Closeup of black rhino

By Alastair Leithead
First published on BBC News

A whistle-blower has told the BBC he was the middleman between rhino-horn smugglers and a court syndicate in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. He alleges he took money given to a lawyer from rhino-horn kingpins and paid it to people within the judiciary.

The lawyer, Welcome Ngwenya, denies that he was involved in paying bribes.

But investigations, involving other informants, point to a court syndicate that could be keeping rhino killers beyond the reach of the law.

South Africa is home to 80% of Africa’s population, but there are only some 25 000 rhinos left – about 1 000 are killed every year for their rhino horn.

Most horns are destined for Asia where it is an ingredient in traditional medicine and herbal remedies. Rhino horns are made of keratin – the same substance as fingernails – but it is worth more by weight than cocaine, and so traffickers go to great lengths to smuggle it out of Africa.

Lawyer said to make cases ‘just disappear’

The middleman informant, who used the pseudonym “Fresh” after his favourite DJ, is now in hiding.

He passed a lie-detector test, and his affidavit has been cross-checked by police investigators who feel his accusations are “serious and need investigating”.

Fresh says he used to work for Ngwenya, his uncle, and has described how he used to deliver bribes for him. “I would give money to most of his friends and most of his friends are magistrates, lawyers, prosecutors,” he told the BBC.

“If you want your case to be withdrawn or if you want everything to just disappear you just go to him.”

Fresh’s most high-profile allegation involves suspected rhino-horn kingpin Dumisani Gwala. He says Ngwenya accepted money from Gwala and paid it to a magistrate to affect the result of his case.

Gwala was arrested with rhino horn, but has pleaded not guilty to charges of dealing in protected wildlife parts – he and another lawyer who acted for him, Mpume Linda, refused to answer to the allegations of bribery when confronted outside a courtroom.

Fresh alleges that at a meeting at which he was present, his uncle, Linda and the presiding magistrate, Kwazi Shandu, agreed that money would be paid to prolong the case. He says he handed the money over to the magistrate.

Shandu strongly denies the allegations: “Nobody has ever approached me for a bribe in my whole career of 30 years and I will never pay such a bribe.”

He ruled the case should be moved to another court to be heard by another magistrate.

More than three years after being arrested and bailed, and following more than 20 court appearances, Gwala’s trial has still not begun.

‘Pattern of racketeering’

In an affidavit, Fresh describes cases in detail in which he names other magistrates, lawyers, and prosecutors.

Many of their names, and others, also appear in a confidential report for the Magistrates’ Commission, seen by the BBC.

It contains allegations against Eric Nzimande, the most senior magistrate in KwaZulu-Natal, from one of his own acting magistrates, concerning payments being made for appointments.

Bank account searches led the investigator to widen the report to include other court officials.

The Nzimande Report outlines the accusations and finds that there “appears to have [been] a pattern of racketeering activity”, urging further investigation.

The ultimate authority for appointing magistrates is South Africa’s deputy minister for Justice John Jeffery, who says he is aware of an investigation into Nzimande and others, including prosecutors and lawyers.

The report was handed over to the Magistrates’ Commission last year and the police submitted their findings to the director of public prosecutions at least nine months ago, but so far nothing has happened.

“Unfortunately investigations into magistrates do take time,” said Jeffery, adding that he would only act when the Magistrates’ Commission had completed its work.

Nzimande told the BBC: “I can’t respond to something … unless there is a formal charge against me and then I will go to court.”

That may well still happen – Nzimande was suspended in early September.

‘Blood rhino blacklist’

The public prosecutor is still deciding whether to act on the testimony provided by Fresh – evidence initially gathered by Jamie Joseph, head of environmental group Saving the Wild.

She says she has exposed an allegedly corrupt syndicate, which she calls the “Blood rhino blacklist”.

“We are focussed on exposing and eradicating the corruption enabling rhino poaching,” said Joseph, who added that she had received death threats because of her anti-poaching work.

She has since teamed up with Jean-Pierre Roux, a former police endangered wildlife investigator. Roux was the investigating officer on the Dumisani Gwala case. He believes he was sacked from the police to stop him from getting to the truth, as he was dismissed on a bureaucratic matter despite a high conviction rate for poachers and traffickers.

“We suspect we got too close to some of the higher syndicate members with possible links to government,” he alleges.

Game park of death

Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, in northern KwaZulu-Natal, is one of the worst-affected reserves in South Africa, suffering regular losses of rhinos.

A ranger we spoke to – who did not want to be named – accused “half the park” of being corrupt and described cases where rangers were apparently moved just before poachers struck.

He blames management, but the head of rhino security for KwaZulu-Natal’s government parks, Cedric Cotzee, denied things were that bad.

“There has been corruption in terms of some areas and we believe we’ve tackled those areas. We’ve also passed that information on to the South African Police Services,” he said.

As yet nobody has been charged.

If elements of South Africa’s justice system prove to be corrupt it not only threatens rhinos and allows poachers to act with impunity, but it compromises the police and the justice system in other cases as well.