Robbery of Sindisiwe Chikunga and VIP protectors 'sinister' yet common: crime experts

09 November 2023 - 07:03
By Rorisang Kgosana
Minister of transport Sindisiwe Chikunga and her VIP security detail were robbed on Monday morning on the N3 between Vosloorus and Heidelberg.
Image: Freddy Mavunda Minister of transport Sindisiwe Chikunga and her VIP security detail were robbed on Monday morning on the N3 between Vosloorus and Heidelberg.

There is something sinister about an apparent organised crime syndicate robbing transport minister Sindisiwe Chikunga when she was left unguarded in the car while her two VIP protectors changed a flat tyre, say crime experts.

Chikunga spoke about her “traumatising and devastating” experience when she was held at gunpoint by armed men while her VIP protectors were changing a flat tyre after having driven over spikes on the N3 highway near Heidelberg on Monday.

The minister said she found the incident bizarre because of how the robbers spoke to her.

She said the men were well-dressed, spoke fluent isiZulu and could understand English. They said they knew she had money and should hand it over.

“I told them I don’t carry money with me and I only have R200 in my bag ... So they opened the bag and found that and there was [my] cellphone there on the seat.

“One of them asked ‘who is your protector?’ I don’t know what that means. One, they said they know I have money. Two, they asked who is my protector. An ordinary South African will refer to protectors as bodyguards. You must be an MP or a police member or someone who knows the workings of government to know the people who look after us are called protectors and not bodyguards,” Chikunga said.

She also found it strange that they only searched her protectors but not her nor her brother who was with her in the car at the time. 

Senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Johan Burger said he found the incident disturbing, though it was a typical crime many South Africans fall victim to daily.

“There is something sinister about this whole incident but these are just speculations at this stage ... This makes one wonder if it was a criminal incident or if there is more to this than what we know. Hopefully, the investigation will get to the bottom of this,” he said.

Chikunga's protectors have been criticised for not acting with extra caution and being negligent by leaving Chikunga unprotected in the car while both of them changed the tyre outside.

Burger said at least one of them should have remained in the car with her.

“At least one of them should have been on guard to ensure that if they were attacked, there could have been resistance ... they should have known, according to training, to either drive away or use their firearms to protect the minister against a criminal attack.”

However, criminologist at Stellenbosch University Dr Guy Lamb found nothing untoward about the incident, stating the protectors had likely assessed the possibility of a threat before proceeding to change the tyre.

Lamb said the assailants' modus operandi was that of organised crime, operating in various provinces, typically at night by putting sharp objects on main roads to target passing vehicles.

The protectors could have acted differently and been more vigilant, however it is possible they saw no risk, he said.

“Maybe the protectors should have acted differently but in this situation, they probably did an initial assessment and didn’t see it as a high-risk scenario, even though with the flat tyres and objects in the road. I think in those circumstances, they were focusing on trying to get the tyre changed so the minister could keep moving. I think it’s just an unfortunate set of circumstances.”

Minister faced what ordinary citizens face daily

However, what Chikunga went through was typical of an organised crime syndicate that targets many people on a daily basis, the experts said.

Chikunga said they stopped after realising the damage to the tyre was worsening, with the rim eventually scraping the road surface.

The two protectors got out of the vehicle to change the tyre, leaving an unguarded Chikunga inside the vehicle with her brother.

That is when the protectors were approached from behind by three men with firearms. The two were instructed to lay on the ground, which they did, Chikunga said.

They robbed them of their cellphones and firearms and one of the robbers, who was wearing a balaclava, opened the vehicle and grabbed the minister’s cellphone.

“They didn’t touch me, except when they were about to leave, one saw my ring ... he tried to take my ring. I said 'no' and that this is the only thing I have between my late husband and myself and I value it so much. So he said ‘OK’ and they left.”

“It was a horrible experience but we are alive. God had mercy on us. I was the only woman there and I was scared.”

Burger said aggravated robberies in South Africa have increased in the past decade by 42% and car hijackings went up by 142% in the same period.

Chikunga could have easily lost her life had the incident become more violent, he said.

He said the police protection unit should improve their training and implement contingency measures for such incidents.

“They must have been aware that these kinds of crime happen all the time on the roads and should have had a contingency plan should it happen to them as they are responsible for the safety of the minister. They know if they stop, there is a real chance they can become victims of such violent act,” Burger said.

Gauteng traffic police spokesperson Sello Maremane said spiking incidents mostly happen on freeways, such as the N1 Polokwane to Pretoria between Carousel plaza and Zambesi, N4 Pretoria to Mpumalanga between Watermeyer and Cullinan and R80 Mabopane Freeway. .

“We have not really analysed whether these incidents are increasing or decreasing, however we have a number of daily law enforcement operations aimed at curbing these incidents. Motorists are advised to exercise care, especially during the night. If the vehicle is drivable, they may drive to the nearest garage while contacting the police. They need to remain calm in the vehicle while contacting the police or other family members to assist,” Maremane said.