The 14 guards from Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) charged with trying to rob the agency’s headquarters in Pretoria have argued that they were on a legitimate simulation exercise when they were arrested on the early hours of October 31.
The guards, who are members of the agency’s Business Intelligence Unit, stated in their affidavits submitted in support of their bail application in the Pretoria magistrate’s court on Tuesday that they were acting on the instruction of the unit’s head in Gauteng, Wilson Sebiloane, a former uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) operative, who was also in the dock.
Sebiloane is the chairperson of uMkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association in the greater Johannesburg region and also chairs the South African Military Veterans Association.
The group submitted that the intention of the “operation” was to check the status of security at the agency’s headquarters, Prasa House, following a string of theft incidents and that they were surprised by their arrests.
But the state’s case is that the sole intention of the group was to steal the agency’s Toyota Quantums parked at the premises.
Early this month, The Citizen reported how the group was nabbed at Prasa House after allegedly tying up three security guards with their shoelaces and threatening them at gunpoint to hand over the keys to the minibuses.
Police seized two personal firearms, one belonging to Sebiloane, as well as a replica of an Uzi automatic rifle from the guards during the arrest.
Leading the state’s case, Tshomela Lizo submitted that said operation was not authorised by Prasa and that there were statements from Sibeloane’s bosses in this regard.
He pointed out that if the operation was sanctioned by Prasa, police would have been informed and that paramedics would also be part of the operation.
Lizo also argued that “officials are not allowed to use private firearms”, saying only Prasa-issued firearms were to be used for official purposes.
The defence, Mpengesi Makhanya, who represents 13 of the accused, and Trip Manaswe, who represents the fourteenth accused, Sebiloane’s deputy Themba Michele, will argue that the operation was sanctioned and that the unit has previously carried out similar operations.
“(Sebiloane) sanctioned the operation based on security challenges (at Prasa House). He called the others to report for duty, to check the weak security on (Prasa’s flees). The operation was recorded on the occurrence book,” Makhanya submitted.
He said no one in their sane mind would rob their own employer, where they are well known – yet witnesses, security guards, have stated that some of the accused had their faces covered.
Three of the accused have previous convictions, including possession of drugs and Road Traffic Act related convictions, while Siboloane has convictions of an attempted murder and possession of an unlicensed firearm, which were expunged in 1991.
Makhanya said they have also played open cards with the state with regards to the trio’s previous convictions.
Magistrate Mali Mokoena agreed with the defence that it was not in the interest of justice to keep the accused in custody and that bail was not an instrument of punishment but rather a mechanism to secure the presence of the accused in court.
The public gallery of courtroom 16, mainly family members and members of the MKMVA, exclaimed with joy when the magistrate granted the group, which has spent almost a month in custody, R2000 bail each, on condition that they do not interfere with witnesses or have any contact with the witnesses.
The state wanted the group to be barred from accessing Prasa offices as part of the bail conditions but this was successfully opposed by the defence as the group would need access to their place of work to prepare for their disciplinary hearings.
The case was postponed to January 25 for further information.
Sebiloane, 50, is said to have provided military training to members of the Mandela United Football Club in the early 90’s. He was special operations commander of the ANC’s former military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), and was responsible for setting up self-defence units in Soweto.
He was granted amnesty on June 12 after the truth commission’s amnesty committee found his crimes of attempted murder and possession of a firearm had been politically motivated. The charges had to do with a shootout between him and two policemen in Orlando West, Soweto, on May 25, 1991. He told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he was at the time a member of special MK operations under the late SA Communist Party leader Chris Hani after returning from exile in Tanzania in July 1990.