Regina Pasipanodya / Mary Mundeya
CRIMINAL elements operating between Zimbabwe and South Africa, with links to the police and Central Vehicle Registry, are smuggling top of the range vehicles into the country before selling them to unsuspecting customers or car breakers, an investigation by She Corresponds Africa has established.
A large number of motorists have found themselves at the wrong end of the law after being arrested for possession of stolen or hijacked vehicles, with the National Prosecution authority revealing three cases are brought to court weekly.
South Africa registers a high number of hijacking and vehicle theft cases. South African Police Service’s latest crime statistics reveal that between 1 April and 30 June 2023, 5 488 cars were hijacked.
This translates to 60 cars being stolen per day.
Some of the hijacked or stolen vehicles are flooding the car dealership market in Zimbabwe and other countries in the region such as Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique.
In June 2022, more than 200 top-of-the-range vehicles stolen and smuggled into Zimbabwe were impounded under a joint operation between the Zimbabwe Republic Police and Interpol targeting vehicles stolen in the SADC region.
Last month, South Africa’s specialised police investigations unit, the Hawks arrested 28-year-old Raymond Sibusiso Tshabalala who is accused of leading a team that is stealing vehicles in South Africa and smuggling them into Zimbabwe through the Limpopo River.
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Hawks spokesperson for Limpopo province Lieutenant Colonel Matiba Maluleke said: “Tshabalala is believed to be the mastermind behind cross border vehicle smuggling syndicate that operates between Gauteng and Limpopo.
In September 2021, nine South African Defence Force members were arrested for allegedly being part of a racket smuggling stolen cars into Zimbabwe.
Our investigation, which included briefings with detectives from the Criminal Investigations Department’s vehicle theft squad, officials from the Central Vehicle Registry (CVR), Insurance Council of Zimbabwe, interviews with traditional leaders and villagers in Beitbridge as well as undercover engagements with middlemen who work with CVR officials and police officers to clandestinely register cars, established that some of the vehicles are smuggled into Zimbabwe via shallow points along the Limpopo River, where high powered vehicles are able to drive through.
Smaller vehicles are pulled out of the river using draught power from donkeys hired from villagers. In some cases, armed smugglers forcibly take donkeys from villagers to pull the vehicles.
The investigation was conducted with support from the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe under a project meant to support investigative reporting focusing on transnational crimes.
How the car smuggling syndicates operate
With the help of VTS officers and interviews with Beitbridge villagers we established that there are many porous points along the Zimbabwe/South African border including secret routes in Chitulipasi and Chikwarakwara along the Limpopo River.
Villagers revealed they witness more than three high-powered vehicles being smuggled daily.
A VTS detective said, once in Zimbabwe, the cars are driven in convoys and often divert from main roads to evade police.
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When travelling on main roads, an advance vehicle is often despatched, with the occupants informing their criminal colleagues of security blocks, such that they can park their vehicles if need be or use other routes.
The detective revealed that, more often than not, by the time the vehicles get to Bulawayo or Harare, all their paperwork will be in place, thanks to corrupt officials in the police, CVR, car breakers, and insurance agents.
According to the Customs and Excise Act (Chapter 23:02) imported cars are supposed to pay duty based on the Cost, Insurance, and Freight (CIF) value plus other incidental charges and expenses incurred in the purchase of the vehicle and its subsequent transportation up to the first point of entry into the country.
The duty is paid to the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority to enable the cars to be registered locally. Among other things, one needs a customs clearance certificate, police clearance, proof of residence, national identity document, and clearance papers such as the bill of entry, form 49 receipt, and the release order, before registering.
However our investigation established that one can still register a vehicle without the required documentation.
Shortcuts are taken such as bribing VTS officers to clear the vehicles without conducting due diligence investigations about the car. The criminals also tamper with chassis numbers by erasing some digits, forging or even creating new ones before registering some cars as brand new.
In some cases, the criminals put number plates that belong to a similar car that has become a non-runner or was involved in an accident. In this case they can also use the accident-damaged car’s registration book.
The investigation discovered that throughout major cities in Zimbabwe, there are people who are in the business of buying number plates and vehicle registration books of accident-damaged and non-runner vehicles. They then sell to car smugglers to facilitate the registering of smuggled and stolen cars.
“Every part on a vehicle that is no longer functional or has been involved in an accident, including the plates, has a market,” said a Harare dealer, in the smuggling rackets.
“Once the number plates have been back and front number plates have been installed on the smuggled stolen vehicles, the third plate – which can be removed from the local vehicle’s car screen under intense heat – is also put on the smuggled stolen car. If by any chance the third plate was damaged with the screen during an accident, it is easy to apply for it as long as one has greased the right hands.”
Armed with the information, we went on a verification mission at Bulawayo’s Main Post Office which is a collection point of various documents like licence disk, insurance disc and vehicle registration book.
Agents for vehicle insurance that have connection with insurance companies, CVR officials and VTS detectives roam around the post office looking for clients.
We approached some of the agents outside the post office, posing as persons who had lost a vehicle registration book before we could change the vehicle ownership. We also told one of the agents that we did not have the car sale agreement, neither did we possess a copy of the identity card of the person who had sold the car to us or a police clearance.
All these details are requirements to facilitate change of ownership.
We were advised that paying US$100 and providing the vehicle registration number would guarantee us a duplicate vehicle registration book within two or three days.
“All we need is US$100 and the number plate, which our contacts from the police will enter into the system and all the car’s details including a copy of the previous owner’s identity document will come out. I give you my word that within three days, you will be coming to collect a vehicle registration book with your name, not the previous owner,” exclaimed the overzealous agent identified as Butho.
We repeated the same exercise in Harare outside the main post office where many agents stand outside searching for customers.
The results were largely the same. The only difference was timeframes.
In Harare we were assured that in less than a day, we would have received a duplicate vehicle registration book.
According to the Central Vehicle Registration (CVR), a department under the Transport Management Division created in terms of the Vehicle Licensing Act (Chap 13:1) the processes of changing plates have to be followed when applying for a set of replacement plates after loss or any damage to an existing one.
To change the plate of a motor vehicle verifications are conducted under the pre-condition that;
• The vehicle should be registered and already appearing either in the old or new vehicle registration database(s)
• Current known vehicle registration book and an official police report obtained from a ZRP station where the report of what happened to the plate(s) was made ought to be submitted before a registering officer.
• Completion of an application form for a set of replacement plates.
• When only one plate has been reported stolen/missing the surviving plate and associate vehicle registration book should be surrendered to the registering officer processing the transaction.
• Payment for an application for the replacement of vehicle registration number plates is then done and an official receipt is issued to the applicant/bearer.
• A new vehicle registration book, third plate, registration number plates (depicting a completely new registration mark and number) are issued by the transacting registering officer.
• The old registration and number plates become invalid (These should not be used again for they are already a huge compromise).
• The registering officer must make sure the remnant(s) of the damaged remaining plates are surrendered and secured in anticipation of collection by CVR in due course for final disposal.
Once the ownership is changed, it becomes easier to change its number plates, making it difficult for law enforcement agents to identify stolen cars.
The criminals can then easily sell vehicles to unsuspecting clients.
Some unsuspecting car owners have found themselves on the wrong side of the law after being caught driving smuggled cars especially after being involved in accidents.
“I was found in possession of a stolen car”
These include, Brighton Muzanenhamo* (35), who unknowingly bought a stolen car which and been smuggled into Zimbabwe from South Africa in 2021, but found himself in trouble when he was involved in an accident.
“While scouting for a potential car to buy on Facebook, I came across pictures of a white 2020 Toyota Hilux Legend 50 with the caption, ‘quick sale, the owner needs to leave the country for a job in Dubai in the next three days’. I posed for a moment when I saw the prize: US$11 500,” he said.
“My excitement got the best of me because without thinking twice, I sent a WhatsApp message to the number that was on the advert. I saw no harm in doing that since it was a ‘quick sale’ and relatively too cheap for that type of car.”
After a day of communicating, Muzanenhamo said he met the seller in the Harare Central Business District so that he could see and get a feel of the car.
“After getting a feel of the car, I was too excited and imagined that the seller’s desperation had made me hit the jackpot. Besides everything about the car was in good shape and all the paperwork was intact and a day later, through an agent, the car ownership had been changed to my name, with no hustle at all,’’ Muzanenhamo said.
After almost a year in possession of the vehicle he was involved in a fatal accident in Nyanga.
During investigations police discovered that the chassis number on the car was different from the one on his vehicle registration book.
“A lot of things on my vehicle were not tallying and I was brought in for questioning but I’m not comfortable with going into the other details of what transpired after that. What I can tell you is that I ended up forking out US$3 000 as a kick back so that the issue could not escalate further than the dilemma that I was already in,” he said.
“I was going to jail without a doubt.”
The person who sold him the vehicle was no longer reachable.
Car theft cases are on the rise: NPA, ICZ
Written responses from the National Prosecuting Authority of Zimbabwe (NPA) to this publication state that once law enforcement agencies lay their hands on stolen smuggled vehicles, there are various charges that one can be given depending on the circumstances under which the vehicle was obtained from the complainant.
These include theft of Motor Vehicle section 113 of the code (crimes constituting theft), Robbery of a Motor vehicle section 126 of the code (penalties provided in the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act Chapter 9:23 and Possession.
The authority also confirmed that there has been a rise in Theft of Motor Vehicle cases.
“Most robbery cases are committed using stolen vehicles and further there is a high rise of rental cars being sold. On average you would find that the court receives three cases per week which also averages 12 cases per month.
Insurance Council of Zimbabwe supported our findings adding that its members have also been inconvenienced.
“Our members, the short-term insurers who are the retailers of motor insurance are then left with the burden of being fined by regulators for having insured improperly registered vehicles at the point of disposing of salvages. There is an increase of such cases noted through the claims and disposal of salvages processes. Unfortunately, there are no statistics as insurers deal with such issues internally,” the association said.
Given an increase in such cases, ICZ said the insurers and relevant stakeholders are implementing mechanisms that will ensure proper import clearance and registration of vehicles.
“The insurers are also stepping up their initiative, “Know Your Customer” processes to mitigate the risk of non-compliance by clients seeking insurance cover.”
Smugglers are compromising our safety: Chief Matibe
Chief Elish Matibe , who lives in Madaula Village in Beitbridge East said his community is at the mercy of the intruders, using the porous border to smuggle cars and other goods.
“People are dying and the smugglers often rape young women and girls as they will be passing through. Due to the kind of business they do, some of them use guns to scare off the community into surrendering their livestock such as donkeys, which they use to pull smaller cars from the river,” said Chief Matibe.
He added that his area is one of the places in Beitbridge that the car smugglers and other smugglers known as “magumaguma” to travel to and from South Africa.
“I have not yet met them personally but sometimes we find livestock, cars, and groceries abandoned in our area after the smugglers have run away from the police,” said Chief Matibe.
Sometime smugglers also slaughter cattle, while passing through.
Some villagers are however cashing in by working with smugglers. Some of the villagers are operating as middlemen or informants.
Efforts to get a comment from the Zimbabwe Republic Police were fruitless. The police said they were doing background checks on the existence of this publication before they could give an official comment.
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