In the past five years, some 8 083 cattle have been moved across the eSwatini border with Mozambique and South Africa. Cattle rustling is a common practice in the Southern African nation with many emaSwati losing their livestock each year, resulting in devastating losses both economically and socially as families lose their livelihoods and sense of community trust.
eSwatini and South Africa signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2014 on how to curb cross border crime, including stock theft. The same agreement was signed with Mozambique in 2015. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the last standing monarchy on the African continent, journalist Vuyisile Hlatshwayo was keen to assess if the pandemic had impacted on these agreements.
Hlatshwayo, who is the founder of Eswatini Farming magazine, and co-founder of both The Nation magazine and Inhlase Centre for Investigative Journalism, set his sights on the eastern region of the country along the eSwatini/ Mozambique border where cattle rustling is rife. He discovered there had been an uptick.
A former student of Hlatshwayo’s would prove to be a reliable source of the trail of destruction left by the bandits. While on his way to Sitsatsaweni, a cattle rustling hotspot in the region, Hlatshwayo met the Simelane family in Siteki that had been hard hit by the theft of their cattle. “I witnessed the devastation that visited that homestead. Thirty-five of Mr Simelane’s cattle were stolen while grazing in the pastures and another 10 were taken from the kraal at night,” said Hlatshwayo. Mr Simelane subsequently suffered a stroke, which he believed was caused by the trauma, and is now paralysed.
In Sitsatsaweni, Hlatshwayo met the Ndlovu family that had lost over 100 cows. A community policing forum had been established with the aim of curbing the theft. The head of the forum said a syndicate of Mozambican herders, hired to look after the cattle of maSwati, had been stealing livestock to sell them. High youth unemployment fuels the problem as the maSwati youth are paid to keep silent.
The community along the western border with South Africa complained of cattle being rustled and then publicly auctioned in Kwazulu-Natal. Hlatshwayo notes that “the biggest problem we are having is that our stock theft act of 1982 is inadequate. When it comes to jurisdiction, there are limitations.”
The investigation, which took almost two months, was published on Inhlase’s website on May 17 2021, and in Eswatini Farming magazine in the June-July issue. But it wasn’t an easy ride. The police took a month to respond to Hlatshwayo’s queries: “I kept on calling them. I was surprised they got back to me; there was a time I thought they were not going to give me the answers,” he said.
Following the publication of the investigation, eSwatini’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Corporation set up a meeting between the various countries in the hope of addressing the problem.
Featured image: Mr Simelane had 45 cattle stolen from his homestead. Image: Vuyisile Hlatshwayo
Paralysing effect of cattle rustling
The cost of cross-border cattle rustling involving eSwatini, Mozambique and South Africa grows by the day. It has not only left livestock farmer paralysed, literally, but also the cost to the economy is frightening, writes VUYISILE LE HLATSHWAYO
Jabulani Simelane, of Mzilikazi area in eSwatini, suffered a stroke and was left paralysed after cattle rustlers operating across the Mozambican border struck twice and stole more than 40 of his cattle.
“In 2015 I woke up early in the morning to find all 35 cattle stolen from the kraal,” Simelane told the Inhlase Centre for Investigative Journalism
“In 2019, they came back and took 10 more. That’s when I suffered the stroke.
“My cattle were my livelihood. I used to sell a beast to meet the basic needs of my family”
A member of the Mndlovu family in Sitsatsaweni area, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Inhlase that the cross-border cattle rustlers first stole 78 of the family’s cattle before they struck again and took another 30.
Last year they returned to steal seven more animals while they were grazing.
An investigation by Inhlase has highlighted how widespread cattle-rustling is in border areas and its devastating effects on small-scale emaSwati farmers.
eSwatini is a hotspot of cattle-rustling perpetrated by syndicates targeting livestock farmers along the porous border with both South Africa and Mozambique, which is not properly maintained.
A Swazi police report indicates that every year over the past five years, an average of about 1 600 cattle valued at more than E7-million have been rustled within eSwatini and to the neighbouring countries.
The problem is getting worse: a member of the Lundzi community police, Mfanufikile Khumalo, told eSwatini state radio that cattle farmers have lost 2 000 cattle worth E16-million since the beginning of this year.
This is despite co-operation between the police services of the three countries aimed at combating stock theft and other cross-border crime.
In 2014, eSwatini and South Africa signed a memorandum of understanding on this issue, followed a year later a memorandum with Mozambique on border security.
The agreements followed complaints of farmers in border areas about livestock being stolen and taken across the border for slaughter, breeding and public auction.
In South Africa, the rustled cattle are reportedly sold at auction in Ermelo and Belfast in Mpumalanga and Vryheid and Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal. The cattle moved to Mozambique are used for immediate “informal” slaughter and breeding purposes.
Eswatini’s national police commissioner, William Dlamini, said the agreements had strengthened the sharing of information and cooperation in recovering the animals.
Dlamini said the two police forces share the identification marks of eSwatini livestock with their Mozambican counterparts.
However, according to a police report seen by Inhlase, a significant increase in stock theft cases has been recorded in the four regions: Shiselweni, Lubombo, Manzini and Hhohho.
Operating under the cloak of darkness, the South African-based thieves target areas in the Shiselweni region that include Mahlabatsini, Zombodze Emuva, Makhosini, Gege, Hluthi and Lavumisa.
They drive the stolen cattle across the border to Manyandeni, Ntungwini, Piet Retief, Ntumbane and Ngwavuma.
The worst-affected areas in the Manzini region are Lundzi, Mpuluzi, Dwalile and Lushikishini. The stolen cattle from these areas end up in Mayflower and Dondoni in Mpumalanga. In the Hhohho region, the cross-border syndicates operate in Mantabeni, Sigangeni, Luhledweni and Ekupheleni. Their South African market is Mayflower.
In the Lubombo region along the eastern border, stock theft is rife in areas such as Mambane, Maphungwane, Mzilikazi, Makhewu, Sitsatsaweni and Shewula.
The cattle rustled from such areas are supplied to the criminals in Manyiseni in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and Cuataune, Manyagane, Changalane, Goba and Boane in Mozambique.
A latest report of the Swazi parliament on suggested interventions to curb stock theft, tabled by Minister of Agriculture, Jabulani Mabuza, also found that stock theft is on the increase along the border.
It found, for instance, that hundreds of cattle are taken monthly along the western eSwatini-South Africa border, in areas such as Lundzi, Mpuluzi, Sigangeni, Malutha and Sicunusa.
“It is true that stock theft is increasing, farmers are indeed losing millions of emalangeni to both local and cross-border stock theft. The main targets for the rustlers are cattle and goats,” Mabuza said in the report.
Criminals had particularly targeted a valuable breed of cattle worth E14 000 per head from one farmer.
A five-year police report seen by Inhlase showed that the cooperation in combating cross-border rustling has not borne fruit.
The total number of cattle stolen over the five years stood at 8 083, worth E36, 8-million. The report showed that emaSwati are also involved in stock theft. A total of 1 605 stolen cattle were recovered within eSwatini in the five-year period.
For emaSwati men, cattle are more than a status symbol – they are a source of livelihood.
Community police units have been formed to curb stock theft in the Lubombo region. The KaLanga Royal Kraal’s head of community police, Kaizer Mathonsi, traced the genesis of cross-border stock theft to the 1977-1992 Mozambican civil war between Frelimo and Renamo.
He said that Mozambican rustlers used to come armed with AK47s to steal cattle in broad daylight and drive them across the border into Mozambique. The Mozambicans claimed they were taking back animals stolen from them by emaSwati during the war.
“We’ve discovered that syndicates are operating – either Mozambicans we’ve hired to look after our cattle or organised emaSwati syndicates who collude with their Mozambican counterparts.
“The rustlers go for our prized cattle which they steal from the kraals at night or in the pastures during the day,” he said.
Mathonsi said that the co-operation between the Swazi and Mozambican police has not served its purpose. He cited a case of a bull valued at E10 000 stolen from Mzilikazi area that was found by local police at a farm owned by a Maputo city councillor. He claimed local police had failed to recover it and repatriate it to its owner.
“There’s very little, if any, co-operation between our police and the Mozambicans. From Mzilikazi, Makhewu, Lugongolweni and Sitsatsaweni areas, we’re getting more reports of cattle rustled from the kraals and pastures,” he said.
Along the eastern eSwatini-Mozambique border, another Sitsatsaweni resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said the porous borders between the two neighbouring countries was a major contributor to the surge in theft.
She told Inhlase that the dilapidated and collapsed border fence needed fixing to prevent livestock from eSwatini from straying into Mozambique. She further alleged that the rustlers had destroyed sections of the border fence.
Xolani Dlamini, director of veterinary and livestock services in the Ministry of Agriculture conceded the Swazi government’s failure to fix the border fence.
He said the ministry had budgeted E8-million to fix the fence in the 2019/2020 financial year. However, the government had diverted it to other pressing needs due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
The parliamentary report recommended the establishment of a fully-fledged borderline maintenance unit within the veterinary department in the Ministry of Agriculture. It also recommended that the current budget for the rehabilitation of fences should be used efficiently.
The parliamentary report said there was a need to renew co-operation between the three countries.
“The commissioners of police of the three countries should consider crafting instruments for better cooperation. The limitation of jurisdictions across borders and the reluctance of colleagues to assist in arresting cross-border cattle rustlers frustrate the frontline law enforcers,” it read.
The jurisdiction of the Stock Theft Act of 1982 and the authority to enforce and arrest rustlers is limited to eSwatini.
An unnamed police officer who has lost his herd of cattle at the Mhawu dip tank in the Hhohho region mentioned that the Stock Theft Act of 1982 applies only to eSwatini, yet the main buyers are in South Africa.
“Even if eSwatini cattle are seen in South Africa, emaSwati police cannot do anything because they have no jurisdiction to repossess them.
“They have to depend on the presence and cooperation of their South Africa counterparts” he said in the parliamentary report.