Trainee sangomas (traditional healers) during a graduation ceremony. Sangomas are a very important cog in the wheel of how cash heists come together, says one respondent.Picture: Boxer Ngwenya

From the horror of the 2006 Villa Nora heist – in which four security guards were burnt alive in their armoured vehicle after a ferocious fight-back against highly-trained mercenaries – to the 2014 robbery of a cash centre in Witbank, where a gang made off with almost R104 million after impersonating police officers, 'Heist! South Africa’s Cash in Transit Crime Epidemic Uncovered', written by Anneliese Burgess, provides unprecedented insight into an endemic crime wave that increased by  49% in the first eight months of last year alone, a phenomenon that some analysts warn could bring South Africa to its knees. This is an extract from the book.

On a January morning in 2015, a group of about 10 heavily armed men entered the upmarket Bedford Centre shopping mall in the east of Joburg.

It was 11.15am. They moved with purpose, heading straight for the central escalator leading to the banking hall, where they opened fire on two SBV guards with AK47s and 9mm pistols.

The guards returned fire, and for 10 minutes the mall was a war zone. When the shooting stopped, the majority of the gang had escaped with cash boxes containing about R4 million. The shopping centre looked like a slaughterhouse. Three customers and two SBV guards were wounded. Two robbers had been shot – one was lying in the parking lot, the other at the foot of the escalator.

One detail, in an otherwise typical violent crime scene, suggests that the attackers had entered the mall that morning believing they had divine protection. A tiny bottle, found next to one of the wounded robbers, led investigators to conclude that, in common with most heists, the robbers had visited a sangoma beforehand to get guidance, protection and muti.

An article in the Bedfordview and Edenvale News quoted a witness who said that the “bravery” shown by the criminals on entering the mall was “out of the ordinary”. 

A sangoma quoted in the article said the attackers must have believed they were invisible: “You do not just walk into a mall with AK47 rifles, position yourself to attack and start shooting at guards. It takes a lot of determination and some kind of powers. Although I don’t believe that muti can make one invisible, I know it can make them oblivious to their surroundings and to subsequently believe they are above the law. It is like being on a high.”

One of the most illuminating – and credible – analyses of the role sangomas and inyangas play in cash-in-transit heists comes from the research done by Dr Mahlogonolo Thobane. A central theme to emerge from her research is the important role played by traditional healers in the planning and preparation of cash-in-transit heists.

“It was the single most peculiar aspect of this research for me,” she says. “It really shocked me.”

When asked who else, besides their co-offenders, assisted them to commit robberies, almost 90% of the respondents mentioned sangomas.

“I obviously come from an African background myself, so I understand the role of traditional healers in the spiritual and cultural world of many South Africans, but the pervasiveness of enlisting the help of sangomas before a crime was surprising for me. I was blown away by the blind faith the criminals have in the power of sangomas – most interestingly, even after having been arrested.

“They have been caught. They are in prison and they still cling to an unshakeable belief in the protective role of the sangoma. Every single one of them, when asked why they thought they had been arrested, blamed themselves for not having followed the sangoma’s instructions properly.

"One respondent explained how he (had) neutralised the powers of the muti by not executing instructions to the letter. His group had been given a human penis. He had been instructed to clench the penis from the moment the robbery started until they were all in the clear. 

"The squeezing of the penis was supposed to suppress and counteract the effectiveness of the police. When they had successfully executed the robbery and had escaped the police, he decided to swop hands. They were arrested a few kilometres down the road. He was convinced that this misfortune was as a result of his having let go of the body part too early.”

While this is the only reference to the use of human body parts in all of her research, the story provides a vivid insight into the inviolate belief that many robbers hold in the mystical powers of the muti they are given. 

“My mother is a herbalist,” one respondent told her. “It’s just for your safety, to get there and go back safely. Sometimes they give you stuff for the car as well which you must sprinkle over it.”

“The belief is so strong that men go to extraordinary lengths to find the best or most powerful sangomas,” says Mahlogonolo. “Many of them admitted to going as far afield as Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Botswana in search of the best and most powerful muti. They also said certain places in South Africa had better sangomas than others. The greatest sangomas were said to come from Nongoma in KwaZulu-Natal and Musina in Limpopo.”

Respondents agree that the power of sangomas is important to “kyk die pad” (see the way), in the words of one respondent. 

This belief in “clairvoyant abilities”, as Mahlogonolo describes it, is often used to plan heists accordingly. 

Sangomas “must see if the way is all right or see if the way is bad. One time they wanted me for a robbery, I went to see a sangoma, and he told me I would be arrested when I am sitting nicely and relaxed.” 

One says it is an important measure “to protect myself against the police, being arrested or shot”. Another adds: “He gives us something to protect us. We pour the muti in our bath water and wash with it, to wash out bad luck. We also get sticks for protection.”

Some of the respondents equate a heist with going to war. One said: “Before I commit a robbery, I need a sangoma to cleanse me from bad luck. I also go for protection and to make my ancestor agree with what I am doing. Shaka and Mzilikazi used to do the same thing before they went to war, so that’s why we did it.”

And another: “Sangomas are good at war and they used to prepare muti for people going to war. People in Natal consult sangomas a lot because there are so many wars there.”

Understanding the influence of mysticism is critical if one is to fully understand this particular crime, says Mahlogonolo. 

“A sangoma focuses on the supernatural world and is charged with establishing causes of bad events and protecting people against evil spirits. 

“It is clear from my research that sangomas are a very important cog in the wheel of how this crime comes together, and it explains much about the level of violence these criminals are prepared to indulge in. The role of some sangomas in protecting criminals is a worrying phenomenon.”

In an article, she wrote: “Sangomas are respectable members of the community who are held in high esteem for their gift of being able to connect with ancestors. 

“Their main function is to serve and protect the community, and lawfully provide medicinal help. But it was found in this research that sangomas are also fuelling the current crime problem experienced in South Africa by protecting criminals and providing them with encouragement that they would get away with criminal activities.”

The faith in the ability of diviners and herbalists to harness the power of the supernatural to protect and bring luck during robberies is an undeniable feature of a typical South African heist. 

It cocoons the perpetrators, giving them a false sense of unassailability, which must have a significant impact on the levels of danger to which they are prepared to subject themselves. And the greater the risks they are prepared to take, the higher the danger becomes for those on whom the crime is perpetrated – guards, bystanders and law enforcement, as was so tragically illustrated by the Bedfordview shopping centre shoot-out.

Heist, South Africa’s Cash in Transit Crime Epidemic Uncovered by Anneliese Burgess is published by Penguin at a recommended retail price of R230.

About the author: 
Anneliese Burgess is an award-winning investigative journalist who has spent more than 20 years as a radio and television reporter. Starting out as a specialist producer for the SABC’s Truth Commission Special Report, she later became a founding member of the broadcaster’s flagship current affairs show, Special Assignment. After 12 years at the programme – first as a producer and later as co-executive producer and anchor – she reinvented herself as a leading communications specialist. This book has allowed her to go back to her roots as a journalist investigating the underbelly of organised crime in South Africa.

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