File picture: Mujahid Safodien/AP
File picture: Mujahid Safodien/AP

Criminals now targeting protective kits and masks cargo at OR Tambo

By Chulumanco Mahamba Time of article published May 21, 2020

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Johannesburg - Masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) that is being flown into OR Tambo International Airport (ORT) at high volumes have become a “new gold” and a hot commodity for thieves at the airport.

A significant volume of PPE cargo imported from overseas through ORT has not reached its destinations around the country because of criminals at the airport, which is being used as the main entry point in South Africa for overseas cargo.

“The theft situation has been a problem for a long time, but now the emphasis has shifted away from the traditional cargo that they targeted to PPE,” said Maria du Preez of the SA Association of Freight Forwarders (SAAFF) on Wednesday.

Last month, Cape Talk reported about 102 000 out of 4 million masks that Syntech, a Cape Town-based tech distribution company, had imported, went missing from a warehouse at ORT.

In a separate incident, a Boksburg-based truck company was offering a cash reward of R50 000 for information last month after a gang of criminals hijacked one of their vehicles as it was hauling masks worth R7m.

The board director at SAAFF, Mike Walwyn, said on Wednesday that at the beginning of the lockdown in March there was a huge influx of cargo into ORT, and that a lot of it was PPE.

“That led to a build-up of cargo on the big area between the airplanes and the sheds, which built up to an unacceptable degree – there was cargo lying everywhere. That opened it up to damage and theft,” he said.

Walwyn added there had also been incidents in which trucks carrying PPE were hijacked just outside the airport.

A freight forwarding industry insider said that at the beginning of the pandemic, some airlines were bringing in PPE cargo at a high volume using passenger planes, and that four to five of them landed at ORT daily.

“The sudden influx of PPE into the airport has created a handling problem because it is coming in on passenger airplanes, which means it is loaded loose,” the insider said.

The insider added the influx had slowed down lately. However, PPE was considered the “new gold” by some because it was a hot commodity.

“Previously the transport industry was beset by hijackings, mainly cellphones and things like that, and after the lockdown suddenly there was a new gold. Cellphones were forgotten and it was suddenly masks and in some cases food trucks.”

ORT spokesperson Betty Maloka said that Airports Company South Africa (Acsa) was not aware of any cargo theft having been reported at the airport, and that the security services team responsible for the wider Cargo precinct was also not aware of any theft.

“All operators based at the cargo precinct are responsible for their own cargo security, the scope of which is inclusive of securing consignments and storage facilities (warehouses),” she said.

National police spokesperson Colonel Brenda Muridili said: “ORT does not have any theft of PPE cases registered.”

On Monday, two men, one of them an Ekurhuleni metro police department (EMPD) officer, appeared in Boksburg Magistrate’s Court charged with robbery with aggravating circumstances, two counts of kidnapping, possession of unlicensed firearms and defeating the ends of justice.

This came after the two accused hijacked a truck carrying masks on the N12 highway in Boksburg.

National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Phindi Mjonondwane said the officer was driving his official EMPD vehicle when he stopped the truck, pointed a firearm at the driver and forced him into another vehicle that was driven by accused number two.

“Two further suspects alighted from the EMPD vehicle and went to assist in the robbery.The suspects drove off in different directions, using both vehicles, while one of them drove the truck. The police saw what was happening and a chase ensued,” she said.

The EMPD officer jumped out of the car while it was still in motion and tried to run, but was apprehended. A firearm without a serial number was found in the car.

The matter has been postponed to Thursday for formal bail application. 

“Bail will be opposed,” said Mjonondwane.


The Star

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