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One of the the Hawks' top officers was shot dead in an alleged hit. (News24, file)
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Bruwer had testified in court in White River that both he and the prosecutor on the case feared for their lives on a daily basis. It is almost impossible to measure the cost and loss of an individual like Lt. Col. Bruwer in the fight against crime, writes Mandy Wiener
Lieutenant Colonel Leroy Bruwer was cruising in to work along the R37 Lydenberg road at 6.30 on Tuesday morning when he was ambushed by gunmen with automatic weapons.
The career cop with a stern moustache died at the wheel.
Three tight bullet holes visible on the driver's closed window, evidence that those who hunted him down did so deliberately.
Lt. Col. Bruwer was one of the best of the good guys.
He brought down rhino poaching syndicates in Mpumalanga and investigated cash-in-transit gangs.
He was the investigating officer in the case against rhino poaching kingpins Petros "Mr Big" Mabuza and "Big Joe" Joseph Nyalunga, an ex-cop turned organised crime figure.
In 2016, he was awarded the best organised crime investigator in the Hawks in the country.
Bruwer had testified in court in White River that both he and the prosecutor on the case feared for their lives on a daily basis.
It is almost impossible to measure the cost and loss of an individual like Lt. Col. Bruwer in the fight against crime.
Just hours after losing his friend and colleague, Colonel Johan Jooste, the National Section Commander of Wildlife Trafficking of the Hawks, attempted to explain it to me.
"He tackled his work with all the skills he obtained over the years, giving back to nature and people to see justice done. So much so that he was falsely arrested for doing his job.
"He was awarded the Hawks investigator of the year which followed with the Hawks Project Team of the year and Mpumalanga Provincial Commissioner Prestige Award.
"A beloved friend and colleague. It was quite interesting when I first met him. A ball of energy and nature lover of note. I gave him the nickname Kaptein Sardyn. He was a captain at that time and showcased his passion in nature and in his work.
"He was a true asset that you seldom came across in our line of work. You will find Sardyn at the Mpumalanga show and other school exhibitions loving to talk to the school kids and the public about nature.
"He was a story teller. He was the perfect expert in combating wildlife trafficking with his special skills and knowledge. He had superior knowledge to assist with confession, pointing out of crime scenes and the investigation of complex organised crime matters.
"It is a big gap that will take long to fill with his loss. It is a very big loss in combating wildlife trafficking and for that matter organised crime in SA. The experience cannot be valued more than what he has given."
Senior State prosecutor Ansie Venter who worked with Bruwer on poaching cases says he was doing his job too well for the liking of criminals.
"I am shell-shocked and extremely sad. Nobody deserves to die like this, especially no law enforcement officer who was only doing his job, apparently too well for the liking of criminals.
"I knew Leroy for about nine years and we worked together on quite a number of cases. He was so in love with nature and that is also why rhino cases were very close to his heart.
"He was always willing to assist and was a hard worker whose dockets were notoriously neat and very well prepared. What an unnecessary and heartless act to cowardly take him out like this," says Venter.
Bruwer's death leaves a vacuum of knowledge, institutional memory, skill, capacity and commitment that will be devastating to the war on organised crime at a time when the competency at the Hawks is in major focus.
The unit is desperate to rebuild its capacity which has been at fifty percent for some time.
National Commissioner Khehla Sitole described his death as a "huge loss".
On a personal note, Bruwer was due to be married in August this year.
Devastatingly, the murder of a police officer in South Africa is not a unique occurrence.
In 2019, 27 SAPS members were killed in the line of duty.
Not too long ago, Detective Warrant Officer Delene Grobler-Koonin posted an image on her Facebook page of a SAPS badge and the words: "Every cop who puts this on in the morning knows there’s a chance they might not come back at night".
Earlier this month, the hero cop who had been responsible for putting sex offenders and abusers behind bars, was shot dead in a gun battle with CIT gangsters.
Her colleague Sergeant Wynand Herbst was killed in the same shootout.
Grobler-Koonin knew the dangers of the job.
But it doesn’t make her death any easier to bear. She was enormously capable and passionately committed to her work.
There is something terribly chilling about a senior Hawks investigator who brought down organised crime kingpins, being taken out in a targeted assassination such as this.
There is no doubt that Bruwer’s killing was a deliberate hit by professionals.
According to Julian Rademeyer, Director for East and Southern Africa for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, Bruwer’s murder is significant.
"This is an appalling tragedy. When criminals feel so invincible that they think nothing of assassinating a top organised crime investigator, there has been a seismic shift in society.
"It is one thing for criminals to target one another. But when they start going after the State there are much bigger implications. Just look at Colombia, Mexico, Mozambique. The State has to find these killers.
"This is also a failure of the State to protect their own. Colonel Bruwer had previously testified in a bail application for several alleged rhino poaching syndicate ringleaders that both he and the prosecutor had been threatened," says Rademeyer.
The number of "hits" that have been occurring in South Africa are also alarming.
More often than not, these go unsolved as the shooters are professional, slick and stealthy.
These are prevalent in the taxi industry, Cape gang warfare and organised crime, but also occasionally in personal disputes such as when husbands or wives hire hitmen to target their spouses.
"The number of assassinations in South Africa in recent years is staggering. Our Assassination Witness project has documented close to 1 700 hits since 2000.
"Last year, our preliminary figures show that there were at least 150 assassinations in South Africa and that number is likely to increase as we verify our data," says Rademayer.
An examination of the last week alone tells a story.
On Tuesday last week, a seasoned IPID investigator who had led the probe into former acting National Police Commissioner Khomotso Phahlane, was shot dead in an apparent robbery on his smallholding.
Mandlakayise Mahlangu had received death threats during the investigation and forensic consultant Paul O’ Sullivan believes the robbery was a smokescreen.
On Friday afternoon, security business owner Shoayb Dowjee was shot dead on the M1 highway near Corlett Drive.
He had been followed from the nearby mosque in Houghton. Gunmen opened fire through the window of his black BMW.
On Saturday, a female business owner was shot in her car in Bruma.
She had dollars on her which she was apparently exchanging. Sources say it was a targeted assassination.
On Sunday, a warrant officer detective in the Family Violence Child Protection and Sexual Offences unit in Sibasa, Limpopo, was hacked to death after trying to arrest a suspected rapist.
Within a couple of hours of Lt. Col. Bruwer’s murder, a traffic cop in Cape Town was killed after trying to arrest a taxi driver.
The assassination of Lt. Col. Bruwer, or "Kaptein Sardyn" as his colleague endearingly refers to him, crosses a line in South Africa.
It should shock us all but it cannot be in vain.
Advocate Venter, the prosecutor on the frontlines, is adamant that the fight will continue.
"Leroy is gone, but his investigations and cases are still very much alive and will proceed to honour his legacy."
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