Livestock theft: Syndicates wipe out farms

Monday, 24 April 2023

by Vida Booysen

Years of pleading by farmers for proper investigation into police and syndicate involvement in livestock theft has amounted to nothing. Increasingly more farmers are now dismantling their herds to avoid further losses.

Livestock theft in the Free State has often been the spark that exploded many a powder keg. This was the case when Brendin Horner from Paul Roux caught livestock thieves in the act and paid for it with his life. 

At the court appearance of the two murder suspects (who were eventually acquitted) on 6 October 2020, local farmers demanded that a national task team be appointed to investigate livestock theft within the Paul Roux district as well as the police’s involvement. 

The task team was appointed but farmers say that similarly to Brendin’s murder, no successful prosecutions have been made despite having handed over a thick dossier filled with names and evidence tying individuals to Brendin’s murder to the Minister of Police Bheki Cele.

The last feedback they received regarding the alleged police involvement was given a year ago, says Dr Jane Buys, a safety risk analyst from Vrystaat Landbou (VL). The investigation could not be taken further as no new information has come to light, according to the police.  

“It could mean that the information provided by the farmers could not be converted into any evidence against any police officer, or it could mean that certain officers are being protected,” says Jane.

Is this business as usual?

Two years ago, while Paul Roux farmer Danie Bruwer was in the hospital, livestock thieves stole a few hundred lambs from his farm. According to Danie, the investigative officer from the Hawks identified suspects and was ready to issue arrest warrants. Before he could do this, however, he was transferred to another unit. 

“This is also what happened with the Brendin Horner case; everyone in that task team was redeployed.” Danie has employed various security aids, such as electronic sheep collars, security cameras and guards that protect the sheep during the night. It has served as a deterrent to some extent, but theft attempts have continued to occur. 

In January, 79 of his ewes were stolen. This had a financial and emotional impact. “When those sheep collars start ringing, you have to go look. And they ring practically every night. How long are you going to last?”

Danie eventually decided to dismantle his sheep farm, especially as no one was ever brought to justice for all the theft on his farm. 

This is despite evidence like video recordings wherein thieves can be identified and items of clothing that the thieves used to tie up sheep that have been handed over and could contain DNA evidence. 

He even handed over a voice note to the police of a man who bragged about stealing Danie’s sheep in front of witnesses in a shebeen. According to Danie, the police said that they cannot use this evidence. 

On 1 March of this year, he sold his last sheep at an auction. He is not the only farmer dismantling his sheep farm. “In our area alone, Herkie Viljoen also sold all of his sheep along with Ian Enslin from Lindley.”

Another person who is convinced that only organised syndicates could commit the large-scale livestock thefts occurring in the province is Jess de Klerk, one of the security representatives that handed over a report with statistics and information regarding livestock theft gangs and police involvement to Cele after Brendin’s murder. 

Jess, who is also the National Security Chairperson of the network organization Saai, says that one of the names in the dossier handed over in 2020 is that of Deputy Officer Moropisi Phukuntsi, the Acting Station Commander of Paul Roux.

He was arrested in January after four stolen cattle of a farmer in the district was allegedly found in his kraal. “They couldn’t even connect him [to the thefts] with the evidence we provided. The fact that he was arrested on a new charge this year shows that we had reason to name him as a suspect.”

Phukuntsi is currently out on bail and would appear in court again on 23 May, according to Deputy Officer Mmako Mophiring, the Free State Police Spokesperson.

Fences and boundary wires are being cut to chase stolen animals through. This photo was taken in the Wepener district. Photo: Supplied.

Which syndicates?

Free State farmers says that there is a breach of trust between them and the police and that it is up to them to protect their property and lives.

“Even if police members are not directly involved with livestock theft, the pave the way for livestock theft especially by not moving around as much in rural areas at night. It creates opportunities for thieves to commit crimes unhindered,” says Jane.

Thus far, the police have no tangible evidence of a livestock theft syndicate that is active within the Free State, says Brigadier Motantsi Makhele, the Head of Communication for the Free State Police.

“If anyone has such evidence, he or she is more than welcome to deliver it to this office so that it can be processed further. The provincial commissioner’s door is open to anyone who wants to work with the police in the interest of rural security.

“We can indicate that there are individuals who have been arrested for livestock theft in the province, but this did not qualify them to be described as an organised livestock theft syndicate.”

Motantsi says that if there is, however, talks of an organised livestock syndicate, the Hawks will handle the case. The Hawks arrested five members of a livestock theft unit in Ladybrand along with two livestock speculators in July 2021. This case is yet to be completed. 

The five individuals have already been dismissed from the police following an internal hearing, but their positions have yet to be filled. This makes the fight against livestock theft even harder, says Friedl von Maltitz, Vice Chairperson of VL, who farms near Ficksburg. 

He says that more and more farmers in the province are giving up on their sheep farms because continuous theft makes it impossible to go on. “There are so few sheep farmers left in our district and then every now and again you hear about 20-40 sheep that have been stolen from a farmer. 


Jess also points to dishonest livestock speculators who can make paper trails that denounce livestock theft disappear or falsify them. “The cattle of a farmer here in the Paul Roux district was stolen and was then found on another farm not too far from here.

New brands were made over the existing brands and a removal certificate was shown. However, the farmer from whom the cattle were stolen recognised his cattle and could deliver DNA proof that they belonged to him.”

Jess says the worker on the farm who helped the syndicate admitted his guilt and he received a suspended sentence. “But the person who branded the cattle and helped to create the fake paperwork was not even accused.

Our informants say that his share of the stolen cattle was already sold the next day at the Bethlehem auction with anyone suspecting anything.”

Farmers who spoke to Landbouweekblad believe that Lesotho is merely a passage for livestock being moved between provinces; livestock prices are not high enough there to make it a profitable outlet area. The livestock also go to nearby auctions in neighbouring towns or even to Gauteng.

According to Mmako, Free State livestock theft units have tracked down stolen livestock from the province at auctions in the Vaal Triangle. “Often fellow farmers are involved in such cases.”

Technology makes a difference

A security network of 320 cameras monitored from a control centre in Bethlehem keeps watch over, among others, Paul Roux, Clarens, Fouriesburg and parts of the districts Kestell, Reitz and Senekal.

The maintenance costs farmers about R1 000 per pole per month. Eduard Marais, Security Co-ordinator for the Bethlehem district says the monitoring system certainly makes a difference to livestock theft attempts. 

“In the Kestell and Phuthaditjhaba districts, where there are not yet cameras, the livestock thieves come up to where the cameras are and then disappear into areas without cameras.”

A compulsory electronic traceability system must clearly be implemented as soon as possible to put a stop to corruption with brands and forms.

The Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development and the livestock industry are making progress with the long-awaited LITS (Livestock Identification and Traceability) system, but it will take some time still before it is used countrywide. 

A voluntary system has been started which concentrates on the identification of individual animals with unique ear tag numbers, which will then be linked to details of the owner and farm.

Even though there are police members who are not bribed, it is clear that local livestock theft units and the criminal justice system are not up to the task to capture the criminals or are not doing their job properly. The same is happening with the police as it has with the Department of roads in the Free State, says Friedl.

“There are too many big wigs that receive fat salaries and too few workers on the ground. We need expert policemen who will investigate cases properly and will arrest the leaders of the syndicates.”

This can only be done by looking at the extent of the theft, the modus operandi of the syndicates and outlets for stolen livestock, says Jess.

Investigations like this ought to be done by multidisciplinary teams that are comprised of members of the police, crime intelligence, the South African Revenue Service, the Department of Home Affairs and agriculture security structures.

If farming communities and the rural security strategy are priority cases as the government alleges, the police must put action to their word and empower units that can curb crime, otherwise, it is just make-believe, says Buys. “We need information-driven investigations that will lead to successful court cases.” 

Figures tell a tale

Some of Vrystaat Landbou’s Safety Risk Analyst Dr Jane Buys’ findings from her analyses of livestock theft statistics include:

  • Over three years, only 34% of livestock theft cases in one Northern Free State town were for personal use; with the rest, four or more animals were stolen at once.
  • For 12% to 19% of armed farm attacks, livestock theft is the underlying motive.
  • 30% to 40% of armed farm attacks and farm murders occur around the 13 towns on the Lesotho border.
  • 40% to 47% of livestock theft reports last year came from the Thabo Mofutsanyana district, which includes the majority of towns in the eastern Free State.
  • Especially Qwaqwa experienced large-scale armed livestock theft; within 10 months there were nearly 20 incidents where armed robbers went to especially up-and-coming farmers and their herdsmen in the night, shot them and stole large amounts of livestock. “Between 100 and 150 have been stolen in this manner.”
  • Different types of livestock are targeted in different districts; in Thabo Mofutsanyana they mostly target sheep, and in Qwaqwa also a lot of Boer goats.

Livestock theft increases in the Free State like this

In 2011, 14 towns in the Free State were identified as high-risk areas for livestock theft in terms of the then rural security strategy. They were supposed to receive priority attention and definite action had to be taken to reduce the number of reports.

Eleven years later, in 2022, eleven of those towns (marked in grey on the table below) still have high livestock theft rates. In the seven towns marked in red on the table, livestock theft reports have even increased.

Reported livestock theft cases in towns that were supposed to receive priority attention.

How to get your livestock back

The faster a farmer raises the alarm, the faster there is a response and communities are on the lookout for the stolen livestock, says Jane. Immediately notify a farm guard, the control room if there is one, and the police.

“One night at the beginning of the year, in the area between Tweespruit and Exelsior, more than 130 sheep were stolen from a farm. Fortunately, the farmer and his workers suspected mischief.

“It was immediately reported, and the reaction of the farm guard and police was so quick, they were able to get all 130 animals back, although the perpetrators ran away.”

Jane says owners are often tracked down when a farm guard or the police find possibly stolen livestock and spread the information on WhatsApp groups.

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