Rhino mafia: Petros Mabuza

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

Rewind to January 2016, South Africa. It was the week before I began exposing what became known as my ‘Blood Rhino Blacklist’ – a crooked cabal of justice officials. Through a Rhinos without Borders darting and chipping procedure in preparation to translocating rhinos to Botswana – considered a safe haven back then – I was introduced to an unforgettable rhinoceros who became a symbol of justice in Saving the Wild’s crusade against corruption.

As I ran my fingers down Excalibur’s horn, longer than King Arthur’s sword, and my hands stretched across her skin like armour, I felt a fist squeeze my heart. Out there in the wild, she was the ultimate warrior, impervious to anything but a bullet. As sad as I was to see her go, I was relieved that her fast diminishing gene pool would be protected in faraway lands.  

Jamie Joseph and Excalibur | Photo credit: Saving the Wild

I had no idea at the time, but I would be reunited with her in Botswana, two and a half years later, when it was necessary for me to drop off the radar for a brief period following the arrest of the Kruger kingpin, Petros Mabuza aka “Mr Big”.

Fast forward to June 2018…

“We lost him,” I heard my top guy say as I took a big breath and exhaled my frustration. “I can’t talk right now. I’m driving around Hazyview and the local cops keep tailing me.” 

Several months of running intel and we finally had Mabuza in our sights, and then he vanished, like smoke. And so too did the rhino horns used in the sting operation led by the Hawks Police, sold to Mabuza by a Saving the Wild informer.

Mabuza has Mpumalanga province police officers on his payroll, stretching from Kruger National Park to Hazyview, onto White River and Nelspruit. The 70 men from the Hawks tactical unit chosen for the operation were not local. A little help from a helicopter and a hunch from a master of intelligence, and the Hawks quickly closed in on Mabuza at one of his lesser known mansions. 

Mission complete, I told my guys to go home and look after their families. And then I boarded a plane at Johannesburg O.R. Tambo International Airport and got the hell out of South Africa while the heat was rising.

In the heart of the Okavango, I was reunited with Excalibur as I spent my days with Rhinos without Borders rangers. I didn’t know where in Botswana she was, but I had a feeling she would be somewhere in the Delta.  

“Do you know this rhino?” I said to the very first rhino monitor I met, showing a photograph that clearly illustrated her incredible horn.

“Yes,” he replied. “And she’s had a baby.”

I felt my chest lift with joy. “Please, take me to her.”

I spent precious days with the rhino monitors, watching over Excalibur and her calf, and thanking them again and again for looking after our beloved rhinos with such dedication. For all the suffering endured fighting organized crime, seeing mother and baby safe and happy was one of the most rewarding moments in my own personal journey. 

Not all rhinos in Botswana are safe, with a zero tolerance for poachers no longer a priority with the change of President. But I do know that Excalibur and her offspring are guarded by people who will go to great lengths to protect them. 

Sometimes when it comes down to the line, it’s not a country that saves a species, but individuals. And especially with the rhino crisis, it’s down to many individuals who make saving the last of the rhinos not just their job, but their life.

Excalibur and baby | Photo credit: Saving the Wild

I said touched down back in South Africa on 6 July 2018. I picked up a car rental at Johannesburg airport and turned on the radio. I was on my way to Hazyview, Mabuza territory, when I heard the announcement on the news: ‘Bail denied for Petros Mabuza, the alleged crime boss of rhino poaching.’

I pulled over and got out the car and started fist punching the sky. I was so amped, and so relieved. I had been sick with worry that one of our guys would be assassinated if Mabuza was not locked up.

For the next week I moved stealth and elusive through Hazyview, gathering more intel from Mabuza’s friends and enemies. I knew I had only one shot at this. In future I would become instantly recognized. The mere whisper of the name Petros Mabuza, or any of his nicknames, and people would start to sweat for fear of his wrath. Back in jail, local Nelspruit police officers saluted him as he walked through the cell block. To them, he was still kingpin. 

Ten days later, on 16 July 2018, in blur of unrecorded events, Acting High Court Judge Semenya and Assisting Acting High Court Judge Nemorati, granted Mabuza bail of R250 000 – that’s R30 000 less than what he paid for two rhino horns on the day of his 12 June arrest. He spends more than that on one night of debauchery at his mansion parties where women dance naked on the tables, and class A drugs are served like canapés.

According to an employee of a Mpumalanga security company, “They throw huge parties and block off the streets. I was only once able to drive pass Mabuza’s primary residence, the gate was open and I saw a man with an automatic machine gun. But if we report anything to Hazyview police, they ignore it.”

I was so livid that day bail was granted that I left a message for Mabuza on Saving the Wild’s social media page, knowing the bad guys all follow us. 

This is a message for Mabuza…Mshengu…Shabalala…Mr Big…or whatever they call you. Tonight rhino poachers are drunk and high celebrating on the streets of Hazyview. At your home they sing victory songs. Last week while you were sitting in a jail cell, I was walking “your” streets, talking to your friends, making friends with your enemies. I know what you did. And soon the world will too. And all these crooked cops that fall at your feet, their days are numbered. You’re nothing but a thug. 

They next day I published Rhino Mafia: Is Hazyview under siege? I linked six rhino horns found next to Mabuza’s primary residence to poached rhinos in Kruger. This was only possible because of the critically important work of RhODIS – the Rhino DNA Indexing System. But those days of forensics excellence are over, ever since the South African government mysteriously decided not to renew the contract more than a year ago. It’s one of many never ending roadblocks that have been put in place to make us fail, weakening our defence against rhino poachers in court.

According to The Boucher Legacy, a major funder of RhODIS, “The key concern around this halting of evidence supply is that it must be impacting on the success of prosecutions of poachers. Even more disturbing is that RhODIS is more than willing to process the DNA, and the DNA is legally allowed to be sent to them for processing.”

The Achilles heel of rhino poaching is court corruption – as recounted in the Rhino mafia court battles story published earlier this week. In this article I explained how Mabuza got bail for a second time when he was arrested for rhino related crimes in September 2018, just three months after his first arrest. After threats and assaults by Mabuza henchmen, Hawks Lt Colonel Leroy Bruwer had testified in court in the second bail application that he feared for his life on a daily basis.

As it turned out, his life didn’t mean enough to the courts to deny bail. And on 17 March of this year, in the lead up to Mabuza’s trial, Leroy was gunned down on his way to work – he was assassinated because he did his job, and he was one of the best there ever was.

The last time I saw Leroy alive was April 2019. We were both attending yet another delayed court appearance with Mabuza. Leroy was at court in his capacity as the investigating Hawks police officer, and I was there to observe a crooked justice system.

Mabuza recognized me when he was leaving the courthouse, and he told his thugs to close in on me. He shouted these threats in front of everyone, both local police and court staff. Leroy came to my rescue and escorted me out of the building and to safety. I didn’t know Leroy well. He wasn’t part of my immediate team, but we were both prepared to stand up to these monsters, and when one of us falls, we all fall – especially since the state has failed to protect their own.

Tomorrow morning there will be a bail application for the murder suspect arrested last week. Leroy was not the only person on the hit list. How many more police officers and frontline fighters need to die before the South African government starts standing up for our heroes? 

We can’t control the courts. All we can do is tell our story and hope people care enough to share the stories and do whatever they can to help – because the greatest power in the world is still public opinion. 

PETROS MABUZA – TIMELINE………………………………………………….
12 June 2018: Petros Mabuza arrested. Granted bail.
18 September 2018: Petros Mabuza arrested again. Granted bail.
Petros Mabuza trial was scheduled to start in June 2020.
On 17 March 2020 Hawks Lt Colonel Leroy Bruwer was gunned down and assassinated.
25 June 2020: Bail application for murder suspect at Nelspruit Magistrates Court.


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