Cattle thieves wreak havoc in Qacha

QACHA’S NEK — A heavily armed gang storms this rural cattle post at Lebakeng in Qacha’s Nek district taking the guard by surprise.
Startled, the guard runs for dear life and later reports to the police about the ongoing raid.
The police, who were enjoying some drinks at a nearby lodge, spring into action and give chase.
They quickly recover the cattle and drive them back to the cattle post.
Ten minutes later, the raiders are back again.
They again seize the cattle while threatening to harm the guard if he screams.
The Lesotho Times watched this scene play out three times during the same night recently vividly capturing the rampant problem of cattle rustling in the district.
It was only after police district commissioner Moshe Raleting ordered that the cattle be driven to the police station for safe-keeping was there a semblance of peace that night.
Raleting says Qacha’s Nek district has become the epicentre of cattle rustling in Lesotho.
He says villagers sometimes cross over into the Eastern Cape Province in South Africa to steal livestock with the Xhosas in the Eastern Cape also launching retaliatory raids into Lesotho.
Raleting says the problem is keeping the police in the district on their toes.
For example, last month alone there were 34 reports of cattle theft in the district while 24 cases were reported in April. The figures were even much higher in March with 38 cases being reported.
These figures represented a huge increase from the previous year’s figures.
Only 24 cases had been reported in May last year.
“There could be more offences committed, but some people just do not report them,” Raleting says.
He says the problem of stock-theft was highly prevalent in five areas of Lebakeng, Matebeng, ‘Milikane, Qanya and Qabane which are situated south-west of the Senqu River. According to Raleting these areas have been identified as the major hot-spots.
“Stock-theft is more prevalent in Qacha’s Nek than any other district of Lesotho,” Raleting says.
He says the police often deal with countless cases of stock-theft with thieves vandalising municipal kraals every week.
He adds that the problem of cattle rustling is being worsened by the porous borders between Lesotho and South Africa.
Raleting says Basotho often cross into Matatiel, a border town 30km south of Qacha’s Nek on the South African side, to steal cattle.
“We have Xhosas in Matatiel who hire Basotho as shepherds. The same Xhosas also hire Basotho to steal from their own and keep the cattle in Lesotho,” Raleting says.
“Basotho steal from one another and kill one another. It is a cause for concern. Although we are trying to engage in various prevention campaigns, we’re still faced with a host of challenges,” he adds.
Among the challenges is how to confront gangs that are not only armed but are determined to kill to keep their loot.
“Even 16-year olds are caught stealing cattle and would be heavily armed too. That’s just how bad it is,” Raleting says.
He says a lot is being done to fight the scourge of cattle rustling in Qacha’s Nek but with little success.
Lesotho police often meet their South African counterparts from Sturkspruit in the Eastern Cape and from Matatiel in search for solutions to the problem.
But a solution appears quite elusive, if what villagers in Qacha’s Nek are to be believed.
Raleting says the problem of stock-theft has proven difficult to clamp down due to the rugged terrain in the district that make most areas difficult to access.
“It takes the police about six hours on horseback to reach those areas. It is also dangerous because those people are quite protective of their livestock,” he says.
Raleting admits however that the problem of stock-theft is souring relations between Basotho and the Xhosas in South Africa, with the latter complaining bitterly that Basotho are making their lives “hell” by stealing from them.
To deal with the problem Raleting says a high powered delegation made up of Deputy Prime Minister Lesao Lehohla, Speaker of the National Assembly Ntlhoi Motsamai, Lebakeng MP Semano Sekatle and other senior government officials is scheduled to visit the district next month in an attempt “to get to the root of the problem”.
Getting to the root of the problem is so far proving a difficult and dangerous task for the police.
Last April a Mosotho policeman along with three villagers from Matatiel died in a shoot-out between police and cattle rustlers after an attempt to recover stolen cattle went haywire.
An outgoing councillor for Letloepe in Qacha’s Nek, ‘Makhutlang Makatile, said the district council had come up with the idea of setting up municipal kraals and employing guards to look after livestock.
But that idea appears not to be serving as a deterrent to cattle thieves as they continue to stage daring raids at night.
“It was our contribution to the fight against stock-theft. But even the kraals are not immune to stock thieves,” Makatile says.
He says stock-theft is seriously affecting many rural families in the district as the villagers rely on the money generated from selling their livestock for sustenance.
“It affects them badly and forces them to steal from others in retaliation. It’s a vicious cycle,” the former councillor says.
She says although the police were trying to clamp down on cattle theft their attempts so far had proven woefully short.
Colonel Mosotho Gcali, chief commander of the Matatiel police’s stock-theft unit, also blames porous borders for the persistent crime.
If there was constant monitoring of the borders by both Lesotho and South African police, Gcali says, such crimes would be brought under control.
He says the problem has intensified so much that it “needs a political solution”.
“Without political intervention, we might never conquer this problem. We need both the Lesotho and South African national security agencies to play a role in the fight against stock-theft,” Gcali says.
He says when opposition All Basotho Convention (ABC) party leader Thomas Thabane was home affairs minister “stock theft in Lesotho was under control”.
“Thabane was active in the fight against stock-theft. He worked on the ground, visiting hotspots like Lebakeng, Qabane, ‘Milikane, Qanya and Matebeng,” Gcali says.
With his departure from the government in 2006 things went haywire, he says.
But even attempts to prosecute culprits have so far not succeeded.
A magistrate in Qacha’s Nek, ‘Mathabo Kopung, says although there have been many cases of stock-theft that had been opened most of them remain pending due to some challenges facing the courts.
Some suspects flee the country once charges have been read to them, she says.
The problem of stock-theft, is meanwhile, having a devastating impact on villagers in Qacha’s Nek.
Phaphama Lesia, from the Ocha-O-Cheleng Co-operative, says stock-theft is affecting them adversely because “our stock is our main investment”.
“When they steal from you, you feel like your world has caved in from under your feet. Our stock is our bank,” Lesia says.
“We are able to feed our families and educate our children with the profits. When they steal from you, your family’s future is compromised.”
But Lesia blames laxity by the police in controlling the problem.
“The police here are incompetent. Even when we give them leads they do not follow them up,” Lesia alleges.
Chief Masupha Seahle, who presides over several villages within the Qacha’s Nek town which include Letloepe, Mosaqane and Ha-Hlapalimane, is proposing more drastic action to deal with the problem.
“We are badly affected by stock-theft. We need vigilante groups in our communities to protect our stock,” Seahle says.

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