A robbery at a car depot in Greenbushes on Friday and heightened community speculation about suspected gangsters ultimately triggered a wave of panic and turmoil in KwaNobuhle at the weekend.
Volkswagen vehicles worth about R1.3-million were stolen from the depot on Friday night, police said yesterday.
Hours later rumours surfaced on social media that the depot heist and two other house robberies earlier in the week could have been done to “honour” a suspected hijacking syndicate leader, Thando Mlilwana.
Mlilwana, nicknamed DeRango, was gunned down outside a tavern in KwaNobuhle last week and was buried on Saturday.
Police confirmed that Mlilwana was well known to them and a prime suspect in several robberies and hijackings involving VWSA staff being attacked and their lease vehicles stolen.
Saturday’s social media frenzy set off a massive police operation which included the public order policing unit and tactical response teams, who conducted searches along KwaNobuhle’s busy Matanzima Road.
Police spokeswoman Colonel Priscilla Naidu said: “As a precaution, we held an operation . . . to specifically look for any weapons and the stolen VW vehicles.”
Excitement and anxiety built up as crowds lined the road by midmorning.
Naidu said no arrests were made and none of the stolen cars were found at, or near, the funeral proceedings.
“Due to the large number of people present, and blocking the public road, a stun grenade was set off to disperse the crowd.
“During the entire funeral, no shots were fired by police or funeral-goers,” Naidu said.
During and after Mlilwana’s funeral, several cars lined Matanzima Road from Babs Madlakane Community Hall.
Police vehicles, which included two hippos and police vans with armed cops, kept a watchful eye.
Cars were parked a few metres from Mlilwana’s house with open boots and music blaring as some revellers, wearing T-shirts with his face on them, danced and drank in the street.
Some were heard shouting and taunting police to leave so that they could witness gangsters shooting each other.
A small bakkie packed with frozen chicken and other refrigerated items was almost looted as people chased after it before it sped off.
By mid-morning, VWSA sent out a text to its employees saying police had warned of expected heightened criminal activity. Police officials, however, said the alert was sent out by VWSA as a precautionary measure and that no evidence suggested staff would be attacked.
VWSA spokesman Matt Gennrich said the message to staff was issued as a precautionary measure following a tip-off from police.
“We were made aware of this syndicate and funeral through the police. As a company we took a decision to warn our staff as part of a mere precautionary measure,” he said.
“As part of our continuing effort to ensure the safety and security of our staff, we are working with the police to help ensure this syndicate is speedily brought to justice.”
Naidu said that hours after Friday’s heist a rumour began to circulate on social media that the attack was linked to a syndicate responsible for two other house robberies in the KwaNobuhle and Kamesh areas of Uitenhage last week.
In both robberies – on Wednesday and at 1am on Friday – VW staff were attacked and their lease Polos stolen. The cars were later found torched near Mlilwana’s house.
“When these criminals realise that they cannot hijack the vehicle for whatever reason, they follow the driver,” Naidu said. “They are organised and very strategic in how they operate.
“Once they find the house where the person lives, they return later, rob the occupants of the house and flee with the Polo,” she said.
About the robbery at the depot, Naidu said the keys to several new VW vehicles were taken from a locked office and the vehicles were driven away by the suspects.
“The two guards were locked inside a VW Caddy,” she said. “Hours later when the guards realised the suspects had left, they managed to break out of the car and call for help.”
Yesterday morning, police confirmed that five vehicles – four Polos and a Caddy – had been stolen.
Provincial commissioner Lieutenant-General Liziwe Ntshinga said she was personally liaising with detectives working to trace the vehicles.
“I appeal to communities to come forward and not to shield or harbour criminals who are threatening the peace and stability of citizens,” she said.