Durban – For hours the driver in a silver Isuzu double-cab attempted to jump the border.
Driving without the lights on, the man tried to find a spot in the fence along the border with Mozambique to slip across.
Each time his attempt was thwarted as car-tracking vehicles and SA National Defence Force (SANDF) personnel closed in on the hijacked car.
Hours earlier the Verulam-registered double-cab had been hijacked in Gauteng, and the race was on for the criminal syndicate to make it to Mozambique.
Eventually at 4am on November 27 the driver got desperate. He floored the accelerator and aimed the vehicle at the cattle fence that divides the border, but never made it.
The double-cab hit a line of boulders, and was trapped on a large rock. The driver escaped, but the recovered vehicle had become the latest success of Operation Ilitshe.
What had stopped the Isuzu was a weapon so simple many are surprised it works.
It is a line of rocks along sections of the fence line, and authorities say it has reduced the number of stolen vehicles crossing the border by a fifth.
Between Muzi and Farazela in northern KwaZulu-Natal is a 26km stretch of border where most of South Africa’s stolen and hijacked vehicles leave the country.
For a long time this has been smuggling territory. In the 1990s, gun runners brought weapons into South Africa. Criminals began trafficking drugs, contraband, humans and lately, vehicles.
Lieutenant-Colonel Wollie Wolmarans of Joint Operations KwaZulu-Natal tactical headquarters, said hijackers usually used one of two methods to cross the border.
“Someone on the Mozambican side will often cut the fence 10 minutes before the car arrives,” says Wolmarans.
“The cutter will then flash his cellphone in the direction of the car.”
The other way of crossing was to find a weak spot in the fence and drive straight through. Often the soldiers would get there too late, and on some occasions the hijackers would stand on the other side of the border and taunt them.
“They would flash their penises at them, or start braaiing,” says Wolmarans.
Besides pleas to their commanding officers to be allowed to shoot at them, the soldiers could do nothing.
On average, Wolmarans said, 80 vehicles, most of them 4X4s, were taken across the border in a month. The Christmas period was the busiest, with up to 110 vehicles crossing. This year, by the middle of this month, the number of crossings was just 11.
Wolmarans put the brakes on the booming industry after a visit to a stone quarry in Ndumo last year. For a long time the SANDF had been trying to find a way to stop the hijacked vehicles from making the crossing.
Wolmarans said they had considered building a trench along the border or using railway sleepers as a barrier.
“The trench idea was considered unsafe because it would fill with water and livestock or children could fall inside.
“The railway sleepers were considered too expensive,” he said. But it was the Bombo stone quarry that brought Wolmarans his Eureka moment. He spotted a pile of rocks. “It was as clear as daylight. We had our obstacle.”
Wolmarans was later given the premier’s award for the innovation.
The rocks are considered waste and the owner was willing to hand them over.
Using army trucks, troops place the rocks along the fence line.
The plan eventually is to have rocks along the length of the border, but for now boulders are placed at hot spots.
One is Gate 6, an informal crossing point the community uses to enter Mozambique.
The community jokes that all those dirt roads that criss-cross the border area lead to Gate 6. It is here that Major Bridgette Bosman and her troops from 1 Special Services Battalion spend much of their time patrolling.
Her challenge is to have her soldiers in position to intercept a hijacked vehicle.
This section of the border does not have as many illegal vehicle crossings as last year, but what she and others have noticed is that the criminals are becoming more violent. Wolmarans believes it is out of desperation because they can’t move as freely across the border any longer.
Hijackers have fired on troops while in pursuit.
In the past three months there have been three shooting incidents. In one, a dagga smuggler tried to take a weapon off a soldier near the Swazi border.
The smuggler was shot and injured in the tussle.
In another incident the driver of an Isuzu double-cab fired on troops, close to Gate 6.
“We returned fire,” said Lieutenant Daniel Mthembu.
“The driver stopped the car and ran into the bush.” Troops later swept the area, but couldn’t find the driver.
Another modus operandi for the hijackers is to take the driver, and sometimes passengers, hostage and take them across the border with them.
But for now, with Christmas tomorrow, the border line between Muzi and Farazela is eerily quiet.
By now there should have been a spike in the number of vehicles crossing the fence.
Wolmarans hopes it is a sign of things to come as troops remain alert waiting for the next attempt.
WhatsApp helps to capture hijackers
The technology helping law enforcement take on hijackers along the Mozambican border is something we all have access to – WhatsApp.
The social media platform allows car tracking companies, police and the South African National Defence Force to co-ordinate their movements along the border to be in the right place to intercept criminals.
A typical route hijackers take to this corner of the border between South Africa and Mozambique usually begins at the Phelandaba crossroads. If the car was stolen in Durban it would come up from the south; from Gauteng, the east.
It is here they slip on to the dirt roads that head north. These then take them to the border.
Usually as they drive, one of the hijackers will be searching for the tracking device. If he finds it, the law enforcement authorities lose the track, and then have to set up roadblocks looking for the car.
If not, WhatsApp is used to co-ordinate the search, with various law enforcement authorities, and the game is on.