Lesotho stock thieves run rampant

Despite promises from Police minister Nathi Mthethwa, the SA Police Service (SAPS) has failed to tighten up security along the Lesotho border in the Matatiele and Maluti region, in the foothills of the southern Drakensberg.

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Chief Neo Joe Sibi, who took over chieftainship of 30 villages near Maluti in 2002, said the problem in his area is worsening every day. They lost 30 cows on 9 November alone to thieves crossing the unpatrolled border. They’ve lost “thousands of animals” he said, adding that between 10 and 40 animals – mainly cattle, but also sheep, horses, goats – are brazenly driven by thieves through narrow mountain passes into Lesotho every day.

Commercial farmers have experienced the same problems, but villages are more vulnerable as there’s no security, said Chief Sibi. The SAPS distributed about five shipping containers, intended to be used as living quarters for officers patrolling the border, said Chief Sibi. But no officers were deployed, despite promises made by Mthethwa in a 2009 visit to the area. Reputedly costing R300 000 each, the containers are standing empty, and it’s been reported that some are used by the thieves.

Chief Sibi said he was “not at all happy” with the police’s response. The SAPS has “just wasted money on resources that aren’t helping us”, he added, referring to the containers. “We’re expecting the police to train our own patrolmen so we can stand on our own and let the police do their job fighting crime,” said Chief Sibi.

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Lack of government assistance has seen commercial and communal farmers working together to try stem the relentless tide of stock theft. With the support of local tribal authorities, they’ve formed the Maluti and Matatiele Border Committee to tackle the issue. But they’ve had no joy to date, despite 30 meetings with government officials and many letters to prominent government officials, including President Jacob Zuma and the Eastern Cape premier.

Farmers held two demonstrations in April 2009 and May 2010, where they handed a memorandum of demands to police representatives, calling for practical interventions. These interventions include the immediate resumption of 24-hour border patrols by the South African National Defence Force, and for the immediate establishment of a radio system enabling communication between the army and civilians along the border.

They also requested the immediate approval and issue of firearm licences to stock farmers, and for police to instal cables to fence off the mountain passes the thieves use to move the stock. With their pleas having fallen on deaf ears, the committee is now trying to raise R350 000 to purchase the radio equipment themselves.

Committee chairperson Leon van Rensburg, who farms beef, maize and dairy between Matatiele and Swartberg, said, “Communal farmers are really battling. The commercial Swartberg farmers have the means to chase their stock, but those chaps don’t. Not a weekend goes by where they don’t suffer stock losses.”

The Maluti Stock Theft Unit’s commander, Colonel Gcali, is trying very hard and has made a difference, added Van Rensburg. “But if they had more manpower and logistics, he could make a much bigger impact.” Police KZN spokesperson Superintendent Vincent Mdunge hadn’t responded to Farmer’s Weekly’s questions at the time of going to print.