By Don Pinnock
Chief Clyde Mnisi, trailing charges of murder, money laundering, illegal sale of rhino horn and racketeering, died of multiple bullet wounds near Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport near White River late Sunday night.
Mnisi was recently appointed as chief of the Mnisi Tribal Authority in Bushbuckridge. Police and prosecutors allege he is one of the “kingpins” in a massive poached rhino horn trafficking network.
According to police spokesperson Brigadier Selvy Mohlala, Mnisi and a driver were waiting for help with a flat tyre when about five hooded men drove up in a BMW X5, walked to the passenger side and opened fire with high-calibre rifles.
The driver was shot in the leg and is receiving treatment.
In 2018 Mnisi, with (later assassinated) crime boss Petros Mabuza and notorious ex-cop Joseph ‘Big Joe’ Nyalungu, were arrested in a police operation codenamed Project Broadbill, involving members of the Hawks, the police special task forces, SANParks, the NPA, the SA Revenue Service and the Department of Environmental Affairs.
Assets worth millions were seized, including properties, cars, trucks, stolen trailers, generators, electronic equipment and animal skins. Among those arrested were five police officers, including a captain and former Kruger Park station commander at Skukuza.
According to a report – “Landscapes of Fear” by researcher Julian Rademeyer – the syndicate is alleged to have exerted influence over a swathe of territory along Kruger’s western boundary, stretching from Belfast and Cork to the east of Sabi Sands Game Reserve, down to the Shabalala tribal trust area, and Hazyview.
Company records show a close affiliation between the Mnisi and Nyalungu families, with shared directorships in several shelf companies dating as far back as 2004. Mnisi was also the owner of Phendulani Lodge in Mkhuhlu.
At the time of the arrests, a police spokesman said the syndicate’s criminal operations were “executed with paramilitary discipline and included counter-intelligence operations to prevent detection”. Its reach extended from Kruger to Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. It was allegedly linked to many poaching incidents hammering Kruger Park rhinos at the time.
Nyalungu was granted bail of R120,000, Mabuza R90,000 and Mnisi R50,000, with the remaining accused released on bail of R10,000 each. Charges against Mabuza were formally withdrawn in November 2021 after the case was transferred to the Mpumalanga Division of the High Court of South Africa. He was gunned down in 2021.
Earlier this month, Mnisi – with other people – was charged with a variety of crimes, including theft, conspiracy to commit a crime, illegal buying and selling of rhino horns, corruption, money laundering and racketeering. They were scheduled to appear in court in Mpumalanga in April.
According to Brig Mohlala, police at White River are investigating the murder. Acting police commissioner in Mpumalanga, Maj-Gen Zeph Mkhwanazi, said a “team of investigators are working around the clock to ensure the perpetrators are swiftly brought to book.”
Unfortunately, these stock phrases fail to inspire confidence in Mpumalanga any more. According to Rademeyer’s Landscapes of Fear report, internal corruption, a breakdown of trust and staff cohesion in Kruger, plus worsening organised crime in Mpumalanga, are of greater threat to the future of the park than poaching.
The corrosion was kick-started by rhino poaching, however.
Between 2011 and 2020, Kruger’s white rhino population fell by 75%, from around 10,600 to 2,607. But it has metastasised, says the report, into “toxic politics, deep-seated inequality, corruption and embedded organised criminality”. This has profoundly affected the park and surrounding communities.
It has not taken place in isolation. Crime and corruption in the park, says Rademeyer, has been impacted by “organised crime in Mpumalanga, including kidnappings, cash-in-transit heists, ATM bombings, illegal mining, extortion and corruption.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Kruger Park ensnared in corruption linked to criminal syndicates – report
According to the report, “relations between staff and management have become strained and increasingly toxic, poisoned by mutual mistrust and suspicion”.
Illicit markets, violence and murder
More than 2.9 million people live within 50km of Kruger’s western boundary fence – and most are poor. At the end of 2022, average unemployment in the area was 46.5%. Around the park, illicit markets abound and violence and murder are common. Honest officials fear for their lives.
Local police stations, says Rademeyer, are riddled with corruption.
“They are deeply in the pockets of organised crime groups. Thus, they offer little meaningful protection. Sometimes they even serve as escorts for contraband.”
In this toxic atmosphere, poachers become heroes.
Petros Mabuza’s coffin arrived at his funeral by helicopter, draped in a leopard skin, as crowds sang his praises. The funeral of Chief Clyde Mnisi is likely to be an even grander affair. DM