Before dying under a hail of bullets on Thursday, so-called Mpumalanga rhino poaching kingpin Petros “Mr Big” Mabuza (57) instilled fear wherever he went.
Mabuza lived a very adventurous and risky life as an alleged rhino poacher. He made a lot of cash, allegedly had police officers on his payroll and was not shy to splash his loot on what others may call hedonism. Most people called him by his clan name, Mshengu, as a sign of reverence.
According to Jamie Joseph, the director of Saving the Wild, who has been working closely with police to get Mabuza arrested and convicted for rhino poaching, the man from Hazyview lived a lavish lifestyle. “He has been throwing illegal parties which, according to someone in regular attendance, included naked women dancing on the tables, class A drugs on the bar dished out like canapés and armed guards at the entrance,” Joseph said.
The loaded man he was, Mabuza allegedly owned houses – from Hazyview, White River and Mbombela.
Mpumalanga police are on the trail of Mabuza’s killers.
Brigadier Leonard Hlathi, the provincial police spokesperson, said Mabuza was sitting in his double-cab Ford Ranger on Thursday in Hazyview when three armed men in a black VW Polo opened fire on him in broad daylight, before fleeing.
“He was rushed to hospital where he later succumbed to the gunshot injuries. During the shooting, an elderly woman passerby, also became a victim as she too was shot on her lower body but she is recuperating in hospital,” Hlathi said.
The motive for Mabuza’s killing was still unknown, Hlathi said. According to those who knew “Mr Big”, it will not be easy to pinpoint why he was a marked man because he had “multitudes of enemies” as he had interest in various “businesses”.
Beside his alleged involvement in the lucrative illicit rhino horn trade, he was also rumoured to be commanding and sponsoring cash-in-transit heists.
“Another thing, he was a loan shark who confiscated people’s houses and cars. Even in the taxi business, he was a bully at the rank and his profile is really, really bad,” said a local resident.
The person said Mabuza started from “rock bottom, playing dice”, before he ventured into more illegal and serious businesses.
He was facing two rhino poaching charges in the Mpumalanga High Court. In one case he was out on R250 000 bail, He was charged alongside two accomplices. In another case he was out on R90 000 bail. He was arrested with five accomplices. Mabuza was first arrested in 2018.
Saving the Wild’s Joseph said had Mabuza lived long enough, he would not have been convicted because the courts in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, where his operation had extended, were “captured”.
“A successful conviction with a strong sentence would have sent a powerful message to other rhino poaching traffickers that government is serious about cracking down on wildlife crime – but they are not,” she said.
“Mabuza was a ruthless killer and stole the lives of many humans and rhino. And he got away with it for so long because of his political allies. We’re down to the last of the rhino and President Cyril Ramaphosa has never acknowledged the crisis,” she added.
Joseph was allegedly threatened by Mabuza and his henchmen during one of his court appearances.
Lieutenant Colonel Leroy Bruwer, of Mpumalanga Hawks, who was investigating rhino poaching cases, was assassinated on March 17 2020. The criminals waylaid him as he drove to work from his home in Sabie to Mbombela.
He was killed after he had testified in one of rhino poaching court cases.