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Stolen ammo poses security threat amid failure to protect high-risk consignments

The theft of some 1.5-million rounds of ammunition in Durban last week has raised questions about why harbour authorities, the South African Revenue Service and the South African Police Service (SAPS) were unable to protect the high-risk consignment in the current volatile environment in KwaZulu-Natal.

Acting minister in the presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni this week confirmed that the shipment at a depot “is part of the basis why we said this is part of a plan to undermine the authority of the state”, in reference to last week’s wave of violence in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, which saw shopping malls looted and in come cases burnt.

Ntshavheni told a media briefing on Thursday that some of the bullets had been recovered, but sources told the Mail & Guardian that the bulk of the 14-tonne consignment remains missing.

“SAPS was unable to control the area. Criminals looted the shipment and stole in excess of one-million rounds of ammunition. The vast majority of the ammunition was 9mm rounds destined for sale to private individuals nationally, law enforcement as well as private security companies,” Marco van Niekerk, the chief executive of Outdoor Investment Holdings, whose subsidiary Formalito imported the ammunition, told the M&G.

Nine-millimetre bullets are the most commonly used ammunition and can be used to in most of the same calibre pistols in South Africa. They are also most commonly used in house and armed robberies and car hijackings, according to Willem Els, a senior analyst in organised crime and terrorism at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

The Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks) will now have to determine who is to blame for the theft, which happened when hordes of looters flooded the cargo terminals in the port in Mobeni, an industrial area in Durban, breaking open several shipping containers.

Some security sources said it appeared as if the container with ammunition was targeted while others in the same vicinity were left untouched. The container had two seals, which only needed a bolt cutter to open and thus offered no real challenge to the thieves.

The question also remains how 14 tonnes of ammunition was carried or transported away from the container without much of a trace or the police intervening, one security specialist said.

Police Minister Bheki Cele said last weekend some boxes of ammunition with about 11 000 bullets had been found in various parts of Mobeni. He said an investigation was underway to determine the destination of the shipment and — if the police had not granted permission for it to leave the harbour — how it was moved within the port’s restricted area and who facilitated it.

Sources acquainted with the circumstances leading up to the theft said a number of suspects within the police and port environment were currently under a cloud of suspicion, including for negligence. 

The Hawks have since taken over the investigation from the police’s detective branch. Van Niekerk confirmed he was meeting the investigators from the Hawks on Monday, while the Hawks referred all questions to Cele’s office.

According to Van Niekerk, the ammunition was intended for use by citizens, security companies and armed forces as all of these were regular customers. A full set of documents for the legal shipment was provided to and accepted by the SAPS on 6 July already, meaning the police were well aware of what would be arriving at the Durban port.

“At the time the ammunition was stolen from Mobeni the consignment fell under the authority and control of the clearing agents, customs and port authorities and the SAPS. At no point was it under our control. Our company has been importing and distributing firearms and ammunition for more than 55 years, so we understand the intricacies perfectly well,” said Van Niekerk.

“Previously, shipments of this nature, which arrived in Durban, have been permitted to be released under embargo for inspection in Johannesburg or Pretoria. But after several requests for release police remained insistent that this inspection be done in Durban and directed the shipment for inspection to a local Durban transport yard. The container’s permanent seal can only be broken under supervision from SAPS during this stage of importation and transport.”

He said on the night of Sunday 11 July, the shipment was delivered to the transport yard ahead of the inspection with armed escort. Because of the nature of the cargo, it was not permitted to remain at the port for too long, or unprotected. It was also impossible to deliver the shipment directly to the inspection depot because it was closed because of the violence taking place.

Target: Looters and arsonists attacked Mobeni during the unrest. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

“On Monday 12 July, the SAPS were again duly notified that the shipment was awaiting inspection at the transporters’ yard. But before the shipment could be inspected and released from customs, looting criminals overran Mobeni on Wednesday. If you consider the dates, it is evident that there was no sense of urgency by the authorities. One should, however, in fairness, also consider the crises they were facing,” Van Niekerk said, adding: “SAPS was unable to control the area.”

“We hope that the SAPS will urgently investigate the theft, which has serious ramifications, with the intensity and seriousness required.”

From the document listing the ammunition, which the M&G has seen, it was imported from Brazil. Apart from the 9mm calibre the container also carried .38 calibre bullets widely used for Beretta and Colt revolvers, and .44 calibre bullets for the powerful Magnum revolver and guns.

The ISS’s Els said it was important to firstly determine who stole and dispatched the ammunition.

“Usually when arms are confiscated from criminals, they only have a few bullets, indicating that they don’t have much ammunition to spare,” he said. “Flooding the criminal market with a massive consignment such as this can create a very dangerous situation in an already volatile province.”

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