Russian Doll – an assassination, abductions and the mystery of the Lady R
by Hennie van Vuuren
Colonel Frans Mathipa was shot in the head and killed by unknown assassins on Sunday, 6 August. Who are the skilled shooters who murdered a seasoned investigator in the Hawks’ Crimes Against the State Unit? Is there a link to a SANDF Special Forces unit that is alleged to have abducted civilians suspected of being Isis terrorists? What was this unit of Special Forces operatives doing on the quay in Simon’s Town when containers were loaded off and on the Russian vessel the Lady R in December 2022? Open Secrets investigates.
On 7 December 2022, the Russian-registered Lady R cargo ship docked in South Africa’s most important naval base — Simon’s Town. What was loaded on and off the vessel in the middle of the night under armed guard is the source of an international mystery and at the centre of a rift between the governments of South Africa and the United States. It has also caused more hardship for our working people battered by the ensuing storm of currency depreciation and rising fuel and food prices.
Why did the South African government welcome a Russian vessel with ties to Vladimir Putin’s regime, sanctioned by the US, into its naval base, when it was bound to be the subject of public speculation? And this was during a Russian war of colonial expansion against Ukraine. Did the military top brass botch a secretive transfer of material or was it rather a brazen attempt to cock a snook at Nato powers?
We don’t yet know what was loaded on and off the vessel. However, while all attention has focused on the Lady R, there has been far less scrutiny of what was happening dockside. A day after the ship docked in Simon’s Town, on 8 December, keen observers spotted two large commercial trucks carrying containers, a motorised crane belonging to a private contractor and three luxury German vehicles parked opposite a sports field in Simon’s Town. A convoy of these vehicles would move by the cover of load shedding after 8pm to move containers off and then on to the Lady R.
Netwerk24 has published relatively low-resolution images of the trucks and vehicles. Open Secrets has obtained high-resolution copies of the same images which provide important clues that, to date, have been missed. In the public interest, we publish the images and report on their contents.
The shipping containers that were loaded on to the Lady R were transported by a large Gauteng-based company, Jacobs Transport. Its social media pages are awash with images of big trucks and branding with a distinctly American muscle car edge. Jacobs Transport’s services include what its website calls “explosives transport” and UN Class 1 freight. This category of cargo is generally dangerous and includes explosives that are a mass explosion hazard. Typically, such cargo would be transported for a small group of customers such as the mines and the military. Jacobs Transport also boasts on its websites that its trucks are all fitted with trackers and live cameras.
This is material that retired Judge Phineas Mojapelo — appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa to lead a secret inquiry into the Lady R shipment — should have obtained in recent weeks. It will be a test of the strength of his inquiry. Tracking devices and cameras would provide the exact route the trucks travelled between depots in Johannesburg and Cape Town and whether this included stops at military bases or arms manufacturers from where materials may have been uploaded.
Peters Communications Trust: A Special Forces front
Parked next to the trucks and their cargo are three vehicles: two Mercedes-Benz Kombis — one white, one silver — and a black BMW. Open Secrets can confirm that at least one of these vehicles, the white Mercedes-Benz, is registered to an SANDF-controlled front company. The front company is a cover for operations conducted by the SANDF 5 Special Forces Regiment based in Phalaborwa in Limpopo.
The South African Special Forces (previously nicknamed the Recces), are the South African equivalent of the British SAS or the US Navy SEALS. They are an elite fighting unit, generally used to gather intelligence and infiltrate deep into enemy territory on land or by air, as they have done most recently fighting in northern Mozambique alongside Mozambican government troops. According to law, they are, however, not allowed to operate within South African borders unless supporting a police operation which has been authorised by the President and subsequently approved by Parliament.
The presence of the Special Forces, nearly 2,000km from their base in Phalaborwa, may seem surprising. It does, however, align with speculation since December 2022 that the Lady R docked in South Africa to deliver an outstanding order of equipment to the SANDF Special Forces. What it does not explain is why Special Forces require luxury civilian vehicles, given that their core responsibility is operations outside the borders of South Africa.
At least one of the three vehicles — the aforementioned white Mercedes-Benz Kombi — is registered to a Special Forces front company, Peters Communications Trust (PCT). Originally registered as a trust in 2002, PCT was reregistered as a company in 2017. The most recent former head of the SANDF 5 Special Forces — Major-General Herbert Dilebogo Mashego — was a director of PCT from 2017 until his promotion as the new general officer commanding the SA Army Infantry Division in January 2023.
Given the proximity of Special Forces on the scene in Simon’s Town, they would have intimate knowledge of the Lady R’s cargo and it should be assumed that Judge Mojapelo and his colleagues contacted Mashego and his subordinates to provide detailed testimony. A failure to do so would suggest a major omission on the part of the inquiry.
Gone rogue? Illegal abductions at the Mall of Africa
Despite it being in the midst of the festive season, December 2022 was a busy month for vehicles registered with Peters Communications Trust. On 29 December 2022, three weeks after the docking of the Lady R, three luxury German vehicles registered to PCT were seen on camera at the Mall of Africa in Midrand, Gauteng: a grey Audi, a white BMW and a white Mercedes-Benz Kombi. One of the vehicles appears to be the same white Mercedes-Benz Kombi (with identical number plates) that accompanied the Lady R cargo at Simon’s Town. This would suggest either extreme sloppiness on the part of an elite SANDF unit (given such recent sightings of a similar, if not the same, vehicle at Simon’s Town) or an intentional blunder.
On the same day, Abdella Hussein Abadiga and his bodyguard, Kadir Jemal Abotese, were abducted from the Mall of Africa. Abadiga’s brother, Abdurahim Abadiga, stated in papers submitted to the Johannesburg High Court that “overwhelming probabilities are that they were abducted by members of the SANDF”.
Abadiga was an Ethiopian national with refugee status in South Africa and had been placed on a US Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (Ofac) sanctions list in March 2022. His refugee status was lifted on 15 December 2022, two weeks before his abduction. Abadiga and three other individuals were persons of interest for another reason — their alleged affiliation to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) and Isis-Mozambique. Specifically, the US authorities sanctioned Abadiga and three other men (two of whom are South African nationals) for their role in recruiting Isis fighters and providing financial support to the violent terror organisation.
One of the men on the Ofac list, Tanzanian Peter Charles Mbaga, is believed to have gone missing within days of being placed on the US sanctions list in March 2022. Neither Abadiga nor his bodyguard, Abotese, have been seen since their abduction nearly nine months ago.
Within days of their abduction and disappearance, Abadiga’s brother approached the South African Police Service to assist. Given the slow progress of the police investigation, he subsequently approached the Johannesburg High Court in February 2023 on an urgent basis to help ensure the release of his brother. The court papers he submitted, which, among others, cite the President, minister of defence, Peters Communications Trust, and its former director Mashego as respondents, are revealing in their detail.
Using CCTV footage, the papers include images of the Special Forces members driving the vehicles and their times of entry and exit from the mall. They also show that seconds after Abadiga and Abotese paid for their parking ticket an unknown man paid for his parking ticket. According to the court papers and evidence from CCTV footage gathered by Abadiga’s family, the tickets were used to ensure a speedy exit from the mall by two of the PCT vehicles.
The court papers show that four hours later, Abadiga’s Lexus vehicle was seen exiting the mall followed by a grey Audi — the third PCT vehicle in the parking lot. The Mall of Africa, with more than 300 shops, is one of the largest in Africa and it seems highly unlikely that these movements were all a coincidence. However, this is what Mashego asserts in his responding papers submitted to court. While he confirms that Special Forces members and PCT-owned vehicles were at the mall, he claims that they were undertaking a training exercise that day and not involved in the abductions.
Ultimately, the court did not consider the merits of the matter, instead dismissing the application on the technical ground of urgency.
N1 highway: An assassination
Following the failed court application, the police appointed a new investigator in the matter — Lieutenant-Colonel PN “Frans” Mathipa, a member of the Hawks’ Crimes Against the State unit. According to the Abadiga family’s attorney, Yusuf Cassim, Mathipa acted professionally and was doing hard policing work.
In late July, Mathipa told Cassim that he had secured court authorisation to start accessing telephone data of the SANDF members present at the Mall of Africa on the day of the abductions. The authorisation had been obtained in terms of section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act, a provision that deals with the issuing of subpoenas for the purpose of obtaining records that are not in the public domain. These records are crucial as they might provide detail of SANDF involvement in illegal activities, including the abduction of two civilians.
According to Abadiga’s attorney, his cellphone was switched off after the abduction and then “pinged” a few hours after the abduction, suggesting it was switched back on. The cellphone records that Mathipa was attempting to access could identify the exact location of Abadiga’s phone when it was switched back on and whether, for example, it was in a safe house or a military base.
However, Mathipa also indicated to Cassim during their last conversation, on 21 July, that he was encountering difficulties obtaining the records from the SANDF and was awaiting footage of the vehicles’ movements on the highway subsequent to the abduction.
On Sunday, 6 August, at about 8pm, Mathipa was assassinated. According to the SAPS incident report, he was booked out to collect information on the abduction case (Midrand CAS 238/01/2023). Mathipa had been travelling in a northerly direction along the N1 highway when he was shot in the head shortly before the Hammanskraal off-ramp. Open Secrets has spoken to a source close to the investigation who confirmed that the assassins were travelling in a black luxury German vehicle.
At this stage, nothing is known regarding who Mathipa was intending to meet. However, what is evident is that the killers are experienced and highly skilled marksmen, given that he was shot with one or two bullets from a moving vehicle on a major highway. There was no spray of gunfire. (While it may be a coincidence, it is worth noting that the murder scene is only about 10km away from the Special Forces Training School at Murrayhill, north of Pretoria.)
On Sunday, 13 August, City Press/Rapport reported that Mathipa had agreed to meet an unknown group of men close to the Hammanskraal off-ramp. According to City Press’s Erika Gibson, Mathipa had “told some of his colleagues that ‘the guys’ — presumably some of the suspects — wanted to talk”.
According to the report, Mathipa and colleagues met SANDF Special Forces and members of the State Security Agency’s counterintelligence unit in Pretoria last Friday. At that meeting, Mathipa reportedly “gave the army an ultimatum: he was going to arrest the Special Forces suspects whether the army cooperated or not. The military reportedly hit back, saying that he was investigating the wrong people.”
A quest for truth
The Lady R matter is an example of elite politicking at the expense of the many. Ramaphosa and his minister of defence, Thandi Modise, should have known what was on board the Lady R. If not, then Military Intelligence, the State Security Agency and their multibillion-rand budgets have proven useless to the state, being unable to detect what happened during the course of those summer evenings in Simon’s Town.
Equally, the US ambassador to SA, Reuben Brigety, claims to know what happened but has thus far not made public any evidence. Instead, he has submitted such information to the Mojapelo inquiry. This peculiar process is led by a senior retired judge who has without question acceded to the wishes of the President for a secret process that is meant to arrive at the “truth”. A judge should know better than to participate in a closed, executive process.
In the meantime, newspapers are conveniently leaking information which suggests that Judge Mojapelo and the secret process he leads have found no evidence of weapons loaded on to the Lady R. Given that we have no contrary evidence, political spin is now in overdrive and serves only to muddy the waters.
There is much to suggest that a police investigator — Mothipa — did find wrongdoing. He may well have been close to exposing a truth that threatens powerful people in state institutions. These might include people in South Africa and elsewhere who broke the law and abducted civilians without the chance of a fair trial, and its procedural and liberty protections, in an open court. If that was the case, could they fear that accountability could lead to a house of cards tumbling down? It would expose motive and maybe the money that lurks behind it.
Given the interest of South African and foreign security services in this matter, we need to urgently find out who murdered Frans Mothipa and why. If we allow this to become “just another unsolved murder”, we risk normalising abductions, assassinations, and suspicious arms deals, turning the clock back 30 years to when assassins routinely prowled the streets of South Africa. DM
Note: The parties implicated in this story were not contacted before publication for comment due to safety concerns and as per exceptions allowed by the Press Code. They were contacted after publication and their comment, if received, will be published by Open Secrets and the Daily Maverick below this article in the coming days.