Airport police named SAPS detective team of the year

From drug busts worth millions to a stolen Blackberry in Jeffrey’s Bay and a minister’s lost iPad: there is no crime too big or small for the crack detective team at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport.

Fresh from being acknowledged as the South African Police Service’s national detective team of the year for 2016, the team’s leader, Lesiba Matsetela, quietly brims with pride.

The 48-year-old ticks off his team’s successful convictions, recalling exact dates and places. Among them are 123 successful convictions in dealing and possession of illicit drugs and it has confiscated four cases of unregulated medicines worth R156.4-million in the past two years.

It’s no surprise then that Matsetela is known as “Hunter”.

A large part of their business lies in sniffing out plastic-wrapped bullets of illegal substances swallowed by hapless drug mules. Hiding cocaine under tape on one’s body is no longer an effective method of concealment.

A few weeks ago, in separate incidents, two British citizens tried to smuggle khat leaves through customs to Norway. When chewed, khat creates a stimulating drug-like effect. The leaves were hidden in the smugglers’ bags, working on the assumption that the “lax” South African customs would not pay attention to “organic” khat leaves.

“If you don’t know the leaf you’ll mistake it for morogo – wild spinach – these suspects [may] have [been] given as souvenirs,” says Matsetela.

He recalls one particularly tricky case that engrossed his team for four months. Merchandise had been stolen from the warehouse of cargo-handling company Swissport twice in two months. The first time Matsetela’s team failed to recover the goods. The second time the suspects made away with R5-million worth of merchandise.

The team was determined to redeem itself. They worked sleepless nights and finally made their arrests. It turned out that the five suspects had been getting information from a former Swissport employee.

The team found every suspect.

One had been in hiding at home and was ambushed while sleeping in a backroom shack in Bushbuckridge in Limpopo.

The smoking gun that eventually put him away for 15 years was a pistol taken from the police. The detectives found it tucked away inside an old video cassette recorder in Thembisa on the East Rand, along with some of the stolen merchandise.

“I think of us as working like a soccer team and as the coach I always should be there, through training and at matches,” says Matsetela, who grew up in rural Limpopo. His pet peeve is corrupt police officers. His team was once able to gather evidence against four police officers in the airport, on short notice.

The suspects had solicited $100 in exchange for “confiscated” passports from mostly African foreigners. They were suspended and imprisoned for four years.

Corruption is just greed, says Matsetela: “My father smoked and drank all his life, but he still inculcated a principle in me of not stealing from people.

“I don’t drink or smoke, but how people live with themselves knowing that they’re benefitting off people’s sweat boggles me – nxa!”

We make it make sense

If this story helped you navigate your world, subscribe to the M&G today for just R30 for the first three months

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.”

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

Tunisia struggles to grow more wheat as Ukraine war bites

Since the Ukraine war sent global cereal prices soaring, import-dependent Tunisia has announced a push to grow all its own durum wheat, the basis for local staples like couscous and pasta.

Democracy under serious and sustained attack from within the US

Far-right Republicans and the conservative supreme court are working on a carefully laid plan to turn the US into a repressive regime

Grilling for UK leader Boris Johnson after top ministers quit

The prime minister has faced lawmakers' questions after two of the most senior figures in his government resigned. The finance and health ministers said they could no longer tolerate the culture of scandal

Declare an ‘energy emergency’, says National Planning Commission

The commission said the goals of the National Development Plan, which it is charged with advancing, ‘cannot be achieved without energy security’

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…