Mabuza’s assassination—the death of an alleged kingpin and the complex social fabric of rhino poaching.

By June 30, 2021July 1st, 2021Editorial

Caption: Alleged rhino poaching kingpin Petros Mabuza’s funeral.

In broad daylight on Thursday, June 17, Petros Sydney Mabuza was sitting behind the wheel of his double-cab pick-up outside a gas station in Hazyview. Moments later, according to witnesses and CCTV footage, three men arrived in a black VW Polo and riddled his red vehicle with a hail of bullets. After spending some time at the scene, thought to be checking for firearms and cash, they sped off, leaving Mabuza bloodied and fatally injured.

Hazyview is a modest, sub-tropical farming town on the lower slopes of the Great Escarpment that rises to 7,000 feet and more. Some 5,000 people live in this hub of South Africa’s banana and macadamia nut industries. But it serves a much broader community in Mpumalanga, a province of about 4.7 million people where such is the interwoven tapestry of urban/rural sprawl; it’s not easy to see where towns end and the countryside begins. The roads and byways that branch from the north-south R538 highway bustle non-stop with long-haul trucks and mini-bus taxis frantically racing people to school, to markets, their places of work. Journeying further afield, they ferry humans and goods to the commercial frenzy of Johannesburg 261 miles to the west. The town is also a gateway to the southern sections of the Kruger National Park, a few miles to the east.

Hazyview is no stranger to violent crime, but as a whole, Mpumalanga is calmer and more peaceful than many other parts of South Africa. So, news of the brazen, public killing of one of its most prominent citizens instantly spread through social media, local radio stations, and national news networks.

Mabuza, also widely known as “Mr. Big” and more respectfully by his clan name, Mshengu, was the wealthy owner of many houses in the district and was renowned for his lavish lifestyle and wild parties. His real notoriety, however, came from his many alleged underworld dealings. These included rumors of involvement in cash-in-transit heists, being a loan shark who confiscated people’s houses and cars, a bully in the taxi business, and a local kingpin in the lucrative illegal rhino horn trade. Even his funeral was marked with typical flamboyance—his coffin arriving by helicopter and then leading a long motorcade of mourners to a grandstand memorial service.

Mr. Big’s association with rhino horn smuggling dates back to 2005, but it took until 2018 before enough evidence was assembled to secure his arrest. This event, captured in the documentary The Last Horns of Africa, unfolds with the tensions and excitement of a Hollywood plot—well worth a watch for an insight into the brutal, cruel world of poaching and the difficulties of tracking down and arresting the top perpetrators. At the time of his death, Mabuza, thought to be responsible for as much as 70 percent of all poaching in Kruger, was out on bail and awaiting trial. Adding a further twist to the intrigue, the lead investigator in the case, Colonel Leroy Bruwer, was shot dead in 2020 by gunmen armed with high-caliber weapons while on his way to work. Bruwer was a highly respected member of the “Hawks,” the elite Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (DPCI), which targets organized, economic, and other serious crimes, including corruption and rhino poaching.

The Mpumalanga police are now on the trail of Mabuza’s killers, but a motive still has to be established for his murder. He could have been “marked” for any number of reasons, such were the many irons he had in the criminal pie. Indeed, a man such as Mr. Big would have made an enemy or two in his long underworld career.

Notwithstanding the legal niceties of no crime justifying the commission of another, plenty of people in conservation would have given their thumbs up to Mabuza’s killing. “Good riddance” will have been muttered heartfelt under many breaths and no doubt at more forceful volumes as well. Such feelings would have been particularly strong amongst those who felt that despite the seemingly watertight case against him, Mabuza would eventually have gotten off scot-free, having “captured” key individuals in the criminal justice system. Be that as it may, to many, Mabuza was altogether a thoroughly nasty piece of work deserving of little or no sympathy, but others have clearly mourned his passing. You only have to read the condolences and praises below the Youtube video of his funeral to discern a very distinct counter-current to the outbursts of condemnation. Remarks of respect follow one after another, while some have dubbed him a hero and philanthropist, a latter-day Robin Hood bestowing his ill-gotten largesse amongst favorites and the poor alike.

And so, the death of an alleged crime boss exposes the highly complex relationship between poaching, the law, conservation imperatives, and impoverished and often angry communities living alongside protected areas. The Kruger National Park presents a classic example. On several occasions, I have flown northwards, low over the eastern border of Kruger, and each time I have been left aghast at the contrast on either side of the fence line.

To the right, 4.8 million acres of near-pristine landscape stretch to the north and south and eastwards to the low ridge of the Lebombo mountains that mark South Africa’s boundary with Mozambique. Mozambique, one of the most poverty-stricken countries globally, is shackled by monstrous external debt, volatile energy prices, and an alarming Islamist insurgency in the north.

To the left of Kruger’s vast natural resource, the scene in Mpumalanga isn’t quite as economically bleak as in Mozambique. But it is pretty desperate, nonetheless. But for a thin buffer of private reserves draped along parts of Kruger’s edge, the landscape is one of small villages surrounded by an endless pattern of smallholdings that clad the rolling hills. In the summer months, the rains turn the dirt roads into quagmires, while in the cold, dry months of winter, they are rock hard and churned to choking dust by passing vehicles. There are few schools, fewer functioning hospitals, not many shops for essential supplies, and almost no jobs­—those there are, are often a long and expensive taxi ride away in the towns or on the mostly white-owned farms of the region.

Even a cursory delve into the history of the region will reveal that Kruger began its life just under a century ago and was predicated on preserving the land (presumed to have been depleted by black hunters) for the recreational purposes of white people. In fact, it was the agricultural and industrial transformation of the region and the activities of white meat and sport hunters that had accounted for the lack of animals. And so ensued deprivation and hardship for thousands of indigenous families who were moved willy nilly from their settlements that dated back over multiple generations.

This truth is entirely contradictory to the view that prevailed throughout South Africa’s apartheid years, and that probably still holds as the truth for a minority of (again) white citizens. As noted conservation historian Jane Carruthers wrote in 1994 in The Journal of Southern African Studies: “South Africans generally assume that the Kruger National Park was called after Paul Kruger, the president of the Transvaal Republic, in order to commemorate his personal interest in nature conservation, and in particular his struggle against considerable opposition to found the national park which now bears his name.” However, she continues, “the connection between the Kruger and national parks has been deliberately fomented to serve Afrikaner Nationalist political purposes. Chief among these has been the advancement of republican and apartheid ideology, the denigration of Britain, a need for international respectability, and the promotion of Afrikaner scientists. It is contended that constructing the myth of Paul Kruger to create an Afrikaner culture in the Kruger National Park has positioned the park firmly with the white Afrikaner Nationalist arena. This has important implications for the future of national parks in the changing political circumstances of South Africa.”

Indeed, the politics of South Africa have changed, but memories run deep, and still, there are elderly black people alive to recount past injustices which continue to be felt by the young people of today. No wonder resentment at the confiscation of historical lands remains alongside a disdain for a conservation icon still seen as a playground from which all but the few local people who work there are excluded. Compounding the antipathy is the sad fact that in the years following the demise of apartheid, not much has changed. As we have seen, people alongside the park remain poor and deprived, miserably failed by national and local government, which have brought nothing but a continuing lack of services through the twin evils of incompetence and corruption.

Stories of the relatively easy pickings of rhino horn poaching must seem very tempting in such an environment. And especially so for young men for whom a horn or two passed on to middlemen will earn them more than a year’s wages, in the unlikely event that they had a job in the first place, of course.

How can this prevailing circumstance be countered? By protection?

To some extent, it has to be through protection policies, for the rate of poaching is entirely unsustainable. Yes, the number of rhinos killed for their horns has dropped in recent years. But arguably, this is mainly because wholesale poaching has resulted in fewer animals to pursue, and they are becoming harder to find. And now that we are very hesitantly emerging from Covid-19 lockdowns, which indeed made life difficult for poachers, there is every expectation that efforts to track down the rhinos of Kruger and elsewhere will again intensify.

Technology will help­—infrared cameras that track human body-shapes, highly sensitive microphone networks, and state-of-the-art communication systems can all play a role. And so will conservation soldiers on the ground, brave men and women prepared to go head-to-head against poachers frequently better equipped than they are. These heroes are also vital in the “war” against poaching. But ultimately, it is a war that cannot be won if military-style enforcement is the only ace in the pack.

Effective policing and the apprehension of transgressors need the backup of sound laws and the power to enforce them through effective court action and sentencing. But even these “weapons” will ultimately prove ineffective without a fundamental change in society as a whole. For few, if any, wars are convincingly won where the underlying will of the people faces those seen as the aggressors. It didn’t work in Vietnam, and it didn’t work in Afghanistan, and it’s not working in Israel and Palestine. And it certainly didn’t work here in South Africa in the apartheid era.

In the long-term, the only chance of saving Kruger for future generations, or any conservation area for that matter, is through the wellbeing of surrounding communities. Only when communities reject poaching outright as an income source and are prepared to testify willingly in court against criminals in their midst will change come. Only when men like Mabuza are seen for the miscreants they really are—insatiably greedy men in it for their own power and fortune making. Only then will the tide turn.

All this can be done, but only with the unremitting resolve and determination of leaders in government, business, and society. Leaders who will fight for good education, good hospitals, and sound, equitable prospects for hard-working people in thriving, locally-owned industries.

Imagine a Kruger with positively invested communities in Mozambique and South Africa, and where unfettered rangers can get on with the business of caring for wild animals and their habitat.

Is there truly such a resolve? That is the question.