news: The man who trades in human beings

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Subject: news: The man who trades in human beings
From: Melanie Orhant (
Date: Tue Jan 26 1999 - 09:32:02 EST

The man who trades in human beings
The Sunday Times (South Africa), January 24, 1999

THIS is the man who smuggled scores of illegal immigrants into South
Africa, selling them to businesses and farmers in Mpumalanga and Gauteng.

John "Sols" Nkuna is also the man who beat me up after holding a gun to my
head when I was flushed out of a slavery ring I had infiltrated during an
investigation into the massive slave-labour trade across South Africa's

Nkuna runs his business in human cargo from Mozambique and Swaziland using
safe houses in Boschfontein and Langeloop in Mpumalanga, about 20km from
the Lebombo border post in Komatipoort.

Also a well-known taxi boss, Nkuna lives in the biggest house in the rural
area of Nkomazi.

Police say he has been caught on numerous occasions for smuggling illegal
aliens into South Africa. He has been given spot fines ranging from R1 500
to R2 500, which he has paid.

Nkuna makes his money by selling illegal labour to businesses and farmers
who pay up to R600 per illegal immigrant.

The immigrants, who come looking for work, also pay him for finding them
jobs - as much as R530 each.

He uses four vehicles to ferry people every day of the week. He owns a
luxury car, three minibus taxis, a Toyota Cressida and a bakkie with the
registration number BPR 509 MP, which is one of the vehicles he uses to
ferry people from his safe houses to businesses.

This was the bakkie I was driven around in before he discovered who I was.

On Monday I went to the offices of the Border and Internal Tracing Unit in
Nelspruit, where I discussed my undercover investigation with the unit's
second in charge, Inspector Cornelius du Preez.

On Tuesday morning Du Preez drove me to the Lebombo border post and I
crossed the border legally. Although I was wearing very old clothing as a
cover, I had to keep my passport hidden so I could prove I was there legally.

At Ressano Garcia, a border village in Mozambique, I pretended I wanted a
job in Johannesburg. A man came up to me and said I should take a taxi to
Maputo, where I would meet with their "chief" at a park. When I got to the
park, I met a man who said his name was Augosto Makwakwa. He said he would
help me get into South Africa and find a good job - I would have to pay him
R480 in return.

But nothing came of this and, on Wednesday morning, I took a taxi back to
Ressano Garcia, where I made new contacts and was taken to a safe house in
the village along with four other men.

At 10pm, after 17 young men had gathered at the house, we left on a
seven-hour walk to the Komatipoort border. A man who said his name was
Paulos Mboweni, a Mozambican citizen, led us to where we would cross the

After illegally entering South Africa, all of us were arrested by three
South African National Defence Force soldiers.

The soldiers demanded R50 from each of us and took anything else they
wanted - including watches and a Bible - before letting us go.

We walked another 10km and then Mboweni ordered us to wait for him. He had
arranged beforehand to sell six of us - including a crippled man - to a
sugar-cane farmer near Komatipoort.

We walked another 300m and, as we turned a corner, there was Nkuna, sitting
in his white bakkie with the registration number BPR 509 MP.

He drove us to a safe house at Block B near Tonga. In a windowless room,
Nkuna told us to strip so he could see we were not hiding more money from him.

By this time, we had all already paid him for our trip to Gauteng. I had
given him R70 and told him he would get the rest when we reached Gauteng.

But it was during this sudden search that Nkuna discovered my passport and
ID book, which I had tucked away in my underwear.

The modern-day slave trader went crazy, later holding a gun to my head and
telling me he was going to blow my brains out.

I felt my life was about to end. It was my worst nightmare - the only thing
I had feared when I first decided to infiltrate the trade in illegal labour.

Initially, I had told people my name was Carlos Bernard Bilankulu - now I
had been caught out.

Nkuna was aggressive, punching me several times and screaming: "Who the
hell are you and what do you want?"

Then Nkuna began hitting me with a thick wooden pole about a metre in
length, but I could not scream for help - I was too terrified.

After a while, Mboweni grabbed the pole from him. By this time, Nkuna was
in a rage. He ran outside and returned with his gun.

"I'm going to kill this dog. He wants to mess with my bread and butter -
I'm going to kill him," he said repeatedly and put the gun to my head.

I pleaded with him, telling him I was an undercover policeman investigating
the smuggling into South Africa of Mozambican women who were then used as
prostitutes in Johannesburg.

He replied: "You're lying! First you said your name was Carlos and now it's
Leonard. Who are you, you bastard?"

I insisted I was an undercover policeman and he threw me onto the back of
his bakkie with the other immigrants.

Nkuna drove around and then dropped the others off at the sugar-cane farm.
He told them there was a job there for each of them and that he would
return later to collect his money.

I was still in the back of the bakkie, shaking with pain. Nkuna drove for
more than 10km and suddenly stopped, dropping me off in the dark in the
middle of nowhere.

I was lost and disorientated from the beating but walked for at least 12
hours before I found my way back to Nelspruit.

I then contacted Captain David Chilembe, head of the Border and Internal
Tracing Unit, and told him I knew of at least 10 illegal immigrants who had
just been smuggled into South Africa - and where Nkuna had been holding them.

Police raided a number of houses in the area, arresting eight illegal
immigrants on property belonging to Nkuna. Five of them told police they
had been with me and witnessed the beating I had received from Nkuna.

They told me they knew Nkuna well because some of them had been on the trip
before, but Nkuna himself was nowhere to be found.

Melanie Orhant

Human Trafficking Program
Global Survival Network

P.O. Box 73214
Washington, DC 20009
T: 387-0028
F: 387-2590

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