Fresh charges of a cover-up around possible government links to rhino poaching and organised crime networks have surfaced again.
This after details confirming the arrest of a highly-trained police officer from an elite police unit bust for rhino poaching two weeks ago were only released to the media on Sunday, just one day before his bail hearing this week.
Last Monday, Constable Sizwe Buthelezi, 36, was charged for unlawful possession of a firearm; unlawful possession of ammunition; unlawful possession of protected endangered species (rhino horn) and unlawful possession of a dangerous weapon.
Information leaked to us last Thursday mentioned Buthelezi had been nabbed red-handed at KwaZulu Natal’s flagship iMfolozi Game Reserve on October 11 with two freshly cut rhino horns, an unlicensed and illegal .458 rifle without a serial number, ammunition and three hunting knives.
He was charged and appeared in court on Monday, October 15.
Details were sketchy at that stage, and nothing had been shared with the media by either the South African Police Service (SAPS), the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) or the Department of Justice.
It was only after an inquiry by our mid-morning this Sunday that Brigadier Vish Naidoo confirmed the arrest, and released a prepared media statement from the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure, titled ‘Policeman arrested for rhino poaching’.
During his bail application on October 22, Constable Buthelezi was released from custody after being granted R2 000 bail at the Ngwelezane court.
This is the same court that has been mired in controversy after allegations of bribery and corruption around Zululand rhino poaching case trials surfaced. His case was postponed to November 28, 2018.
Both the NPA and the Justice Department have repeatedly failed to answer written questions around rhino poaching cases at the same court.
On Friday Bongani Gumede, the court manager, flatly refused to assist the media with enquiries or answer questions about rhino poaching trials at his court.
The same day, a freelance journalist was escorted off the court grounds by security officials after an Empangeni attorney representing a rhino poaching suspect from Hazyview, Mpumalanga, raised a commotion when the journalist attempted to take his client’s picture outside the courtroom.
According to the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure statement, Buthelezi had been spotted by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife anti-poaching rangers exiting the park’s Makhamisa section at approximately 08:45 with another suspect, who allegedly managed to escape.
Rhino 09 SAPS members and Ezemvelo officials were mobilized and attempted to stop Buthelezi during a stop-and-search operation in the Ntambanana Fuyeni area, however, he sped off and lost control of his vehicle when it crashed into a perimeter wall at one of the homesteads.
“This member, who was entrusted to combat poaching, is alleged to have abused his powers and opportunistically resorted to crime for self-enrichment.
How rhino orphans get back into the wild at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi in South Africa
What was once used as a temporary holding for rhinos being relocated at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, has now become a centre for rhino orphans who have lost their mothers predominantly to poaching.
“The South African Police Service will continue to root out corruption within its ranks as this scourge serves only to undermine the authority of the state.
“We also want to urge the people of South Africa to continue supporting the police in its efforts to bring down the scourge of crime, because together we can do more,” the police statement said.
Asked whether Buthelezi would be immediately fired from the SAPS, spokesperson Colonel Katlego Mogale responded: “According to labour law(s), due processes must be followed.”
On Monday, DA MP Dianne Kohler Barnard, who also sits on Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Police, called for an immediate inquiry.
“I have no doubt that the firearm is an illegal weapon that was possibly stolen from the SAPS13 evidence room. This is the rumour that goes around constantly, that arms kept in the SAPS13 stores are taken out illegally, only to be used in crimes and then returned, which makes for a perfect alibi.”
The SAPS13 register is a reference number allocated to a firearm that was reported lost or stolen.
“The fact that we as taxpayers are paying to train people who are using this training to commit atrocious acts like this, is stomach churning,” Kohler Barnard said.
“Not only does it seem (as if) the SAPS have tried to keep this shameful act under wraps without a word released until 11 days after the rhino slaughter… and only then because a journalist caught wind of the story… but now we find out that he has been released on negligible bail.
“I will be raising this not only in both houses but call for a full inquiry by the police portfolio committee,” she said.
Andrea Crosta, executive director and co-founder of the international NGO Elephant Action League (EAL) and founder of WildLeaks, said: “The South African government’s astonishing level of corruption, short-sightedness, and incompetence represent formidable obstacles to fighting the rhino poaching crisis and the international trafficking of rhino horn.
“The information that we have collected, and the inability to share it with trusted, capable, and powerful government officials in South Africa, is so overwhelming that it is challenging to express the sheer magnitude of the problem, and difficult to continue to have hope for the future.
“While there are also many honest rangers and government officials in South Africa, these individuals sometimes, with the help of a very small number of well-prepared NGOs, manage to hit those criminal networks and cause disruption of their operations, as very recent arrests show. Unfortunately, it is usually just a temporary disruption,” he said.