Pieter Steyn – City Press

Crime syndicates cost the country billions of rands and disrupt the economy. Photo: Sourced

Crime syndicates cost the country billions of rands and disrupt the economy. Photo: Sourced


South Africa is a hotbed of well-organised crime and a haven for the heads of these criminal networks. A shocking 216-page report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC) paints a grim picture of how these networks operate in at least 15 sectors in the country.

And they are interconnected – from illegal mining by the zama-zamas and the taxi industry to drug and wildlife smugglers, rhino poachers, cash-in-transit robbers, truck hijackers and the construction mafia.

They are involved in everything from kidnappings to illegal firearms, human trafficking, fuel theft, cybercrime, and economic and healthcare crimes.

South Africa ranks fifth in Africa on GI-TOC’s index of organised crime. Globally, South Africa is 19th – ahead of countries such as Libya, Brazil and Russia.

According to the report released on Tuesday this week, government institutions that are supposed to fight these crimes have been also been infiltrated due to corruption and state capture and the criminal networks are flourishing.

Even small businesses, such as spaza shops in the townships, are targeted by the networks. In one example, a woman from Khayelitsha near Cape Town, who sells vetkoek and roast potatoes, was approached by a group of men who demanded R1 500 monthly from her in “protection money”. 

Says the report:

“The police are often in cahoots with the criminals, so it doesn’t help if you go and report it.”

The report refers to Petros Sydney Mabuza, also known as Mr Big, a multisector criminal who was killed in a hit in June last year. Mabuza was a notorious leader of a rhino poaching syndicate, but was also involved in cash-in-transit robberies, moneylending and extortion.

He was a bigwig in the taxi industry in Mpumalanga and started his rhino poaching mafia in the early 2000s.

In 2018, he was arrested by the police and charged for the first time. In 2020, the investigating officer in his case, Lieutenant Colonel Leroy Bruwer, was murdered.

The trade in poached rhino horn is also linked to the illegal trade in firearms. South Africa is the largest exporter of “legal” cheetahs in the world.

According to a 2020 report by the organisation Ban Animal Trading, between 2015 and 2019 at least 5 035 animals, including lions, tigers, cheetahs, chimpanzees and rhinos, were exported from South Africa to China.

Despite the generally inefficient state of law enforcement agencies, 33 tons of shark fins were seized in Cape Town in 2018.

Truck hijacking is one of the most organised crimes in the country and, in 90% of the incidents, information is leaked by insiders, according to the report. Truck hijackings increased by 38% between April and September last year.

Another well-organised network of criminals is that of fuel thieves. Between 2019 and last year, 20.5 million litres of fuel were stolen from Transnet’s 3 800km fuel pipeline. The value of the fuel stolen was estimated to be about R250 million.

In addition to the monetary loss, the theft also causes fuel shortages, such as happened in 2020 when the country experienced serious diesel shortage.

Crime syndicates that target infrastructure such as copper cables cost the country billions of rands and disrupted the economy.

According to the report, Eskom spent R71 million in 2019/20 to replace stolen copper cables. In the current financial year, Telkom budgeted R1.6 billion for security to prevent, among other things, cable theft.

Crime syndicates spare no one. In 2019, Vodacom announced that between 1 500 and 2 000 batteries were stolen from its cellphone towers every month.

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The taxi industry has connections with most of the organised crime syndicates and is responsible for most assassinations in the country.

The industry is unregulated and there are serious allegations that taxi bosses are behind the attacks on the buses and trains.

The GI-TOC report refers to the Gcaba brothers of KwaZulu-Natal as the “Dons of Durban”. They are led by Mandla Gcaba, who owns a “taxi empire”; his brothers are Roma, Thembinkosi and Mfundo.

The report says they are probably the most feared family in the taxi industry and have a nationwide reputation as the kings of the sector.

“They control everything in the industry. They are untouchable.”

The Gcabas are originally from Nkandla and are related to former president Jacob Zuma. They were among the first taxi bosses to hire bodyguards to protect them and their families.

According to the report, the family’s business interests are wide-ranging. They even receive taxpayers’ money through their investment in Tansnat Africa, the company that operates Durban’s metro bus service on behalf of the Ethekwini Metropolitan Council.

Between 2010 and 2012, the metro paid Tansnat R300 million to operate the buses on a month-to-month basis. A further R1 million was paid monthly to the taxi owners to take the bus drivers home after work. Many of the taxi owners have ties to the Gcabas.

GI-TOC argues that the taxi industrykoo is one of the sectors where money laundering is rampant, because it operates almost exclusively on a cash basis and is unregulated. The huge report reads like a crime novel and goes into detail about numerous other crime sectors.

In his foreword, GI-TOC director Mark Shaw says that the organised crime disaster can be reversed. The problem can be overcome with the right leadership, long-term strategies, overhauling of systems and institutions that have to fight crime, and sufficient resources.