Police corruption should be a focus in tackling stock theft

Inaction by police and allegations of corruption paralyse South Africa’s farming communities and jeopardise rural safety.

Alleged police involvement in stock theft is leading to authorities’ failure to effectively investigate incidents and contribute to rural safety in South Africa’s Free State province.

Theft of cattle and sheep in the South Africa–Lesotho border region is centuries old and well documented. It is often explained by referring to the crime’s cross-border nature, but other drivers – specifically the apparent involvement of South African Police Service members – are equally relevant.

Annual livestock losses are estimated at over R1 billion. But the impact extends far beyond financial loss. Along with challenges such as climate change and failing infrastructure and electricity supply, these crimes threaten farming as an industry and a source of livelihood.

In October 2020, farm manager Brendin Horner was murdered near the town of Paul Roux, apparently during a confrontation with stock thieves. Employees from the farm where Horner worked had previously also been assaulted by stock thieves. In January 2023, Evan Sorour from Ficksburg, another eastern Free State town, died during an altercation with a livestock trader suspected of being involved in stock theft.

Farmers had persistently asked police to act against stock theft, warning that lives could be at stake. In 2019, they sent a report to the police’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the ‘Hawks’) containing evidence of an organised stock theft network active in the eastern Free State. Evidence of police involvement was provided along with names of suspects, some linked to multiple pending cases. Although the Hawks acknowledged receipt of the report, no action has been taken.

South African farmers are acutely vulnerable to many challenges crippling the country

Corruption is key to organised crime. It facilitates criminal activities so that networks can operate with impunity. While some livestock theft is opportunistic, large-scale stock theft requires a level of organisation – often with the help of corrupt actors.

Allegations against police include ignoring reports of stock theft or being slow to respond to incidents. Even more troubling are reports that police officials are often seen in areas and during incidents when their presence cannot be explained. Police have reportedly also threatened witnesses to prevent them from testifying in court.

A farmer suggested that detectives received many dockets but often declined to investigate or were quick to close the cases. Investigators working on stock theft were also frequently transferred. Another farmer said the police’s inaction had alienated farmers, many of whom see no point in reporting stock theft. So official statistics don’t reflect the actual number of incidents. They also don’t show how many animals are stolen.

After Horner’s murder, South Africa’s police minister Bheki Cele established a task team of farmers and police to investigate and propose practical solutions to stock theft in eastern Free State. But police attendance dwindled after every meeting, a farmer said.

In 2021, police officers from Ladybrand near the Lesotho border were arrested on suspicion of involvement in stock theft. Although they were fired, they are yet to be prosecuted. In January 2023, the acting station commander of Paul Roux, a town further west of the border, was arrested after stolen cattle were found in his possession. He was one of the men named in the report farmers’ submitted to the Hawks in 2019.

Stock theft in SA isn’t treated as a serious crime despite its prevalence and harmful consequences

Apart from these arrests, farmers say nothing more has come from Cele’s undertaking to investigate alleged police involvement in stock theft networks. They see this inaction as further evidence of deep-rooted corruption and limited accountability.

South African farmers – commercial, small-scale, subsistence and communal – are acutely vulnerable to many challenges crippling the country, including climate change, crime and failing infrastructure. Deteriorating roads, the rising cost of fuel and power cuts severely impede their work. These challenges, coupled with farm attacks and livestock theft, threaten the viability of farming. The situation is particularly dire in border regions where security and crime take on a transnational character.

But unlike violent cattle rustling in East Africa, stock theft in South Africa isn’t treated as a serious crime despite its prevalence and harmful consequences.

Economically motivated crimes such as organised stock theft and corruption are often seen as victimless, only revealing their darker side when lives or livelihoods are lost. Yet the impacts range from economic losses to animal cruelty and human insecurity. Subsistence and communal farmers risk losing their entire livelihoods. Stock theft can also affect food security and employment opportunities on farms.

The South African Police Service’s Rural Safety Strategy barely mentions the problem of police corruption

The criminal onslaught and the police’s apparent reluctance to act have caused farming communities to implement their own security measures. This includes securing access points and fences, placing cameras on rural roads, collaring animals, flying drones and conducting patrols after dark. Some have sold their livestock.

One of the aims of the South African Police Service’s Rural Safety Strategy is to address organised stock theft and cross-border crimes. It also refers to increasing stock theft units in hotspots. Corruption is only briefly mentioned within the context of its negative impact on relationships between rural communities and police. A strategy is only as good as its implementation, and research in Lesotho has noted the ineffectiveness of initiatives when corruption facilitates stock theft.

While many honest, dedicated police members do their best to help stock theft victims, they are often overshadowed by colleagues who abuse their positions. South Africa’s police leadership must act on the pleas of farming communities who need protection against criminal networks and some officials within the state itself.

Investigating and prosecuting police involved in stock theft would go a long way to show the government’s commitment to disrupting both stock theft and corruption.

ENACT project, ISS Pretoria

This article was first published by ENACT.

Image: © Alamy Stock Photo

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ENACT is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with INTERPOL and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. The ISS is also grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
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