In what is being hailed as a landmark case, a Zululand traditional healer has been arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit a crime after he allegedly gave muti to a suspected rhino poacher to help him evade arrest.
The healer, of Obonjeni in northern KwaZulu-Natal, was arrested last week by members of the Durban organised crime unit after police nabbed a suspected rhino poacher.
Bheki Mthembu, 55, was arrested when police, acting on a tip-off, arrested Mozambican poaching suspect Joseph Tamele, 35, as he was about to enter Phinda Game Reserve. Mthembu also played a part in setting up the rhino kill, police argued.
Investigating officer JP Roux said Tamele had been with two other suspected poachers near Phinda, but his companions managed to flee. “We’re hot on their heels and they will be arrested soon,” Roux said.
Both suspects face charges of conspiracy to commit a crime, poaching, and possessing an unlicensed firearm and ammunition. Police recovered a .458 rifle with five rounds of ammunition.
Roux said that after his arrest, Tamele had led officers to Mthembu, who he said had supplied him with the muti.
“Our team has been working on a number of rhino poaching cases in the area. The arrest of the traditional healer is not only a landmark case, but it will hopefully lead us to more arrests,” he said.
“The traditional healer also played a part in the crime by setting up the poaching attempt.”
Police spokesman Captain Thulani Zwane confirmed the arrests, saying the suspects had appeared in the Ubombo Magistrate’s Court.
“They are currently detained at the Jozini police station,” said Zwane, adding that the suspects were expected to make their bail application today. Roux said the state would oppose bail.
On the use of muti by suspected criminals, Roux said it was not an isolated case.
It had been mentioned in other crimes, including ATM bombings where criminals had approached traditional healers to help them avoid detection and harm.
During the Marikana strike where 34 miners were shot dead in August, it was claimed that some of the miners may have consumed muti from a traditional healer which they believed would make them invincible and shield them from police bullets.
Expressing his shock at the latest case, Sazi Mhlongo, an inyanga and president of the KwaZulu-Natal Traditional Healers’ Association, said the suspect was probably a witch doctor and not a traditional healer as he claimed.
“We’re totally against people who give criminals concoctions on the pretext that they are traditional healers,” he said angrily.
Mhlongo said the association, was concerned about the killing of rhinos and was working with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife to highlight the scourge. “We are fighting to save and preserve the rhino and yet we have people, who claim to be our own, selling concoctions that supposedly make criminals invincible. There is no such (thing),” he said.
Mhlongo said if found guilty, the suspect should face the maximum sentence. “He should be made an example, because these people are giving us a bad name.
“We heard of a similar case in Marikana and we’ve even heard of murderers who say they go to traditional healers to get muti that makes them invincible to police. There is no such muti and people who claim to do this are nothing but witch doctors,” he said.