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By Stephen Tau


‘Just not worth it anymore’: Stock theft forcing Free State farmers to sell their livestock

Free State farmers turn to tech to curb stock theft after police support proves unreliable.

Stock theft is making it difficult for farmers in parts of the Free State to assist in dealing with high unemployment rates, according to one of the farmers who also fallen victim to this ever-growing crime, Jaco Labuschagne.

The Citizen visited the farming community of the Paul Roux district this week following complaints from farmers about rising stock theft incidents.

Labuschagne recalled one of the recent incidents where 25 of their sheep was stolen.

Free State Farmer Lappies Labuschagne - Stock Theft
Lappies Labuschagne (L) and his son Jaco Labuschagne at their farm near the town of Paul Roux in Dihlabeng Local Municipality, 27 June 2023. Picture: Nigel Sibanda

“We followed the trail which showed they were moving in the Paul Roux direction on a Sunday morning and then on the next day we continued searching with no luck until the Paul Roux police called us on Monday evening to inform us about some information they received.

“We then organised other farmers and together with police officers, we proceeded to the area where the police suspected the sheep might have been kept to be slaughtered and we found 17 of our sheep. Five were already slaughtered,” said Labuschagne.

Watch: Bethlehem farmers take matters into their own hands

Suspicions of police involvement

Jaco and Lappies also suspect that while some police officials are trying to help farmers, others could be involved in the crime.

“We have on numerous occasions received information about some police officers being involved and we have informed the very police about this but nothing has been done to follow up on the matter,” Labuschagne said.

Technology used to curb stock theft

They say local farmers have also come together and started investing in drones and installing CCTV cameras at their farms in a bid to curb the theft of their animals. However, sometimes they are let down by the technology.

“During one of the most recent incidents, we made use of a drone but there we encountered some problems with batteries dying and the issue of poor cellphone signal also makes it difficult for us as farmers to communicate with each other whenever we are looking for the suspects.

“We have no choice but to do something because we can’t only rely on the police to assist us because we can’t always have a situation where we and our workers are constantly guarding our farms.”

Labuschagne says many other farmers, like Danie Bruwer, have suffered bigger losses than him.

Bruwer had more than 70 of his sheep stolen in recent times.

Speaking to The Citizen, Bruwer said he used to have around 2 000 sheep on his farm and was forced to sell most of them due to the never-ending stock theft.

“I currently have only around 200 sheep left and the issue of stock theft has really been having a serious and negative impact on our day-to-day business, to a point where one has had to let go of some of the workers.

“The problem that we are faced with is a combination of many factors which include police officers not being able to deal with the issue of stock theft, lack of police resources as well as high levels of unemployment,” Bruwer said.

Free State Farmer Lappies Labuschagne - Stock Theft
Free State farmer Lappies Labuschagne’s flock of sheep grazing on his farm near the town of Paul Roux in Dihlabeng Local Municipality, 27 June 2023. Picture: Nigel Sibanda

He said what’s more worrying is the number of unsolved cases.

“There was an incident where fingerprints were taken but we have not heard anything from the police a month later… the longer you wait for a case to be resolved, the quicker it gets cold,” Bruwer added.

Some of the farmers believe stock theft is not receiving the attention it deserves.

Almost every week, there is a report about sheep or cattle being stolen at a farm in Paul Roux.

“I’m the fourth generation of our family that has been farming on this land and while there used to be one or two sheep getting lost in the past, it is nothing compared to what we have been experiencing in recent years,” said Hendrik Smit.

“Since 2000, the situation has drastically worsened to a point where I decided to start keeping only 100 sheep from the previous 300 as I was working at a loss and in some instances some of our workers were also involved in the theft.”

ALSO READ: Stock theft in EC soars during lockdown, to over R17m

Smit called the sheep and cattle thieves “barbaric” after describing how they hit and kill small sheep with sticks.

“Those thieves can walk for as long as 30 kilometres with the stolen sheep at night.

“At one of my neighbour’s farm, 100 sheep were stolen at one go,” Smit added.

Two arrested after 35 stolen sheep found stacked on bakkie
Thirty-five stolen sheep tied up in the back of a bakkie in Navalsig, Free State, in March 2022. Picture: Saps

Another farm owner, and member of the Southern African Agri Initiative (SAAI), Jess De Klerk says the situation is completely out of control.

“I used to have cattle in the past but they were stolen, together with some of the sheep that I had, but it is just not worth it anymore.

“The issue of stock theft continues to be a big problem for all farm owners and we had two incidents over the past weekend with one cow being slaughtered and fortunately the police were able to make some arrests. In the other incident sheep were stolen which were slaughtered but again nothing is really being done to arrest this problem despite all the evidence and information provided to the police,” said De Klerk.

ALSO READ: Some farmers work with corrupt officials, says Cele on stock theft issue

When contacted for comment on whether there have been successful prosecutions, spokesperson for the Hawks in the Free State Captain Christopher Singo referred The Citizen to the South African Police Service (Saps), adding that they currently don’t have any case of stock theft.

Provincial police spokesperson Captain Loraine Earle said according to recent statistics released by the Minister of Police Bheki Cele, there has been an annual decrease in stock theft since 2019.

“For the comparison year 2022/2023 for the months January to March, there has been a decrease of 20.7%,” said Earle.

Earle said the Free State has only one police station – Selosesha – among the top 30 police stations countrywide.

“We also have other hotspots which include the areas along the Free State/Lesotho border.

“We can assure the farming community that stock theft is one of our priority crimes as Free State and is unique to provinces with border issues,” she said.

Recent stock theft incidents in the Free State

Earle says they recently had an incident where suspects were arrested and sheep recovered.

“On Saturday, 27 May 2023 at about 8am, a sheep herder, Hlompo Patrick Phale (33), was killed and suspects took about 98 sheep.

“Zamdela police opened a case of murder and stock theft and investigations launched before the Provincial Organised Crime Unit took over the investigation and in less than 48 hours, through intelligence-led information, three suspects aged between 33 and 41, were arrested in Randfontein, Gauteng,” Earle said.

Three more suspects were arrested and the case is still in court.

Saps on allegations of police involvement

Earle said the community needs to report police officers that are suspected to be involved in stock theft.

“With regards to allegations of police officer involvement in these crimes, we encourage the community to work with the police and get involved through their local structures to address these crimes and there are local structures where people can direct their complaints if they are not satisfied with the service they receive from members of the police.

“Anybody with concrete evidence that can be tested in a court of law is more than welcome to produce such evidence where any member of the organisation is involved in any criminal activity for further investigation,” Earle added.