Multiple arrests were made during a joint operation on Thursday evening at the Home Affairs office in Krugersdorp.
“Authorities pounced on the unsuspecting perpetrators allegedly operating and processing information as well as photos into the Home Affairs system in order to create fraudulent passports,” Hawks Gauteng spokesperson, Captain Ndivhuwo Mulamu said.
A total of 29 suspects are expected to appear in the Krugersdorp and Randburg Magistrates’ Courts on Monday, for alleged fraud, corruption, contravention of the Immigration Act, and possession of suspected fraudulent documents on Monday.
A multi-disciplinary operation involving the Hawks’ Serious Organised Crime Investigation and the Department of Home Affairs’ anti-corruption unit was conducted on Thursday evening at the Home Affairs office in Krugersdorp, which emanated from intelligence received regarding the fraudulent passports allegations countrywide, according to Mulamu.
The alleged kingpin utilised South Africans’ identity numbers and fingerprints to manipulate the system and use foreign nationals’ photos to create fraudulent passports.
Captain Mulamu said that upon searching the premises, law enforcement found roughly R45,000 in cash wrapped in a black plastic bag. The investigation team also seized three White Toyota Fortuners allegedly used as a transport mode for the suspects to be collected from Eldorado Park and Cosmo City.
“Further investigation led the team to the alleged kingpin’s house at Northcliff in Randburg where his wife and more fraudulent passports were found. She was also arrested and charged for possession of suspected fraudulent documents,” said Captain Mulamu.
“It’s an ongoing investigation. There are Home Affairs officials who have been arrested already regarding this particular investigation, and there are more arrests that are imminent,” Hawks Gauteng spokesperson, Captain Ndivhuwo Mulamu told Daily Maverick.
On Thursday, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi had addressed the media outside the Home Affairs office in Krugersdorp, where some of the suspects, aged between, aged 19 and 42, had been arrested.
The kingpin was working with some corrupt Home Affairs officials in “a network that spanned Gauteng, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Mpumalanga,” according to the Minister.
Motsoaledi said the alleged kingpin was identified after an immigration officer had picked up anomalies in the passports of two people who wanted to leave the country at the Cape Town International Airport.
“That official handed over the two people and their passports to the police.
“The police then worked with the Department’s Counter Corruption Branch… Their investigations led them to this kingpin who has businesses in Gauteng. They then spent some time observing how this syndicate operated,” said the Minister.
Motsoaledi explained that the kingpin would recruit foreign nationals, mostly Pakistanis, who wanted to acquire South African passports. “Once he has a certain number, he would then task his runner to recruit South Africans who had never acquired passports before,” he said.
“Once the number of foreign nationals and South Africans match, he would then activate his lieutenants who would secure an office from where they would conduct their treasonous act,” he added.
It is alleged that the kingpin bought cars for his lieutenants, which would allow them to operate whenever he needed them.
Motsoaledi said that “once inside [a Home Affairs] office, one of the lieutenants would authenticate the applications using his fingerprints. The other lieutenant would then progress those applications in the system.”
In response to this case of fraud, the Minister instructed the Department to “immediately disable the passport processing system after hours.”
“Our systems are on for 24 hours, so making sure that after hours the system is disabled will [obstruct] corrupt officials from processing those applications in the system during this time,” Motsoaledi told Daily Maverick.
Motsoaledi said another factor behind the arrests was the introduction of the fingerprint-enabled authentication of transactions.
“In the past, to get into our system and start processing documents, all you needed was a password — which resulted in corrupt officials sharing the password with their accomplices to enable access to the system,” he said.
However, the introduction of the Biometric Access Control Management (BACM), which relies on fingerprint-enabled authentication, allows officials to trace suspicious activity to an individual.
‘A very unequal transaction’
As part of the scheme, Motsoaledi said it is alleged that South Africans were recruited for as little as R500, and promised jobs overseas which never materialised. The lieutenants are alleged to have pocketed between R5,000 and R10,000 per passport, while the kingpin allegedly charged around R40,000 per passport to any foreign national who wanted to acquire one.
“It’s a very, very unequal transaction,” Motsoaledi told Daily Maverick.
“The biggest loser — the South African who loses their identity — gets the smallest amount of money, while the main culprit is getting rich,” he said.
Motsoaledi explained that the most unfortunate part of the scheme is that there are serious implications for South Africans who lend their identities to be utilised in this manner — who “lose their identity” in the process.
Addressing the media on Thursday, Motsoaledi gave the example of one of the South Africans — a security guard who does not work for Home Affairs who has turned State witness. She was unable to renew her licence to work as a security guard through the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority because when the authority verified her details with Home Affairs, a picture of a Pakistani woman appeared.
“She was forced to come and confess…she said she never knew that it was going to affect her whole identity because during the transaction she was allowed to keep her ID,” the Minister told Daily Maverick.
The Minister added that at least 10 South Africans from Eldorado Park “came to confess because they can no longer transact, especially with the banks who get alarmed when they see a photo of a foreign national but with South African biographics.”
The fight against passport fraud
Motsoaledi commended the officials involved in the bust of the passport syndicate and added that further arrests were imminent.
“In the coming days, the law enforcement officers will round up all the remaining members of the syndicate … My message to them is that we are coming for you,” he said.
There is “no space for rogue elements” in the Department of Home Affairs, added Motsoaledi.
“I detest corruption. Our fight against corruption would not be as successful if we did not receive tip-offs from members of the public about acts of corruption conducted by some of our officials they interact with. I want to reassure the patriots who tip us off on acts of malfeasance that we follow each tip and act decisively,” he said.
Minister Motsoaledi said the Department has had previous successes in arresting and prosecuting rogue Home Affairs, involved in passport fraud. In October 2021, the Bellville Specialised Commercial Crimes Court in Cape Town, convicted former Home Affairs official, Joseph Lebitsa, on eight counts of corruption.
Lebitsa was arrested in May 2019, together with eight foreign nationals, in a planned joint operation between the Department’s Counter Corruption Branch and SAPS in the Atlantis Home Affairs office, following a tip-off from a whistle-blower.
“Lebitsa and his accomplices, like the culprits arrested today, were unlawfully linking photos of foreign nationals to existing identity numbers of South African citizens to illegally issue passports. Lebitsa and his accomplices were caught in the act and no passports were issued,” said Motsoaledi.
Motsoaledi added that in KwaZulu-Natal, 12 other officials had also been arrested for similar passport related fraud.
“Four of them have been dismissed and the matter involving the other eight is still in court,” said Motsoaledi.
Minister Motsoaledi urged anyone who may have information about corruption or any other criminal activities to contact SAPS or the Department’s anti-corruption unit.
People with information can contact the National Anti-Corruption Hotline on 0800 701 701 and the Home Affairs Counter Corruption Unit on 012 406 4318. DM