Police are reluctant to divulge details after the rescue operation of a kidnapped foreign businessman in an early-morning raid in Johannesburg and the arrest of nine people, including several foreign nationals.
On Sunday afternoon, officers conducting follow-up operations arrested four people, including a woman, who are allegedly linked to a kidnapping syndicate.
The syndicate is suspected of being involved with other organised crime gangs linked to kidnappings around the country.
The four were caught as they tried to break into a house in Kliprivier, south of Johannesburg, police said. The house, which had been raided by police on Thursday, was allegedly used by the kidnappers to stash weapons and hide foreign military uniforms.
Last week, five people — three of them South Africans — were arrested, bringing to nine the number of people arrested.
While reports have emerged of the gang’s alleged involvement with extremist groups and a New Year’s Eve shooting in Melville that left six people dead, police have downplayed the allegations.
Police spokesperson Brig Vish Naidoo said detectives were only investigating the nine in regards to the kidnapping and illegal possession of firearms and ammunition.
Commenting on Sunday’s arrests, Naidoo said they occurred after authorities received an anonymous tip-off. He said the first leg of the police operation began on Thursday when detectives arrested five men in Johannesburg’s Fordsburg area.
After questioning the men, investigators were led to the Klipspruit house, where they arrested two foreign nationals and recovered seven rifles, four handguns and ammunition, which had been buried in the garden.
“Along with the ammunition and weapons, police also recovered foreign military uniforms. Crime intelligence officers are looking into the source of the uniforms and weapons.”
Naidoo declined to comment on the origin of the uniform. “The investigation is sensitive and we cannot risk jeopardising it.”
The foreign nationals appeared in the Vereeniging magistrate’s court on Monday on illegal immigration charges and charges of the illegal possession of firearms and ammunition.
He said the three South African men, who were arrested in Fordsburg, appeared on kidnapping charges in the Johannesburg magistrate’s court on Monday.
After Thursday’s arrests, police were led to a house in Kensington, in the east of Johannesburg, where they rescued the businessman during the early hours of Friday morning.
“Three men who had been holding the businessman unfortunately managed to escape.”
Describing Sunday’s arrest, Naidoo said officers received a tip-off about a break-in and returned to the Klipspruit house.
“When they arrived, they found four men and a woman breaking into the house and trying to remove certain items. It was established that the woman was the wife of the homeowner, who is on the run.”
He said the four would appear the Vereeniging magistrate’s court soon on charges of defeating the ends of justice.
Naidoo said they were only investigating those who had been arrested or kidnapping and illegal possession of firearms.
“Given how they were operating and their level of sophistication, we can say there is a strong likelihood that they were involved in other kidnappings.”
Asked about links to extremism organisations and the New Year’s Eve shootings, which national police commissioner Lt-Gen Khehla Sithole alluded to after Thursday’s arrests, Naidoo said there were no known links.
“The questions were raised, but for now the suspects definitely are only linked to kidnappings, which we can conclusively say were for self-enrichment.”
Southern Africa ‘fertile ground’ for extremism
Jakkie Cilliers, head of African futures and innovation at the Institute for Security Studies, said SA was a prime target for kidnappings given its relative wealth compared to other countries on the continent.
He said the rise in kidnappings reflected a decline in the criminal justice system and efficiency of intelligence services.
“For a number of years, foreign organised crime syndicates have been coming into SA to commit crimes, especially those such as kidnappings. With law enforcement deteriorating to such a degree, foreign criminal syndicates operates in SA with impunity,” he said.
Cilliers said it was well known that kidnapping syndicates used ransoms as a source of finance for other criminal networks.
“Extremist organisations are able to take root when there is a collapse or failure in governance as we see happening in northern Mozambique.
“Such rooting and linkages with violent criminal organisations is happening across southern Africa, including in SA. Three years ago I would say it was unlikely that extremism would find a footing in SA, but opportunities are being created by local governance failures, which have seen the creation of fertile ground for these kinds of organisations.”
He described the situation as highly concerning. “The absence of proper border security and policing failures allows these groups [kidnappers] to gain footholds to operate here.”
Private investigator Jack Brice said intelligence showed there was a definite link between kidnapping syndicates and foreign-based crime organisations. He said those behind the kidnappings were typically well-trained, heavily armed and highly organised.
“These crimes are definitely on the rise. There is a lot of money made through ransoms, which vary between R20m and R40m,” he said.
“The ransoms are used to fund the commission of other crimes, including the purchasing of weapons and organisations involved in extremism.”
Brice said those kidnapped were often wealthy foreign businessmen operating in SA.
“Kidnappings are not carried out by Mickey Mouse organisations. These groups do their homework, using their own extensive intelligence networks to scope out their targets often months before they have even arrived in SA.”