It’s a war and the heat is on
It’s so hot in fact that the soldiers from Alpha Company, 9 South African Infantry Battalion, have to protect their water supplies from thirsty elephants. One came up, stuck his trunk into the Jojo tank at their temporary base just inside the South African border with Mozambique and drained it.
Lance Corporal Siza Foxie and the men of Charlie 1, Platoon 1, A Company have encouraged the impala to feel safe around their tiny tented base, because they’re an early warning system for predators like lions.
The soldiers’ job, apart from maintaining the sovereignty of the border less than 2km away, is to protect the animals in the park. Just as they deployed on their latest rotation, the poachers struck. A couple of kilometres to the south lie the carcasses of two rhinos, their valuable horns chopped from their noses. One of the carcasses has already been stripped to the bone, the other darkened by the mess of flies feasting on the open wounds.
The soldiers know where the poaching hot spots are; elephants in the north and rhinos in the south, they know how the poachers operate and they know the collusion between South Africans and the Mozambicans. They know, too, that no animal is really safe, they all have a price; hyaenas for their tails, lions for their teeth - this time for sangomas, rather than rhino horn for impotent middle-aged oriental men. By the end of October this year, 344 rhinos had been poached and 65 elephants; for 400 arrests and the confiscation of 156 weapons.
A-company will be on patrol for four weeks with a stick, a half section of five soldiers, in tiny tented encampments placed every 10km.
After their month in the field they will go into reserve for a fortnight as the quick reaction force and then redeploy on to the border line, repeating this until their deployment ends next year.
There are two sticks in every section, three sections in every platoon, three platoons in a company - 90 infanteers patrolling their section of the border line that is 189km long. Each stick has one of the new Toyota Land Cruiser Troop Packs, specially modified 4x4 bakkies with tactical seats in the back for five soldiers with their kit, as well as water and fuel tanks to radically enhance their mobility.
The soldiers carry full battle kit; with a heavier R1 rifle assigned to each stick - to protect themselves against any of the big five animals in the park as their standard R4 assault weapons would be ineffective. They’re backed up by tactical terrain intelligence, scouts with hi-tech observational equipment, led by Lieutenant Mahlogonolo Mabogane, whose para wings and air assault badge on her jump jacket bely her smile and short stature.
Major Kalulekile Qotyana, A-company’s commander, has no doubt of the task that lies ahead. “We’re expecting more incursions during the festive season, since people need money,” he says. Already though there has been a decrease in incursions since his company deployed. “If the poachers know what’s good for them, they’ll enjoy Christmas at home.”
The threat is implicit. There is no quarter asked nor given in the heat of the park.
“They will try to engage us,” observes Colonel Martin Gopane, the laconic highly qualified paratrooper who is the joint tactical commander for the entire border from Zimbabwe, down past Mozambique and around eSwatini - a distance of 780km, “but they will come off second best.”
Further south outside of the park, from Komatipoort down the border line towards eSwatini and around, is the remit of Bravo Company, 9SAI. The heat is as relentless, the terrain just as gruelling on the troops as it is on the off-road tyres of their vehicles. This time, though, the job is not poachers and wild animals but contraband, organised crime and hordes of undocumented persons either popping across the border to shop - or to go to school every day.
The illegals are a logistical headache. They have to be given water, they have to be fed and then handed over to Home Affairs for deportation. The next day they’ll be back. There isn’t that problem in the Kruger Park where the predators are as much a deterrent as the fence which runs the length of their operational area - and is intact.
More worrying are the car theft syndicates, stealing cars on demand from South Africa - mostly Ford Rangers and Toyota Hilux bakkies. They’ll try to cross at night-time. In most places south of Komatipoort, the fence doesn’t exist except in the abstract. There are gaping holes through which people pour in and cars can be driven through.
The soldiers create obstacles, digging trenches and even upending railway sleepers and implanting them at the crossing points. The syndicates don’t care. They use crash cars, an expendable bakkie that does as its name implies, racing into the obstacle and breaking it out of the way for their stolen vehicles to make it through.
Like the poaching syndicates who operate in groups of threes; spotter, shooter and axeman, so too do the syndicates organise themselves. There are spotters, fence cutters, drivers and decoys.
The soldiers do what they can, a mix of intelligence scouts watching the area, infanteers from B-company setting up stopper groups to halt the vehicles heading towards Mozambique and Maputo less than 100km down the N4. To stymie their pursuers, the syndicate drivers remove the globes from the brake lights. When the soldiers are in hot pursuit, the drivers coast to a halt, lock the car and then bombshell through the dense bush to the border - over which the troops may not cross - taking the car keys with them. The net result is an endless delay securing the crime scene, waiting for the police and the necessary recovery vehicles to tow the bakkie to Komatipoort.
But the battle isn’t only one way, there’s a steady influx into South Africa of contraband, counterfeit branded items, drugs and alcohol, made into bales and carried atop the smugglers’ heads for up to 50km. There’s a reluctant admiration in Major Malebo Manganyi’s voice at the strength and endurance involved in an endeavour like this.
Manganyi commands B-company from Macadamia base south of Komatipoort; 68km of Mozambique border and a further 100km of eSwatini border. Here, unlike A-company to the north, the war is fought at night.
“We sleep with one foot on the ground,” Manganyi says. It’s a game of cat and mouse between his troops and the criminal syndicates, and “a day in Macadamia can feel like 100 days”.
The results speak for themselves: here on the eastern border, Gopane’s troops have recovered R28 661 930 worth of stolen vehicles since the beginning of the year to half way through November, confiscated contraband worth R11 401 332, detained almost 6 500 undocumented persons and arrested 159 criminals.
It’s an uphill battle. Not enough soldiers, even though there’s a third company - from Mthatha’s 14 SAI Bn - in reserve as a reaction force. The SANDF wants funding to deploy 22 infantry companies to secure South Africa’s land borders as part of Operation Corona, they’re only given money for 15 to police a land border of 4 471km, with a responsibility to maintain a 10km-deep cordon sanitaire throughout.
For the men and women of 9 SAI, it’s yet another deployment among many for the Cape Town-based infantry battalion. The only infantry unit in the entire defence force to be both air assault and sea landing qualified, up here on the eastern border they’re in a conventional infantry role, but they’re also the designated Acirc (African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises) force, as well as assisting the police with the anti-gang activities as part of Operation Prosper, while still finding time to parade for the annual opening of Parliament every February.
As SANDF spokesperson Brigadier General Mafi Mgobhozi points out, “the borders are safe, but protection costs money. The Kruger National Park contributes to the cost of their fence, but you can see the problem in the southern border. Our government needs to contribute more money, it’s just like you at home, you put in burglar bars, alarm systems.”
Ritchie is a media consultant. He was in Mpumalanga as a guest of the SANDF.