Women living in Nyanisweni village in Qumbu in the Eastern Cape have become the target of ruthless stock theft and are living in fear that their kraals will be empty in the morning – their sheep, cattle, goats and horses all stolen. They lie awake every night fearing that heavily armed stock thieves will pounce, again.
Crime statistics released by Police Minister Bheki Cele a fortnight ago show that the Eastern Cape accounts for more stock theft than any other province in the country – eight of its top 10 police stations recorded the highest number of cases.
Leading the pack is Sulenkama Police Station in Qumbu, where Nyanisweni’s residents report their cases. Its reported stock theft cases increased from 252 in 2018/19 to 358 in 2019/20.
The emotional scars the victims are left with are too much to bear as the animals, which are worth thousands of rands, are often lost without a trace.
The thieves’ modus operandi seems to be to target the homes of widows and the elderly. Even having a TV is a danger – you may be watching your favourite soapie while the thieves are cleaning out your kraal.
Widow Nolungile Maphathwana (67) was asleep when her 86 sheep were stolen from her home in Nyanisweni village in 2018.
“When I woke up the next day, there was nothing inside the kraal. Only one sheep managed to come back, and we tried to trace the direction it came from, but nothing came from that,” she said.
“I was so traumatised. I had lost thousands of rands from those sheep. These animals are our livelihoods. We can sell them for R2 000 to R2 500 each. So imagine how much money you lose if you have 83 sheep stolen in just one night. Not to mention the fact that several of them were pregnant at the time they were stolen. We expected to get 40 lambs from those,” said an emotional Maphathwana.
She said they reported their case to the Sulenkama Police Station, but no one has been arrested and her sheep have not been recovered.
Maphathwana’s son Mandisi said the police never bother to try to track down the thieves, but only try to assist in finding the stolen sheep – searches that usually lead to dead ends.
“All they do [the stock theft unit from Qumbu, Katkop and Sulenkama police stations] is to help you look for the sheep, but not the suspects,” said Mandisi.
“Even when stolen sheep are found in someone else’s homestead, police just take the sheep back and leave the person who is in possession of the stock [the alleged thief] behind.”
Mandisi said the thieves, usually young boys between the ages 14 and 17, work as a group, and are heavily armed and dangerous. He said the youngsters worked for a syndicate of elderly men who buy the sheep from the boys for between R200 and R300 a sheep.
“When they come to steal the sheep, they come on horseback – horses they have stolen. They then guide the sheep from outside the homesteads and the villages into forests they use as hideouts. Inside the forests, the sheep are kept in kraals made of wire nets.
“While the sheep are there, they are sheared, removing the wool that usually bears the mark of the owner.
“The wool is then sold separately, which means the thieves benefit from the selling of the sheep and the wool. They then make a new mark with a knife or razor blade on the ear of a sheep, removing the mark put there by the original owner, before they sell the sheep to those who might have placed an order.
“The animals are kept in the forest for seven days or more to allow the wound from the fresh mark to heal.
“Some of the sheep are then sold to neighbouring towns, as well as to people in other provinces like KwaZulu-Natal,” he said.
Nozongezile Nongogo (57), who is also a widow, was just starting out and bought two cows. They were stolen in 2018. She then decided to try to keep sheep. All her 19 sheep and four goats were stolen two weeks ago.
“I heard dogs bark in the night, and I thought it was just people passing by. When I looked into the kraal at 6am the next day, all the sheep were gone. I looked around the yard and saw that a big hole had been dug in the corner of the garden – that is where the thieves took the sheep out,” Nongogo said, with tears streaming down her cheeks.
“I am very hurt. My whole life has been turned upside down. I am a widow and trying to make a living, then people just come and take the little we have. It is unfair. We are afraid because we don’t see any help coming from anybody. We are scared because we cannot fight the thieves. We are defenceless.”
Nogcinikhaya Ndawo (52) also fell victim to stock thieves in 2018 when her 12 cows were stolen in the middle of the night. She said some of the stolen cows included those paid as lobola two months previously for her daughter who had just got married.
“They were paid as part of lobola in December and were stolen in February. So it means my daughter’s lobola was lost, just like that. It really pains me whenever I think of this.
“Government should really investigate the issue of stock theft, especially in Qumbu, because these thieves are so brazen. They steal with impunity. Our livestock are stolen daily, but you will never find the thieves or find anyone being arrested for the theft,” she said.
Bobby Stevenson, the DA’s provincial spokesperson for safety and security, said Eastern Cape farmers were being bled dry by brazen stock thieves, who dealt crippling blows to the already struggling agricultural sector.
He said that, while other crimes might have declined during the national lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, there had been a surge in stock theft across the province.
In response to a DA parliamentary question, Eastern Cape MEC of safety and liaison, Weziwe Tikana-Gxothiwe, revealed that between March 27 and June 22, at least 5 636 animals had been stolen; 4 480 sheep, 700 goats, 411 head of cattle and 45 horses.
Stevenson said that, at an average cost of R2 500 per sheep, R1 200 per goat, R12 000 per head of cattle and R5 000 per horse, the estimated combined value of stock losses came to R17.197 million.
However, Stevenson said there had been positive developments, which included the allocation of 33 new vehicles to the stock theft units in the province. He added that some people had been arrested.
Unathi Binqose, Tikana-Gxothiwe’s spokesperson, said the MEC (along with the police’s top brass) would release provincial crime statistics next week, and they would tackle the increase in stock theft in the province.