It was a hot summer afternoon back in 2005. As usual, I rushed back home after soccer practise, and with my brothers, walked off to collect our father’s cattle from the communal lands. We brought all six back to our kraal 20m behind our house and locked them up safely for the night. Little did we know that this was the last time we would perform this chore, because that evening the cattle disappeared.
We spent the entire weekend looking for them – in vain. Although we had no hard evidence of who the culprit was, we had our suspicions. A few days before our cattle were stolen, a stranger arrived in our area and began building a kraal close to ours. It never hosted any livestock, however, because immediately after our cows vanished, so did he. We laid a complaint with the police, but nothing came of it.
The saddest thing, though, is that the theft meant the end of my father’s brief farming career. Many people have similar stories to tell, with some having lost their lifetime’s savings as a result. Yet stock theft does not seem to be taken seriously. It was estimated at the beginning of the year that stock theft costs the country’s economy an unbelievable R390 million a year. Yet it is at the personal level where the loss is most visible – and most disturbing.
Take Ms Nyundu, whom I recently met near Letlhabile outside Brits. This unemployed mother of three depends on her small herd of goats for a living, yet she recently told me she was about to give up on a stock theft case that had been opened against one of her fellow residents. She had woken up one night on hearing noises and seen two men walking openly into her kraal and herding 10 goats out.
She was too afraid to go outside, and these people clearly knew they were dealing with a vulnerable woman who could do nothing to stop them. A few days later, one of her daughters spotted some of the goats on a nearby plot. She and her mother confronted the man, but he intimidated them. They laid a charge with the police, and he was arrested. Needless to say, he got bail, but has since not bothered to attend his trial. He knows Ms Nyundu is unemployed and cannot afford to travel up and down to court all the time. And he’s betting, no doubt, that she will grow tired of it and give up. So he’s about to get off scot-free.
Because of the feeble laws governing stock theft, these are the tricks used by stock thieves. I’ve heard countless stories on the same theme: the victims know who the thieves are, yet the offenders manage to stay out of jail. Many culprits are well aware that the harshest punishment they would receive would be a suspended sentence or a fine. Even when someone ends up paying a fine, the farmer still does not benefit.
Contrast this with countries such as Botswana, where a minimum sentence for stealing one cow is five years in jail. If five cows are stolen, the thief gets 25 years in jail! Stock theft destroys livelihoods and ruins people’s lives. Here in South Africa we need to get serious about it – and this begins with serious legal deterrents.