Armed robbery committed in police uniform

Just before 9pm, on Tuesday, 10 July, four men entered Sourveldt farm in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

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They walked directly to the staff housing and asked one of the farm labourers to point them to the home of the dairy manager, who must remain nameless for now. The men knocked on his door. After he had let them in, they pulled two handguns and put one of these to his head.

By now you’re probably – rightly – wondering how four strangers could come onto a farm late at night and start asking suspicious questions. The answer is straightforward: one of the men was in full police uniform. The others wore military-style clothes. Two donned balaclavas before entering the manager’s house. They knew exactly what they were after. They ordered the manager to the dairy and threatened to kill him if the alarm sounded.

They knew there were CCTV cameras in the dairy and kept the lights off. They knew there was a safe in the office, and that the manager kept the keys. What they didn’t know is that a supplier had been paid that day and that there was only R3 600 in the safe.

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The gang then ordered the manager to drive them off the farm in his own vehicle. But before they reached the main road the men wanted to know to which of the computers the CCTV feed was connected. They then promptly returned and removed all the computers in the dairy and ordered the manager to drive them to a farm in Rosetta, where they dumped the loot.

Next, they had him drive them to Nottingham Road, where their getaway vehicle was waiting. They ordered the manager to remain there for 15 minutes before driving directly back to the farm. The manager did exactly as he was told, by which time the men had returned for their loot and vanished.

The incident highlights some interesting trends in rural crime:

* The issue of missing and stolen police firearms has received close attention for very good reason. But that of unaccounted-for police uniforms, on the other hand, has received scant attention, though it has the potential to seriously undermine public trust in an institution which already suffers from a poor public profile.

According to police sources, controls on the issuing of police uniforms were rigorous a decade ago, but the checks aren’t what they used to be. Certainly, this isn’t the first time a robber has worn full police uniform in the Midlands. Small-scale farmers in the Besters district near Ladysmith speak about cases in which stock thieves have worn police uniform. It happens, and it seriously compromises the ability of the SAPS to do its work among rural communities.

On the other hand, no evidence has emerged to date that suggests the uniformed thieves were actually police officers.

* The day after the robbery saw several private security companies with farm owner members kick into action. The trouble is there’s some tension between the companies, and this isn’t an isolated phenomenon.

Ad hoc solutions to rural safety issues sprang up all over the country in response to the dismantling of the commando system in the early part of the past decade. The commandos were government-funded and built on a tradition of volunteerism. Private security companies have bottom lines to look after, offer different levels of expertise as well as varying relationships with emergency services and the SAPS.

This has give rise to two major problems. One is the aforementioned tensions between service providers, who assume the appearance of any new organisation will be a threat to their own business.

The second is that farmers do not always understand who offers what in terms of safety and security services in their community. The majority Farmer’s Weekly canvassed also tend to baulk at any suggestion that they should pay more than one service provider.

In this regard farmers might be interested to hear that many urban middle-class South Africans are only too happy to pay several different organisations at once.

They’ll pay for a sentry in a pill-box at their gate as well as a boom guard at the end of their street. They’ll pay a security response business for their alarm system and might also pay for a separate fire and medical rescue service.

Then there are those who, realising that all of these services, including the police, do not mean all that much unless their responses are co-ordinated, will pay a 911-type service to ensure all the required services are despatched in response to a particular emergency. This makes reliance on the average Farm Watch look very primitive indeed.

The Farm Watch, in fact, is just one of the services available in the rural domain, with its own unique strengths, but also a great many shortfalls. In the Midlands there are three companies in operation, and on close inspection there appears no reason why they can’t get along.

One provides fire, medical and rescue services, the other is a straightforward security company which patrols and responds to distress calls and tip-offs, the third co-ordinates the response of all available relevant services.

These are very distinct services and can’t easily be collated into a single offering by a single company. And yet many farm owners are unhappy with the idea of paying more than one security company – if, indeed, they pay for private security at all.

And all the while, as the recent Midlands case demonstrates, criminal strategies are becoming more sophisticated.

Yes, there are sound reasons to regard the appearance of a new security company in a farming area with suspicion – too many of these have proven to be fly-by-night set-ups. But by the same token it was this competition that streamlined the operations of urban security companies. Farmers would do well to take far more cognisance of what urban south Africans are doing to secure their safety and their property, and then they need to look again at their own strategies to see whether they still seem adequate.

* The Sourveldt story also underscores the fact that farm violence affects black farm workers and managers – the dairy manager is a black male who has born on the farm in question. This is something that’s been ‘airbrushed’ from the media, agricultural publications included, for far too long.

The narrative on white farmers who have been attacked, robbed and murdered is well established – South Africans know how they feel, what they lose, what their fears are. Almost never is the impact of farm crime on black staff discussed.

In the Sourveldt case there’s a very strong possibility the armed robbers received the information they required from one of the manager’s subordinates, a person he had brought disciplinary action against. As such, with the robbers at large, he remains in fear of his life, and is taking tranquilisers to sleep at night.

It doesn’t seem to have been the case on the farm in question but, usually, when bad stuff happens on even the most progressive farms (and for that matter in most business environments) white senior management or the white farm owners take over, liaising with police and often relaying the evidence of the staff member involved in the incident on that person’s behalf to the SAPS and security companies, sometimes even to the media.

This can happen for language reasons, but at other times paternal management attitudes are the reason. Polygraph tests and other internal pressure measures are cued up and the potentially dangerous fallout of these in some cases isn’t always understood or handled with enough sensitivity.

More on this story will be featured in the 3 August 2012 issue of FW.