Stock theft is on the rise in South Africa according the latest police statistics. The 29 672 cases recorded in the 2018-19 financial year represent a 2.9% increase from the previous 12-month period, a trend that has persisted since 2016-17. Livestock theft costs the country billions of rand each year, damages the local agricultural economy and negatively impacts food security.
Stock theft isn't new in South Africa. What has changed is that the crime is now perpetrated by organised syndicates rather than just petty thieves. Willie Clack, a penologist at the University of South Africa, told the ENACT organised crime project that '87% of livestock theft involves some form of organised crime, while 13% is for survival.'
The modus operandi of stock thieves depends on whether the theft is for survival or re-sale. If for survival, only a few animals are stolen or slaughtered, with the thieves taking what they can carry and leaving the carcasses behind. Criminal syndicates plan their operations carefully, usually drawing on three to five individuals. A scout watches the movement of the livestock and alerts gang members who steal the animals and remove them using trucks.
Stock theft is now perpetrated by organised syndicates rather than just petty thieves
In some instances, farm workers and farmers have colluded with stock theft syndicates. The farm workers involved usually provide information about the farm to the criminals. Farmers help steal livestock from other farms.
Stock theft across the South African and Lesotho borders has been ongoing for years. In August Operation Servamus, a joint initiative between the two countries' police forces, netted 117 stolen cattle, 107 stolen goats, four sheep and seven horses.
The stolen animals are hidden along the mountainous border and then moved into Lesotho where they are rebranded and sent back to South Africa. There they are laundered through stock auctions, says Clack. 'This creates difficulty in actually proving that the livestock was stolen.' Livestock from Lesotho is also stolen and taken into South Africa, and then fed into the sale-of-stock system.
Porous and poorly secured borders contribute to the problem. Large parts of the border fences are stolen, and monitoring long boundaries and mountainous terrain is difficult for police. This creates many opportunities and trafficking routes for criminal networks to smuggle livestock, drugs and firearms.
Porous borders allow not just the smuggling of livestock, but also drugs and firearms
As stock theft has increased, so has the violence associated with it. 'With livestock theft comes the problem of drug trafficking accompanied by increasing levels of violence,' a senior law enforcement officer in Lesotho told ENACT on condition of anonymity. In addition to stealing animals, armed criminals attack farm workers and farmers.
Many of these cases aren't reported due to fear of reprisals by attackers who target farmers and their workers, steal equipment and vehicles, and set alight grazing or even whole farms. Low conviction rates and slow police action - often due to capacity constraints - has further damaged the relationship between farmers and police.
Clack says the profile of livestock theft must be raised among the public, as organised crime is a national security threat that eventually affects all South Africans. More effective policing is also key, and includes improving the capacity of the police's Stock Theft unit.
Low conviction rates and slow police action has damaged relations between farmers and police
Problems for the police include a shortage of vehicles, the high cost of impounding stock, and poor cooperation between law enforcement and famers. Drones, off-road vehicles, quadbikes and even a helicopter would help to police the mountainous terrain, says Clack.
Better communication and cooperation, like that provided by the National Stock Theft Prevention Forum is also needed to build bridges between the farming community and police. Coordination and information sharing between the Lesotho and South African police and relevant state departments in disrupting organised criminal networks is also key. Operation Servamus shows what can be achieved through such endeavours.
Richard Chelin, Researcher, ENACT project, ISS
This article was first published by the ENACT project. ENACT is funded by the European Union (EU). The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the EU.