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Mail & Guardian 22 Nov 1996

It took a two-year investigation to uncover members of the `Muslim mafia’, reports Angella Johnson

THEY called themselves the “Muslim mafia” and bragged openly that they were untouchable because of the number of police officers on their payroll. Then an honest cop found a way to break one of the biggest criminal syndicates operating in Gauteng.

It took two years and cost the state R500 000 to net the gang and reel in 24 members accused of being vehicle hijackers, runners, intermediaries and cross-border drivers.

Police also arrested the two brothers alleged to be the masterminds behind the racket involving 280 stolen cars.

Detectives say that in the predominantly Indian township of Lenasia, outside Johannesburg, the names Yusef (aka “Ushi”) and Mohammed (aka “Abla”) Seedat were synonymous with stolen motors, fraud and other vehicle-related crimes.

The two men in their 30s allegedly ran a lucrative criminal family business where nepotism was encouraged. Their 62-year-old mother, now ill in hospital, was among those arrested during a police raid last week. Because of her age and poor health she was one of two women given bail.

This week three of the wives stood in the dock in the Johannesburg Regional Court and pleaded their innocence during a lengthy bail application.

One claimed she made her living selling samoosas and making dresses at home to help pay the bills. Rashida Seedat, with her head covered, wept silently into her handkerchief when Magistrate JJ Pretorius warned her that a “long prison sentence looms large on the horizon”.

Denying bail, the magistrate said that she might try to interfere with the continuing investigation. He said she had cocked a gun at police who were arresting her.

Police claim Rashida Seedat, who is facing one count of theft, acted as a secretary for the gang. Her sister (who does not want to be identified) says Rashida Seedat is the innocent party. “I think they are mixing her up with the other people,” she told the Mail & Guardian. “People in the community are looking at us as if we are criminals,” she added.

During their alleged eight-year operation, the Seedat brothers are accused of netting about R7,5-million through buying stolen cars and selling them – usually across the border to Southern African states. Though they lived in modest homes, the two drove expensive BMWs and police say they may own properties in Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

The accused apparently drove the cars across the border themselves, using false papers, knowing they could always bribe their way out of any trouble with the authorities.

Detective Inspector Merwe van Rensburg, of the police vehicle branch, knew they were at it, but could not get evidence to make a case. So he went to his superiors and pleaded with them to authorise a police trap. It took much persuasion, but finally it was agreed that a “legend” would be created around him.

Operation Mynah was launched in March 1995. “We let it be known that he was corrupt and had been thrown out of the force,” explained colleague Superintendent Johan Rheede, who acted as Van Rensburg’s “buddy”, or chief contact.

“Computers were even rigged to show that he was under investigation by the Department of Justice and he was not able to tell his own family what was happening.”

It was not long before the news filtered back to the “Muslim mafia”, who already knew Van Rensburg as the officer trying to probe their organisation and who had been impervious to their bribery offers. “It was a difficult job convincing them that I was one of them,” he is reported to have said.

But soon he was in. Not quite trusted, but considered useful because of his knowledge of police operations. In his new guise he bought drugs for his new “masters”, was involved in chequebook fraud and spent thousands of rands buying 38 cars which had either been hijacked or stolen.

One car believed to have belonged to a man who was shot and killed during the hijacking was offered to Van Rensburg but was not purchased.

According to Rheede: “None of those we bought had been gained through bloodshed, but we do have taped evidence of one of the Seedat wives bragging that a woman had been screaming hysterically as she was dragged from her vehicle.” The cars were all returned to their rightful owners.

Detectives describe the syndicate as operating like a corporation with various subsidiaries. “Sometimes the cars would go through several hands before reaching the syndicate leaders.”

Most of the gang’s business went across the border, sometimes as far away as Malawi and Tanzania.

Police monitored their movements using legal telephones taps, and videos were made of alleged syndicate transactions by Van Rensburg, using sophisticated and elaborate devices.

His position was always at risk. For although he had become a social pariah among his old friends and colleagues, he was always treated with suspicion by some of the gang members because he was not family. Soon rumours began to spread that he was still in the South African Police Service.

“It was getting very dangerous for him to remain undercover,” said Rheede. “We received information that a R1-million bounty had been put on his head [by the gang].” The police team consulted the attorney general’s office and it was decided there was enough evidence to topple the syndicate.

“So we went for the kill, using the Special Task Force because we knew some of the alleged members had guns and their homes were like fortresses.”

The raid was synchronised for midnight on November 11 when elite officers moved simultaneously on several houses in the Lenasia area and rounded up all but one of their suspects. She was not at home but later handed herself over to the police.

The other two women denied bail yesterday were Anisa Fakar, wife of “Abla” Seedat, who is charged with five counts of theft and one of cocaine dealing; and driving school owner Katija Pailwam (husband Faried is in custody) who faces three counts of theft and two of insurance fraud.

A special maximum security court is being set up in Roodepoort to hear the cases, which are expected to start in mid-January.