By Gareth Wilson
THREE Port Elizabeth businessmen were arrested on Friday, September 7, following a six-month joint investigation into suspected “rogue” salvage divers who pillage historic wrecks for scrap metal along the Eastern Cape coastline.
The arrests have been described by maritime experts as “potentially precedent-setting” in terms of protecting heritage wrecks, as no illegal salvage diver has ever been successfully convicted in South Africa.
Port Elizabeth businessmen Allan Whithers, 53, owner of explosives company Blasting Eastern Cape, Jimmy Uys, 53, owner of South Cape Salvage, and Paul du Randt, 52, owner of Coega Divers, were arrested after handing themselves over to police.
The men drove to Humansdorp at about 8am after being contacted by police, who told them to meet at the local police station as part of the investigation. The men were arrested on site.
Police had been tracking them for six months after about R200 000 worth of metal parts from ships were discovered at various scrap dealers in Port Elizabeth.
They are being accused of allegedly stripping wrecks of metal and selling it to scrap dealers, the illegal use of explosives to blast the parts off the sunken ships as well as rocks on the coastline, and destroying historic wrecks.
In a bid to protect the ship wrecks from rogue pillagers, the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s (NMMU’s) research diving unit spearheaded a unique “think tank” in April for all roleplayers with the aim of developing a plan to conserve the Eastern Cape’s underwater cultural heritage.
The meeting saw the formation of a joint task team comprising the NMMU Coastal and Marine unit, SA Heritage Resources Agency (Sahra), the police dive unit, explosives and the non-ferrous metal units as well as the coastal and environmental services and other stake holders.
The arrested men face more than 13 charges. Whithers has been charged with six violations under the Explosive Act and two under the Environmental Management Act. Du Randt and Uys are charged with violations under both the Explosives and Environmental Management Act, as well as two charges under the Customs and Excise Act and three under the National Heritage Act.
All three appeared in the Humansdorp Magistrate Court where they were each granted R1 000 bail.
The team – headed by explosives expert Captain Rassie Erasmus – tracked the men after receiving tip-offs that stolen parts from sunken ships were being sold to scrap dealers in the Port Elizabeth area.
Police spokesman Colonel Priscilla Naidu said an investigation into the illegal salvage operation was then launched by the Port Elizabeth explosives unit.
“During the investigation it emerged that blasting was being done on the Brakenduine Farm in Oyster Bay,” she said.
“Several leads were then followed up and Erasmus established the identity of the three men who were renting the farm.
“An on-site inspection was done and they found that massive rocks along the secluded stretch of beach that borders the farm had been blasted away to make space for the men to launch their boats.
“It is also believed that the men used the explosives to blow parts of metal off the wrecks.”
“They are believed to be part of the illegal striping of two wrecks in the Oyster Bay area,” she said.
Naidu said the estimated value of the items stripped, including a 1.5-ton propeller, was about R219 000.
“We believe that they have been involved in other illegal wreck salvaging from Port Elizabeth all the way to Tsitsikamma,” police said.
The three men are scheduled to reappear in the Humansdorp Magistrate Court on November 12, when the case is expected to be remanded for trial in the regional court.
This is a shortened version of an article that appeared in the print edition of the Weekend Post on Saturday, September 8, 2012.