Livestock theft across South Africa and Lesotho borders is a centuries-old practice that is well-documented. The accompanying narrative often focuses on the cross-border nature of the crime. But other drivers of stock theft in the region require equal attention. This includes the alleged involvement of South African Police Service (SAPS) members, resulting in the failure to effectively investigate incidents and contribute to rural safety.
Annual livestock losses are estimated to amount to over a billion rand annually. But the impacts extend far beyond the financial loss. Stock theft incidents in the eastern region of South Africa’s Free State province, and its border regions with Lesotho, illustrate these potentially far-reaching impacts.
In October 2020, farm manager Brendin Horner was murdered near the town of Paul Roux, reportedly 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, was killed during an altercation with a livestock trader suspected of being involved in stock theft.
These incidents followed after regional farmers persistently requested police to take action against stock theft and warned them that it could result in the loss of life. In 2019, farmers submitted a report to the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (Hawks) containing evidence of an organised stock theft network active in the eastern Free State. The report contained the names of suspects, some linked to multiple pending stock theft cases, and evidence of police involvement.
Corruption is key to organised crime and typically involves facilitating criminal activities so that networks can operate with impunity. While some incidents of stock theft are carried out by opportunistic individuals or groups, large-scale stock theft requires a level of organisation – often with the help of corrupt actors.
Allegations against police include often ignoring reports of stock theft or being slow to respond to incidents. Even more troubling are reports that police members are often seen in areas and during incidents where their presence cannot be explained. Police members have reportedly also threatened witnesses to prevent them from testifying in prosecutions.
A farmer suggested that stock theft dockets were passed down to multiple SAPS investigators, who often declined to investigate or were quick to close cases. Officers working on cases were also often transferred. Another farmer told ENACT that the police’s inaction had alienated the region’s farmers, many of whom see no point in reporting stock theft. Therefore, stock theft statistics do not accurately reflect the true number of incidents. They also do not account for the number of livestock stolen during incidents.
In the aftermath of Horner’s murder, SA Police Minister Bheki Cele established a task team of farmers and police to investigate and consider practical solutions to stock theft in the eastern Free State. But a farmer told ENACT that police attendance dwindled after every meeting.
In 2021, police officers from Ladybrand were arrested on suspicion of being involved in stock theft. Although they were dismissed, they are yet to be prosecuted. In January 2023, Paul Roux’s acting station commander was arrested after stolen cattle were found in his possession. He was one of the men named in the report submitted to the Hawks in 2019.
Apart from these arrests, farmers say nothing more has come from Cele’s undertaking to investigate alleged police involvement in stock theft networks in the region. They perceive this inaction as further evidence of deep-rooted corruption and limited accountability. Although the Hawks acknowledged receipt of the 2019 report submitted by the farmers, they are also yet to take action.
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 diesel and rolling power cuts severely impede farming activities. These challenges, coupled with farm attacks and livestock theft, threaten the viability of farming as a livelihood. This is exacerbated in border regions where security and crime take on a transnational character.
But unlike violent cattle rustling in East Africa, stock theft is not always treated as a serious crime in Southern Africa. This is despite its prevalence across the region and its harmful consequences. Economically motivated crimes, like organised stock theft and corruption, may be perceived as victimless in the absence of violence, only revealing their darker side when lives or livelihoods are lost. Yet, the impacts are widespread and include economic losses, animal cruelty and human insecurity. Subsistence and communal farmers risk losing their entire livelihoods. Livestock theft can also affect food security and employment opportunities on farms.
The criminal onslaught and the police’s perceived 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 resorted to selling their livestock.
The SAPS has a Rural Safety Strategy. One of its objectives is to operationalise crime prevention measures to address organised stock theft and cross-border crimes. Another pillar includes increasing stock theft units in hotspots. Corruption is however only briefly mentioned and only within the context of its negative impact on relationships between rural communities and police. A strategy is also only as good as its implementation, and research in Lesotho has noted the ineffectiveness of strategies when corruption facilitates stock theft.
While many honest, dedicated police members do their best to assist the victims of stock theft, they are often overshadowed by their colleagues who abuse their positions. Will SAPS leadership act on the pleas of farming communities to safeguard them against both criminal networks and those from within the state itself? If the Hawks were to investigate and prosecute SAPS members involved in stock theft, it could go a long way to show their dedication to disrupting both stock theft and corruption.
ENACT, ISS Pretoria