Alleged Congolese rebel fighters arrested earlier this week had agreed to pose as "potential game rangers" at an "anti-rhino poaching training camp" in Modimolle, Limpopo, according to evidence that emerged in the Pretoria regional court on Thursday.
The state is also basing its case on to other evidence, including an emailed "wish list" of high-calibre weapons, recorded meetings with undercover police and video footage of the men posing with assault rifles, in an attempt to ensnare the 19 men, who include 18 Congolese nationals living in South Africa and another Democratic Republic of Congo-born but naturalised American, James Kazango.
Kazango, the state alleges, is the "newly elected" leader of a "dissident organisation" based in the DRC called the Union des Nationaliste pour le Renouveau (the Union of Nationalists for Renewal, or UNR).
State prosecutor Shaun Abrahams told the court on Thursday that the Congolese nationals were charged with contravention of two sections of South Africa's anti-mercenary legislation, engaging in mercenary activity and, alternatively, the rendering of military assistance.
The accused were not asked to plead and the matter was postponed to February 14 to allow them to seek legal representation.
However, Abrahams, in contextualising the background to an apparent undercover sting operation conducted by the Hawks (otherwise known as the directorate for priority crime investigation) for magistrate Maryke de la Rey, told the court of a web of clandestine meetings between Hawks officers posing as military trainers and individuals whom the state alleges are part of the UNR.
According to Abrahams, the UNR "consists of between 7 000 to 9 000 rebels who are dissatisfied with the leadership of the government of the DRC under President Joseph Kabila".
Abrahams said that the Hawks received "credible information" in September last year that the UNR was "looking for mercenaries in South Africa to attempt to overthrow" Kabila's government.
Subsequently, undercover police officers James Jansen and James Neethling met one of the accused, Kabuka Lugaba Adrian Kilele, who it is alleged is a representative and recruiter of the UNR in South Africa.
What allegedly followed was "numerous meetings", held in restaurants in Sandton, Norwood, Pretoria and Midrand, during which Kilele allegedly recruited Neethling and Jansen to "provide specialised military training to the accused and/or to the UNR".
The state also alleges that during these meetings with Kilele and others, including erstwhile UNR leader Etienne Kabila – who is still at large in South Africa together with someone identified as "General Yakatumba", allegedly the military leader of the UNR – the Congolese nationals present had confirmed to the police that they were members of the UNR and were intent on overthrowing the Kabila regime through violent means.
Joseph Kabila was returned to the DRC presidency in November 2011 in what is widely regarded as a fraudulent election result. Following the international community's recognition of the Kabila government, there has been widespread protest among the Congolese diaspora, including in South Africa, Belgium and Canada.
Abrahams said the suspects had indicated to the undercover police officers that they "didn't have access to finances, but would be able to pay mercenaries with mining concessions".
It is also alleged that during email correspondence between Kilele and the undercover officers, the former had requested a "wish list" that included 5 000 AK-47s, 1000 grenades, 230 machine guns of various types, 20 land missiles, 20 air missiles, 100 revolvers, 50 satellite phones, 200 Motorola radios and $125 000 in cash.
However, it is precisely this sting operation that Congolese nationals, including the wives of some of those arrested, who met the Mail & Guardian on Wednesday in the Johannesburg suburb of Yeoville, believe is part of a larger plan by the South African government to entrap, discredit and quell opposition and protest in South Africa to the Kabila regime.
Although the people interviewed by the M&G were reluctant to divulge too much information about what may have compelled the 18 South African-based Congolese to go to Modimolle, many said they would do the same.
The suggestion among many of those interviewed was that local men had gone to Modimolle because they were increasingly frustrated about their circumstances in South Africa and desperate enough to follow any invitation that would result in the removal of Kabila and facilitate their eventual return to the DRC.
Said one man who had been living in South Africa for 18 years and who chose to remain anonymous for fear of police retribution: "Kabila stole an election [in 2011] and the South Africa government keeps him in power because [President Jacob] Zuma and his family are using our country as a kitchen to eat.
"This is happening while I'm living here 18 years with just a temporary asylum seeker permit. I still don't have a green identity document, so I can't work. My life here is shit, so if somebody told me 'Come, I know a way to get rid of Kabila', I would go too."
There is a degrading sense of flux about the lives of Congolese exiles in South Africa, many existing as temporary refugees.
This is accompanied by anger and frustration increasingly directed towards the country's government and ruling elite.
'We are nothing here'
There is a sense that, since South African diplomatic intervention in brokering elections in the DRC in 2006, this country's elite, from former President Thabo Mbeki's government and those connected to it to Zuma's, has been more concerned with mining interests and construction contracts in the DRC than it has been with entrenching democracy.
Said another, pointing to the rubbish-strewn, decrepit streets of Hillbrow where the homeless were gathering to sleep near the public pool: "We are nothing here. People are getting angry and, yes, we will reach breaking point where we will go back and fight Kabila if South Africa does nothing.
"We supported the ANC, we gave money to the children of Soweto when we were in school and look at how we are treated."
The M&G has established that about six of the men charged are from Yeoville, whereas others travelled to Modimolle from other parts of the city and country.
A female who identified herself as Licie Ngobila said her partner, Alan Muyembe Bakajika and the father of her two children, had left their home in Cape Town on Sunday night and she had heard nothing from him since.
"He said he was going to work and would be back in two days. I [have] heard nothing from him since and he left his cellphone with me," she said.
Ngobila said she had travelled up to Johannesburg after news of the arrests in Modimolle broke.
According to Abrahams, the state will oppose bail for the 19 accused.