more hardship for our working people battered by the ensuing storm of currency depreciation and rising fuel and food prices.

Why did the South African government welcome a Russian vessel with ties to Vladimir Putin’s regime, sanctioned by the US, into its naval base, when it was bound to be the subject of public speculation? And this was during a Russian war of colonial expansion against Ukraine. Did the military top brass botch a secretive transfer of material or was it rather a brazen attempt to cock a snook at Nato powers?

We don’t yet know what was loaded on and off the vessel. However, while all attention has focused on the Lady R, there has been far less scrutiny of what was happening dockside. A day after the ship docked in Simon’s Town, on 8 December, keen observers spotted two large commercial trucks carrying containers, a motorised crane belonging to a private contractor and three luxury German vehicles parked opposite a sports field in Simon’s Town. A convoy of these vehicles would move by the cover of load shedding after 8pm to move containers off and then on to the Lady R.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Lady R in South Africa

Netwerk24 has published relatively low-resolution images of the trucks and vehicles. Open Secrets has obtained high-resolution copies of the same images which provide important clues that, to date, have been missed. In the public interest, we publish the images and report on their contents.

Parking terrain in Simon’s Town (8 December 2022). The Russian-registered cargo ship, Lady R, was anchored in the Simon’s Town Naval Base on 8 December 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais)

Jacobs Transport trucks at the parking terrain in Simon’s Town (8 December 2022). The Russian-registered cargo ship, Lady R, was anchored in the Simon’s Town Naval Base on 8 December 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais)

The shipping containers that were loaded on to the Lady R were transported by a large Gauteng-based company, Jacobs Transport. Its social media pages are awash with images of big trucks and branding with a distinctly American muscle car edge. Jacobs Transport’s services include what its website calls “explosives transport” and UN Class 1 freight. This category of cargo is generally dangerous and includes explosives that are a mass explosion hazard. Typically, such cargo would be transported for a small group of customers such as the mines and the military. Jacobs Transport also boasts on its websites that its trucks are all fitted with trackers and live cameras.

This is material that retired Judge Phineas Mojapelo — appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa to lead a secret inquiry into the Lady R shipment — should have obtained in recent weeks. It will be a test of the strength of his inquiry. Tracking devices and cameras would provide the exact route the trucks travelled between depots in Johannesburg and Cape Town and whether this included stops at military bases or arms manufacturers from where materials may have been uploaded.

Peters Communications Trust: A Special Forces front

Parked next to the trucks and their cargo are three vehicles: two Mercedes-Benz Kombis — one white, one silver — and a black BMW. Open Secrets can confirm that at least one of these vehicles, the white Mercedes-Benz, is registered to an SANDF-controlled front company. The front company is a cover for operations conducted by the SANDF 5 Special Forces Regiment based in Phalaborwa in Limpopo.

lady r

Open Secrets can confirm that at least one of these vehicles parked at the Simon’s Town parking terrain on 8 December 2022, the white Mercedes Benz, is registered to a SANDF-controlled front company, Peters Communications Trust. The Russian-registered cargo ship, Lady R, was anchored in the Simon’s Town Naval Base on 8 December 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais)

The South African Special Forces (previously nicknamed the Recces), are the South African equivalent of the British SAS or the US Navy SEALS. They are an elite fighting unit, generally used to gather intelligence and infiltrate deep into enemy territory on land or by air, as they have done most recently fighting in northern Mozambique alongside Mozambican government troops. According to law, they are, however, not allowed to operate within South African borders unless supporting a police operation which has been authorised by the President and subsequently approved by Parliament.

The presence of the Special Forces, nearly 2,000km from their base in Phalaborwa, may seem surprising. It does, however, align with speculation since December 2022 that the Lady R docked in South Africa to deliver an outstanding order of equipment to the SANDF Special Forces. What it does not explain is why Special Forces require luxury civilian vehicles, given that their core responsibility is operations outside the borders of South Africa.

At least one of the three vehicles — the aforementioned white Mercedes-Benz Kombi — is registered to a Special Forces front company, Peters Communications Trust (PCT). Originally registered as a trust in 2002, PCT was reregistered as a company in 2017. The most recent former head of the SANDF 5 Special Forces — Major-General Herbert Dilebogo Mashego — was a director of PCT from 2017 until his promotion as the new general officer commanding the SA Army Infantry Division in January 2023.

Given the proximity of Special Forces on the scene in Simon’s Town, they would have intimate knowledge of the Lady R’s cargo and it should be assumed that Judge Mojapelo and his colleagues contacted Mashego and his subordinates to provide detailed testimony. A failure to do so would suggest a major omission on the part of the inquiry.

Gone rogue? Illegal abductions at the Mall of Africa

Despite it being in the midst of the festive season, December 2022 was a busy month for vehicles registered with Peters Communications Trust. On 29 December 2022, three weeks after the docking of the Lady R, three luxury German vehicles registered to PCT were seen on camera at the Mall of Africa in Midrand, Gauteng: a grey Audi, a white BMW and a white Mercedes-Benz Kombi. One of the vehicles appears to be the same white Mercedes-Benz Kombi (with identical number plates) that accompanied the Lady R cargo at Simon’s Town. This would suggest either extreme sloppiness on the part of an elite SANDF unit (given such recent sightings of a similar, if not the same, vehicle at Simon’s Town) or an intentional blunder. 

mall of africa

Peters Communications Trust Mercedes-Benz Kombi in Mall of Africa Parking Lot on 29 December 2022. (CCTV footage)

On the same day, Abdella Hussein Abadiga and his bodyguard, Kadir Jemal Abotese, were abducted from the Mall of Africa. Abadiga’s brother, Abdurahim Abadiga, stated in papers submitted to the Johannesburg High Court that “overwhelming probabilities are that they were abducted by members of the SANDF”.

Abadiga was an Ethiopian national with refugee status in South Africa and had been placed on a US Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (Ofac) sanctions list in March 2022. His refugee status was lifted on 15 December 2022, two weeks before his abduction. Abadiga and three other individuals were persons of interest for another reason — their alleged affiliation to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) and Isis-Mozambique. Specifically, the US authorities sanctioned Abadiga and three other men (two of whom are South African nationals) for their role in recruiting Isis fighters and providing financial support to the violent terror organisation.

One of the men on the Ofac list, Tanzanian Peter Charles Mbaga, is believed to have gone missing within days of being placed on the US sanctions list in March 2022. Neither Abadiga nor his bodyguard, Abotese, have been seen since their abduction nearly nine months ago.

mall of africa

Abdella Hussein Abadiga and his bodyguard Kadir Jemal Abotese walking in the Mall of Africa on 29 December 2022. (CCTV footage)

mall of africa

Abdella Abadiga pays for parking in the Mall of Africa. (CCTV footage)

Within days of their abduction and disappearance, Abadiga’s brother approached the South African Police Service to assist. Given the slow progress of the police investigation, he subsequently approached the Johannesburg High Court in February 2023 on an urgent basis to help ensure the release of his brother. The court papers he submitted, which, among others, cite the President, minister of defence, Peters Communications Trust, and its former director Mashego as respondents, are revealing in their detail.

Using CCTV footage, the papers include images of the Special Forces members driving the vehicles and their times of entry and exit from the mall. They also show that seconds after Abadiga and Abotese paid for their parking ticket an unknown man paid for his parking ticket. According to the court papers and evidence from CCTV footage gathered by Abadiga’s family, the tickets were used to ensure a speedy exit from the mall by two of the PCT vehicles.

The court papers show that four hours later, Abadiga’s Lexus vehicle was seen exiting the mall followed by a grey Audi — the third PCT vehicle in the parking lot. The Mall of Africa, with more than 300 shops, is one of the largest in Africa and it seems highly unlikely that these movements were all a coincidence. However, this is what Mashego asserts in his responding papers submitted to court. While he confirms that Special Forces members and PCT-owned vehicles were at the mall, he claims that they were undertaking a training exercise that day and not involved in the abductions.

Ultimately, the court did not consider the merits of the matter, instead dismissing the application on the technical ground of urgency.  

mall of africa

A grey Audi followed by Abadiga’s Lexus leave the Mall of Africa. (CCTV footage)

N1 highway: An assassination

Following the failed court application, the police appointed a new investigator in the matter — Lieutenant-Colonel PN “Frans” Mathipa, a member of the Hawks’ Crimes Against the State unit. According to the Abadiga family’s attorney, Yusuf Cassim, Mathipa acted professionally and was doing hard policing work.

In late July, Mathipa told Cassim that he had secured court authorisation to start accessing telephone data of the SANDF members present at the Mall of Africa on the day of the abductions. The authorisation had been obtained in terms of section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act, a provision that deals with the issuing of subpoenas for the purpose of obtaining records that are not in the public domain. These records are crucial as they might provide detail of SANDF involvement in illegal activities, including the abduction of two civilians. 

According to Abadiga’s attorney, his cellphone was switched off after the abduction and then “pinged” a few hours after the abduction, suggesting it was switched back on. The cellphone records that Mathipa was attempting to access could identify the exact location of Abadiga’s phone when it was switched back on and whether, for example, it was in a safe house or a military base.

However, Mathipa also indicated to Cassim during their last conversation, on 21 July, that he was encountering difficulties obtaining the records from the SANDF and was awaiting footage of the vehicles’ movements on the highway subsequent to the abduction.

On Sunday, 6 August, at about 8pm, Mathipa was assassinated. According to the SAPS incident report, he was booked out to collect information on the abduction case (Midrand CAS 238/01/2023). Mathipa had been travelling in a northerly direction along the N1 highway when he was shot in the head shortly before the Hammanskraal off-ramp. Open Secrets has spoken to a source close to the investigation who confirmed that the assassins were travelling in a black luxury German vehicle.

At this stage, nothing is known regarding who Mathipa was intending to meet. However, what is evident is that the killers are experienced and highly skilled marksmen, given that he was shot with one or two bullets from a moving vehicle on a major highway. There was no spray of gunfire. (While it may be a coincidence, it is worth noting that the murder scene is only about 10km away from the Special Forces Training School at Murrayhill, north of Pretoria.)

On Sunday, 13 August, City Press/Rapport reported that Mathipa had agreed to meet an unknown group of men close to the Hammanskraal off-ramp. According to City Press’s Erika Gibson, Mathipa had “told some of his colleagues that ‘the guys’ — presumably some of the suspects — wanted to talk”.

According to the report, Mathipa and colleagues met SANDF Special Forces and members of the State Security Agency’s counterintelligence unit in Pretoria last Friday. At that meeting, Mathipa reportedly “gave the army an ultimatum: he was going to arrest the Special Forces suspects whether the army cooperated or not. The military reportedly hit back, saying that he was investigating the wrong people.”

russian doll mathipa

Assassinated Hawks Lieutenant-Colonel Frans Mathipa.

A quest for truth

The Lady R matter is an example of elite politicking at the expense of the many. Ramaphosa and his minister of defence, Thandi Modise, should have known what was on board the Lady R. If not, then Military Intelligence, the State Security Agency and their multibillion-rand budgets have proven useless to the state, being unable to detect what happened during the course of those summer evenings in Simon’s Town.

Equally, the US ambassador to SA, Reuben Brigety, claims to know what happened but has thus far not made public any evidence. Instead, he has submitted such information to the Mojapelo inquiry. This peculiar process is led by a senior retired judge who has without question acceded to the wishes of the President for a secret process that is meant to arrive at the “truth”. A judge should know better than to participate in a closed, executive process.

In the meantime, newspapers are conveniently leaking information which suggests that Judge Mojapelo and the secret process he leads have found no evidence of weapons loaded on to the Lady R. Given that we have no contrary evidence, political spin is now in overdrive and serves only to muddy the waters.

There is much to suggest that a police investigator — Mathipa — did find wrongdoing. He may well have been close to exposing a truth that threatens powerful people in state institutions. These might include people in South Africa and elsewhere who broke the law and abducted civilians without the chance of a fair trial, and its procedural and liberty protections, in an open court. If that was the case, could they fear that accountability could lead to a house of cards tumbling down? It would expose motive and maybe the money that lurks behind it.

Given the interest of South African and foreign security services in this matter, we need to urgently find out who murdered Frans Mathipa and why. If we allow this to become “just another unsolved murder”, we risk normalising abductions, assassinations, and suspicious arms deals, turning the clock back 30 years to when assassins routinely prowled the streets of South Africa. DM

Note: The parties implicated in this story were not contacted before publication for comment due to safety concerns and as per exceptions allowed by the Press Code. They were contacted after publication and their comment, if received, will be published by Daily Maverick below this article in the coming days.

Open Secrets is a non-profit organisation which exposes and builds accountability for private-sector economic crimes through investigative research, advocacy and the law. To support our work visit Support Open Secrets.

 

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    It will be fascinating to see what our President now has to say on the matter, given that I imagine, Mr van Vuuren and the Open team have further information to be revealed, and the leaked “information” from the enquiry is seeking to spread the false information that no arms were up, or down-loaded. Clearly the US knows what actually transpired – so is our President going to continue the deny and obfuscate tactics?

    • Rod H MacLeod says:

      Indeed fascinating, if he can muster the courage to be honest for once. But this information, to me at least, is so shocking and abhorrent that I am now fully depressed and convinced that there is no future for me or my family in South Africa. ‘Africa adieu’ made all those decades ago was utterly prescient, even though a bit crude.

    • Roelf Pretorius says:

      I can’t see how you can say the US clearly knew what transpired – if they did, then why did they not make the details known?

      • Rod H MacLeod says:

        They did.
        “On 11 May 2023, the United States ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, accused the country of supplying arms to Russia during the December 2022 docking of the Lady R.[4] During the same announcement ambassador Brigety also stated that the African National Congress (ANC), the governing political party of South Africa since 1994, had been unresponsive to repeated American attempts at dialogue and that the ANC’s policy document on the war in Ukraine was “hostile” to the government of the United States.”

  • Steve Davidson says:

    But the judge said it was just food! WTF is going on?

  • Brian Cotter says:

    Hennie van Vuuren. please mind your back.
    I suppose the CIA/FBI/US Govt know this anyway.
    The President is SECOND RECIPIENT so any funny stuff from now on is INTERNATIONAL NEWS

  • Muapri Muapri says:

    This is very worrying to our democracy. I am more concerned about the execution of the Hawks investigator. This is very classified and I feel SAPS and SANDF should have collaborated in this instance. Terrorism should be dealt with harshly but suspects should be afforded a day in court unless already executed……but I think this article is more focused on what really happened at Simons Naval Base in Cape Town. My take is someone already knows what happened but they can’t spill the beans due to fear of persecution

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    My understanding is, from recent history, that assassination is the modus operandi of the SA mafia state. It’s clear to all with an ounce of savvi that the courts and parliamentarians are party to this. Sad thing is that NPA is now so compromised it mayaswell not exist and after the stunt Cyril pulled this weekend by releasing Zuma, any ambiguity has been ended. Viva ANC viva.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    This is such a stitch-up: we know that the ship sailed past Simon’s Town with it’s signalling equipment on, for all to see, before switching it off and turning back to Simon’s Town. Loading up in the dark with military spooks overseeing the operation just reinforces that what was happening was illegal. Moreover, every statement put out by our lying government, states that ‘no South African weapons’ were loaded onto Lady R – so leaving the door open to 3rd party weapons being loaded: this kind of sneaky, sleazy obfuscation is ANC 101. I’m starting to get a sinking feeling that we have some completely out of control elements in our security and political establishment who are hellbent on dragging SA into a grand alliance of authoritarian countries and damned be the consequences.

  • Rob Fisher says:

    Our “kind uncle” politicians at work?
    Nice to know they have our interests and safety at heart?

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Don Rama and his corrupt gang at “play”.

  • Alastair Sellick says:

    Spine chilling stuff.
    Extreme bravery on the part of Luitenant-Colonel Mathipa (may he RIP) and Hennie van Vuuren & Open Secrets. We thank you for your courage and patriotism – please take extreme care and caution given the ruthlessness of the people behind this “mystery”. Plesae also keep doing your stellar work to continue uncovering the rot in our country.

  • Vincent L says:

    He hung from the ninth floor
    He washed from the ninth floor while slipping
    He hung from a piece of soap while washing. – Chris van Wyk

  • Grenville Wilson says:

    If arms weren’t loaded why will the commission not reveal it’s findings if no arms were loaded?

    • Zamfoot 1 1 says:

      Because obviously when you have nothing to hide, a Secret Commission of Inquiry is your first step. And who could question the obvious need to have the evidently “not so special forces” escort food from the well know “sweet treats” manufacturer, Denel.
      Im sure Comrade Prez was absolutely “Shocked” to read this article this morning. He will no doubt call Minister of Criminals and Hats and Minister of Pretense to explain why their subjects are not playing nicely. Perhaps he can also ask the Minister of C and H along with Minister of Pot holes, why with such shocking stuff happening they saw fit to head to Cape Town to arrange and support a taxi strike!

      Stupid is as stupid does ……..

  • jcdville stormers says:

    All is not well on the southern front,when will the cards lie face up for all to see

  • Brian Doyle says:

    It is about time that the President and minister come clean on what transpired. They should be taken to court to reveal openly what the containers carried, as by hiding the true facts they are damaging the reputation of the country and of its people. They have become accessories to the lies and as such should be treated as criminals and as such must be treated equal to all citizens who are subject to the laws of this land. They are, as we all are, just ordinary citizens

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    The destabilising of Democratic South Africa continues! Not only is the economy at risk but the Judiciary and Security has been compromised. I’m wondering when they’re going to clamp down on the “free” press – that will be the next thing to go until the Reserve Bank is nationalised and the Constitution interfered with…then we’re all going to hell in a hand basket no matter your race, creed or culture! Politics is a dirty dirty business but African Politics, so easily manipulated by nefarious Russian and/or Chinese interference, stinks! Resigning our BRICS membership would be the beginning of cleaning up our act and binning BEE policies will stimulate investment into and growth of our economy.

  • Penny Philip says:

    SA Govt is playing a dangerous game (one they are not smart enough to pull off) by being on both sides of the fence simultaneously, rather than the non-aligned status they keep saying they hold. SA is not under threat by Islamic terrorists so this can only be something being done in conjunction with the US & possibly Mozambique. At the same time the SA govt is very likely engaging in sanctions busting trade with Russia. You never get to have your cake & eat it. Not in the real world.

  • Cheryl Siewierski says:

    Spectacular reporting on a series of horrific plays. This has all the makings of a Clancy novel – except that it is all too real. When ethical, conscientious humans like L-C Mathipa are treated like expendable ‘nothings’, you really have to wonder just how craven and desperate those hidden powers are. I wish all those fighting to find and report the truth both safety and success. You are braver than I, and as hollow as this might sound, your efforts are genuinely appreciated.

  • Ben Harper says:

    This proves again that the anc are still a terrorist organisation plain and simple

  • Hilary Morris says:

    What a brave and terrifying story. Journalists are, seemingly, our last hope in finding the truth anywhere. Let’s hope they are adequately protected, if that is even possible. We know we’ll never get truth from the ANC government, nor yet our president. God, what a sad and sorry bunch they are – leading the whole country towards a cliff that we’re about to dive over. I doubt if there is an honest individual amongst the bloody lot of them.

  • Joe Soap says:

    Carefully worded reports saying things like “SA did not sell arms or ammunition” can be economic with the truth – an option not explored deeply is the possible sanction busting role – maybe Simonstown was just a conduit for some other supplier.

    • Jane Crankshaw says:

      You make a good point – “sanction busting”. Uranium? 18% of the worlds Uranium comes from Niger, Namibia and South Africa ( and Mozambique)

  • Ryckard Blake says:

    Hennie, I realize you had time pressure on you to get this report out before Cyril could deny any connection of the authorities to the Lady R’s activities in the naval docks. But, can you now add a few clarifying details?
    1 You wrote: “. . . keen observers spotted two large commercial trucks carrying containers, a motorised crane belonging to a private contractor and three luxury German vehicles parked opposite a sports field in Simon’s Town. ”
    Were their movements not photographically followed after this single snap? No highway / by-way security cameras give evidence of when KH69TY-GP returned to Gauteng?
    Apart from the same vehicle that abducted Abadiga also being near the Lady R a few weeks earlier, is there anything that might connect Abadiga to the loading / unloading of war materiel to/ from the Lady R ? Or is the presence of a company car at the two events probably purely coincidental, as the issues are totally unrelated?
    But . . . . DOOO watch your back, Hennie !

  • Errol Genis says:

    Hold my beer… I got this…

  • Jo Van says:

    Our army can’t even find their guns which have been stolen, sold or lost. How they can sell weapons or ammunition to Russia for their war against Ukraine, seems a bit far fetched to me. The rate at which arms and ammunition is being expended in the war against Ukraine is so high that I doubt that two containers full of whatever from SA will make any significant contribution, and really seems like a waste of time. It remains a mystery. What was loaded on to the Lady R that had to be kept such a secret? More probably abducted people than weapons?

  • Johnny Truth says:

    Since open secrets is concerned about exposing economic crimes perhaps you can do an investigation into abadiga, who he financed and what activities they were/are involved in for example exterminating villages through rape and torture killing thousands of innocent children and displacing millions? Perhaps in this investigation you can look into how many spaza shops are run by individuals that have deployed by IS for the sole purpose of funding these war crimes economically…

  • Sean Gibson says:

    Th abduction is reminiscent of the South Africa’s reported complicity in the enforced disappearance of two Pakistani nationals, Saud Memon (2003) and Khalid Rashid (2005). Memon died shortly after being released in Pakistan. Rashid was kidnapped from his home in Estcourt, KZN in 2005 and flown out of Air Force Base Waterkloof, Pretoria on a private plane with the full knowledge of the SA security cluster. He was apparently held in Kenya for 5 months before being flown to Pakistan where he was later released. At the time, the SA minister of home affairs claimed that Rashid was arrested and deported because he resided in the country illegally, thus shifting the spotlight of the case to an issue of immigration, as opposed to the issue of extraordinary rendition. 4 years later the Supreme Court of Appeal found that his deportation was unlawful making it apparent that the illegal immigration ploy was an excuse to rendition Rashid. No one has been held accountable.

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