Guest Column

South Africa's police gun smuggling shame

2017-09-12 12:10
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Caryn Dolley

The contents of nine A4 pages in a thick stack of court documents should have shaken South Africans and the country’s police management to the core.

A task team, if existing, should have been strengthened to interrogate it. If it did not yet exist, a team, or even teams, should have been immediately created to deal with what those pages hint at.

Instead there have been squabbles, bickering, legal wrangles, some media attention, and a lot of hemming and hawing.

While this has been going on those nine A4 pages have probably been extending.

Currently these pages contain the identities of 261 children in the Western Cape who have been shot between 2010 and 2016 with guns stolen from the police, with the involvement of cops, and allegedly sold to gangsters. 

Several of these children were murdered. Many more have been maimed. You may argue that some of them were involved in gang activities, but it does not change the fact they were killed or wounded.

Beyond those nine A4 pages, gang violence is surging, particularly in the Western Cape and children are in harm's way.

Just recently, on September 9, Aqeel Davids, 9, was caught in apparent gang crossfire in his Ocean View home. He was wounded and later died in hospital.

On August 3, a 7-year-old boy, Ezra Daniels, was shot dead in Grassy Park. The actual extent of the trauma and suffering these children and their families are going through is unimaginable.

The guns with which the children detailed in the nine A4 pages were shot, form the focus of the now-controversial Project Impi, said to be South Africa’s biggest ever gun smuggling investigation.

Project Impi involved looking into the selling of guns by police to gangsters, as well as the smuggling of firearms into and out of the country.

It also focused on gun thefts from military bases and the possibility that right wingers were stockpiling weapons to be used against the state.

On top of that, it probed taxi killings in KwaZulu-Natal and its links to Gauteng.

Project Impi, which established that at least 1 066 murders were carried out with guns smuggled by cops, was quietly launched in December 2013 in the Western Cape by police officers Major General Jeremy Vearey and Major General Peter Jacobs.

But in June 2016 they were suddenly transferred – they believe they were demoted as a result of perceptions about their political beliefs. In August the Cape Town Labour Court set aside their transfers, but SAPS is still going ahead with it.

This is happening as gang wars seem to be spiralling in the Western Cape, with shootings being reported, if not daily, weekly.

About 1 200 guns stolen from police were apparently never accounted for. This means these guns are still in circulation.

In August it emerged that about 20 more firearms could not be accounted for at the Bellville South police station. In Parliament earlier this month deputy national commissioner for policing Lieutenant General Sehlahle Masemola said guns had also gone missing from the Mitchells Plain police station.

Just last week the Cape Argus reported that Deputy Police Minister Bongani Mkongi said the firearms that had gone missing from the Bellville South and Mitchells Plain stations were stolen by police officers and sold to gangsters.

These are the very crimes Project Impi was clamping down on.

Vearey and Jacobs, in the court papers in which the identities of the 261 children are detailed, say their transfers effectively crippled Project Impi.

But, shockingly, this is where there appears to be some confusion among police.

Here is a brief breakdown of how different police officers view the country’s most critical firearms smuggling probe:

- In a sworn statement, Lieutenant Colonel Clive Ontong, who was leading the probe, said in September 2016 he applied to go to Gauteng to get a witness placed under protection as part of the investigations.

"I was told... that Project Impi was not renewed and he would not make funds available. I thus could not go to Gauteng," his statement said.

- In the record of an August 23 meeting in Parliament, Western Cape police commissioner Khombinkosi Jula, was quoted saying that at no stage was Project Impi not supported in the Western Cape.

- Acting national police commissioner Lesetja Mothiba, in the same meeting, said "many of the actions of Project Impi were in disarray". He said he did not know why members were transferred out of the project.

- Deputy national commissioner for management interventions, Lieutenant General Gary Kruser, also at the meeting, said there had been some challenges regarding Project Impi and that these issues had been referred for investigation.

Project Impi has now been absorbed into a national team run by the Hawks to look into illicit firearms and related crimes.

But why are there so many different opinions in the police about what happened to it? What was it about to unearth? Who was it about to expose?

Writing news articles on Project Impi, based on Cape Town Labour Court papers which are accessible to the public, has resulted in a death threat to this journalist.

In their court papers, Vearey and Jacobs said they were close to making more arrests when they were yanked from their former positions and thus the gun smuggling investigation.

They said police themselves could be held liable for those shot with the smuggled cop guns. But this piece of information has never been formally announced to the public – certainly not by police management.

Most of those shot with Project Impi-identified guns come from gang hotspots far outside of the Cape Town city centre, including areas such as Bishop Lavis, Delft, Elsies River and Atlantis.

One wonders if residents in these areas know they can challenge police if they were wounded, or if their loved ones were killed, with stolen and smuggled cop guns. And then, if they knew, would they have the means to do so?

The country’s police service, and authorities meant to be upholding the law, have not come across well recently.

From the acting crime intelligence head being sacked (and let’s not forget claims of rogue operatives working in this unit), to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) accusing the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) of being selective in the cases it pins down: All these tensions, the squabbling and alleged attempts to right wrongs (or wrong rights?) are forming the future of these authorities.

Today’s children will be the adults of the future. They will have to face what the foundations being laid now result in. But that’s if they make it there. That’s if they are allowed to live. That’s if many can literally dodge bullets.

Parents, family, friends and other support structures can help these children. So can police officers, who make it through a gauntlet of politics, vendettas and internal friction, and who legitimately work to snuff out crime and clamp down on illegal firearms.

Let’s not forget the contents of those nine A4 pages – the (at least) 261 children in the Western Cape murdered or wounded with guns stolen, with the assistance of cops, from police.

Deep cracks and divisions have already started appearing within the police and other critical authorities.

Perhaps for the full extent and impact of these cracks, one should view them through a lens already riddled with the holes of every single bullet, ejected from a stolen police gun and handed to a gangster, that penetrated a child.

- Caryn Dolley is an investigative journalist at News24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    police  |  crime intelligence  |  weapons
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