Tsolo and Qumbu, towns in the former Transkei, have the highest and third-highest incidents of stock theft in the country, according to the latest statistics released by the Stock Theft Unit head office in Pretoria. And according to historian Professor Jeff Peires it’s been that way for some time. His research indicates that popular communal opposition to rampant stock theft has been prevalent since the 1950s.
In the Qumbu region a highly organised vigilante organisation known as the Makhuluspan (Big Team) was set up to catch thieves. The Makhuluspan actively concentrated on defying and replacing the apparently ineffectual colonial law and order with popular justice, and recruited leading members of the community, who were expected to identify stock thieves and “remove” them from the community. A similar anti-stock theft group also established itself at the same time in the nearby Mount Fletcher region and became known as Tshisa-Tshisa (“burn-burn”).
In the early 1990s anti-stock theft movements once again established themselves in the Qumbu area, this time more violently as community members and stock thieves affiliated themselves to the right and left of the political spectrum. Pitched gun-battles and clashes with automatic weapons were not uncommon. Sihle Msimang, the SAPS’s provincial coordinator of the Theft in the Eastern Cape, confirmed that stock thieves are still heavily armed in places like Tsolo and Qumbu. The thieves simply fire warning shots into the air to intimidate victims, who are often women living alone.
But Msimang added that livestock owners contribute to an environment in which thieves thrive. “Stock is often not marked correctly and allowed to graze communally, while owners sometimes discover months too late that stock was stolen,” he explained. The solution would be for livestock owners to adopt stricter management systems, supported by an efficient and able police force. Until then, stock theft will remain a brazenly profitable pastime for thieves. – Mike Burgess