Rhino mafia court battles

Read the full article on the New York Times.
Petros Mabuza on day of his arrest 12 June 2018. © Saving the Wild

[26 June update: Murder suspect bail application continues 7 July.]

On 19 June, a suspect was arrested for the murder of Lt Colonel Leroy Bruwer, who was gunned down on 17 March while travelling to work. Armed with heavy-caliber weapons, the killers positioned themselves about nine kilometres outside of Nelspruit, a town on the outskirts of Kruger National Park. Saving the Wild has made our opinion very public that we believe hitmen were recruited because of Leroy’s important role in the upcoming trial of Petros Mabuza aka “Mr Big”, the alleged rhino poaching kingpin of “ground zero” Kruger.

The murder suspect will appear in the Nelspruit Magistrates Court in the province of Mpumalanga for a formal bail application on Thursday 25 June. But will bail be denied, or will corruption win again?

After several months of gathering intel, Saving the Wild assisted the Hawks Police in the arrest of Petros Mabuza in June 2018, but he was granted bail in the Nelspruit High Court – and the transcript conveniently disappeared in a greased lightning turn of events. Mabuza was arrested again a few weeks later, and again he was granted bail.

This systematic web of corruption within the courts is synonymous with rhino poaching.

© Paul Hilton
© Brent Stirton

In the KwaZulu Natal province, home to the highest density of rhino in the world, Saving the Wild exposed what is known as the Blood Rhino Blacklist, an alleged syndicate of corrupt justice officials. This led to Parliament being forced to suspend KwaZulu Natal Court President Eric Nzimande in October 2018. To date, Nzimande continues to enjoy full pay on his suspension – rewarded for his alleged crimes rather than punished. And neither he nor any of the magistrates implicated in the Magistrates Commission Investigation that ran parallel to Saving the Wild’s investigation have been arrested, or even dealt with through disciplinary hearings. 

READ: Corruption in the courtroom: A sordid tale of sex, gambling, poachers and payoffs

Kruger, home to the highest population of rhino, is going the same way as Zululand did before Saving the Wild ruined the party – and it really was a party, with corrupt magistrates and lawyers getting wasted on the blood money of rape and rhino poaching cases, according to a whistleblower who was ordered to pay the bribes, and later signed a sworn police affidavit admitting to everything.

The once admired Skukuza rhino court based inside Kruger National Park, came under attack last year by the Mpumalanga province Court President Naomi Engelbrecht who was hell bent on shutting down Skukuza, and thus putting the lives of the Kruger rangers at risk as they would then be forced to travel long distances for court appearances and be vulnerable to assassination attempts. She was stopped in the High Court on 22 April of this year. The Mpumalanga Court President and the rhino poachers were represented by the same lawyer. It doesn’t get more blatant than that.

Quoting Mpumalanga based non profit Stop Rhino Poaching who took on the Skukuza court battle, “The fight to save Skukuza court has taken an immense amount of effort from many different role players, some of whom have paid the price with a heavy toll on their emotional and psychological well-being.”

The immense power that alleged crime boss Petros Mabuza yields in the towns that circle Kruger have already been documented in Saving the Wild’s expose ‘Rhino Mafia: is Hazyview under siege?’

Saving the Wild Director Jamie Joseph outside Mabuza’s residence and house under construction where six rhino horns were found without consequence. Read: RHINO MAFIA.

For the first actual arrest of Mabuza, the buying of the horns took place in a vehicle stinking of blood money, not far from where six horns were found by his house. In a debriefing, one of our informers explained to me how after Mabuza handed over the R280 000 for the two rhino horns, he then escorted him and the Hawks undercover police agent to White River near Nelspruit and boasted, “Don’t worry about a thing. Nothing will happen to you. I hold this town in my hand.”

Nothing did happen to our informer, we made sure of this. And an elite Hawks police force made sure that Mabuza was arrested in a sting operation that involved a hot pursuit and helicopter search. But all of this is for nothing if no one ever gets convicted, and if these high level targets keep getting bail. 

A state prosecutor reassured me that the National Prosecuting Authority would be taking Mabuza’s bail verdict to the High Court, but as the trial drew closer, so too did the stakes get higher. I kept warning the prosecutor that one of the good guys was going to be taken out if they did not make the effort to ensure Mabuza was denied bail. All my pleading fell on deaf ears. Nothing will bring Leroy back. Nothing will justify the loss, which cuts even deeper because we know a lot more could have been done to protect him.  

We’re out there risking our lives, for what? The war on rhino poaching is a war on organized crime, but all of us who go after the high level targets are either persecuted, fired or assassinated. We spend more time fighting the government than we do fighting the criminals. Fact.

In KwaZulu Natal, Dumisani Gwala, the alleged rhino poaching kingpin of  Zululand, has been out on bail for attempted murder of a police officer and dealing in rhino horn since December 2014! The master of delay tactics, Saving the Wild had to battle Gwala and his thug attorneys for three gruelling years until we reached what resembled a fair trial. Finally, trial started in April 2019, but the first witness is yet to be cross examined, with trial postponement excuses that are beyond the absurd and accepted every time by The Court.

READ: Rhino poachers, rapists and the blood money trial of Dumisani Gwala

Kruger, or Zululand, so long as the rhino mafia continue to make a mockery of the courts, rhinos will continue to be decimated in South Africa, and more good people will die.

There are two events coming up that will test the muddy waters of justice…

Firstly, this week’s bail application in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga province for the man suspected of being involved in the assassination of Lt Colonel Leroy Bruwer. 

And then in the KwaZulu Natal province, the pending arrest of the Blood Rhino Blacklist. High ranking members of South Africa’s government will try to stop the arrests of this crooked cabal of justice officials. And if they succeed, the battle to save the rhino will be lost. It will prove that no matter what we do, or how hard we fight, there will be no justice for rhinos.

To the best of our knowledge, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has only ever spoken of the rhino crisis once. It was after the sudden death of former Minister of Environment Edna Molewa, who passed away in September 2018. The relationship between Molewa and the rhino community was thwart with conflict, with conservationists shaking their head in disbelief every time she posted a “progress” press release, while at the same time turning a blind eye to corruption, the most dangerous poacher of all. But at her funeral, President Ramaphosa heralded her as if she were a conservation hero, proclaiming:

“Minister Molewa will be forever remembered by South Africans for her efforts to conserve the country’s wildlife, in particular our rhino. She had promised us that rhino would not go extinct on her watch, and this has been proven to be both prescient and true.”

If extinction is the benchmark for the President and his Ministers then that does certainly explain why the government keeps putting systems in place to ensure that the law does not act as a deterrent to poachers. Rather, the courts fuel poaching, because often when a bribe is paid these poachers have to go out and kill another rhino to square their debts.

A few months ago I was a guest speaker alongside former Prime Minister of New Zealand and former UNDP Chief Helen Clark. Just before the event began, which focused on the Blood Rhino Blacklist saga, I leaned over to Helen and asked, “In your three terms as Prime Minister, did you ever come across magistrates taking bribes?”

“No,” she replied. “Never.”

I looked around The Northern Club, a private members club in the heart of Auckland City with a prestigious 150 year history, and I knew some of the people in the room were barristers and judges. Just before Helen introduced the crusade against corruption, we premiered the six minute taster to Saving the Wild’s Blood Rhino Blacklist feature documentary, jam packed with informers and whistleblowers, undercover police operations, and court confrontations. There was a stunned silence in the room when the extended trailer ended, as the shock of the reality that is South Africa’s court circus began to sink in.

Good or bad, the ending to the documentary is near, and this genre bending film that unfolds like a thriller is going to wake up the world to these atrocities, in honour of those who have sacrificed so much, and for the rhino, who has walked planet earth for 50 million years and is now facing extinction over a horn that nobody needs. 

Saving the Wild is not giving up yet. We fight to the last breath. This rot that has infiltrated the sanctity of the courts is bringing dishonour to the many good people who have made the pursuit of justice their life’s work. They deserve better.

And, if luck is on our side, perhaps President Cyril Ramaphosa will acknowledge the rhino really is in crisis, but this time, raise the bar above extinction, and usher in a new era of justice. The clock is ticking…

Apple TV+ has just launched the highly anticipated docu-series, shining a spotlight on Jamie Joseph’s ‘Blood Rhino Blacklist‘. The Dear… series features Oprah, Spike Lee, Dr Jane Goodall, Stevie Wonder and Gloria Steinem.