Forces behind the Vuwani fire

Burning issue:  Reinforcements have been called in to quell protests in Vuwani over a municipal boundary dispute. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Burning issue: Reinforcements have been called in to quell protests in Vuwani over a municipal boundary dispute. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Intelligence operatives and security forces deployed to Vuwani say they have identified chiefs, politicians and business people who are behind the violent protests, because they are intent on protecting the patronage of local municipalities.

Fifty schools have been damaged, some vandalised and others torched, and national intelligence and state security have been deployed to find out who is behind the criminal elements.

Some of the arrested suspects have told security agents how they were bought alcohol and drugs and told by prominent residents to burn down the schools.

According to the state intelligence sources, people who have been enjoying the patronage of several municipalities have hijacked the demarcation issue.

“Certain important people already have tenders with Makhado municipality and, if the area is moved under another municipality, they will lose out.”

And, one source added, the schools will have to be rebuilt and refurbished. “Who will benefit from that? Last year, they went after shops and this time they are specifically targeting schools. That is no coincidence. We are not far from finding out who is behind this.”

State Security Minister David Mahlobo warned this week that more people, including chiefs, politicians and business people allegedly involved in criminal activities in Vuwani, will be arrested.

Security reinforcements have been brought in from all over the country, including investigators, public order police, tactical response teams and spies. The area is vast, often with dense cover, and many areas are difficult to reach – and Vuwani is not the only area in Limpopo dealing with protests.

“In the area, we don’t have the manpower, so we have brought in officers from the Free State, Kruger, Gauteng and other parts. This the first time during a protest I have seen this level of cross-collaboration,” said a source.

The new Malamulele municipality stretches from Giyani town in the east to Thohoyandou in the northwest. There are more than 120 villages, including Vuwani, and, according to the last census, nearly one million people.

Makhado municipality consisted of four regions, one of which was Vuwani (plus Makhado/Louis Trichardt, Dzanani and Waterval).

Last week, at the height of the protests, two helicopters were deployed and dozens of Nyala armoured vehicles were posted along the main route from Vuwani towards Elim. This was only the beginning of the police’s efforts to quell the violence and intimidation. There have been several cases of direct threats to people’s lives.

The tactics employed throughout this protest, which started last year, have become fairly sophisticated. One police officer recalls how a Nyala was trapped and torched, after being diverted off the road into a trench. Tracks with spikes punctured the vehicle’s tyres.  “These people know exactly what they are doing. They strategise and plan. This area is too big for this to be sporadic.”

  This week, in the centre of Vuwani’s deserted business district, the Mail & Guardian saw a man talking to a group of youths. With a cellphone in one hand and a bottle of liquor in the other, he said in Venda that the meeting that night would be at a scrapyard near a major intersection. He promised to bring alcohol. Lots of it.

Down the street the “boss man” hailed an empty taxi and gave further instructions to block off certain roads and organise “the boys”. He had no problem telling strangers that no schooling will happen until he and his team decide on it. “In the Eighties, we also didn’t go to school because there was a war. Those schoolchildren would be just fine,” he said, before sauntering off towards a white Pajero.

On Wednesday evening, another nine suspects were arrested, but they are only the small guys, according those close to the investigation. “These are the guys who are buying the booze and drugs for these kids who are causing havoc,” said one official. “This is not a normal strike.”

Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba is a multi award-winning journalist who is passionate about data, human interest issues, governance and everything that isn’t on social media. She is an author, an avid reader and trying to find the answer to the perfect balance between investigative journalism, online audiences and the decline in newspaper sales. It’s a rough world and a rewarding profession. Read more from Athandiwe Saba


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