In May 2022, the Environmental Investigation Agency made a formal submission to the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of the Treasury recommending sanctions against Sibusiso Eric Nzimande, Regional Court President for the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, for involvement in widespread corruption related to wildlife crime, including rhino poaching, and human rights abuses. The submission was made under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, as implemented by Executive Order 13818, and §7031(c) of the Department of State Appropriations Act. The non-government organization Saving the Wild, which works to prevent wildlife crime and expose corruption in East and Southern Africa, contributed to the preparation of this submission.
South African’s Rhinos and Poaching Problem
South Africa holds the majority of the world’s white rhinos and the second largest population of black rhinos, though they are under enormous pressure due to poaching for their horns. Law enforcement is hampered by entrenched corruption at every level, enabling the perpetration of wildlife crime. Addressing corruption is essential to stem the poaching of South Africa’s rhinos.
Rhinos are poached to meet demand for their horns, which are trafficked to illegal consumer markets in Asia to be carved into trinkets or utilized for perceived health purposes. From 2006-2022, South Africa lost at least 9,825 rhinos to poaching. By the end of 2021 there were an estimated 12,968 white rhinos in South Africa, a reduction of 17% compared to the 15,625 white rhinos found in South Africa four years earlier.
Kruger National Park in the northeast of the country and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in KZN have historically been South Africa’s two rhino strongholds, but today are the areas hardest hit by rhino poaching. Kruger National Park lost more than 75% of its white rhinos between 2011 and 2020, while KwaZulu-Natal experienced its worst year of rhino poaching on record in 2022 since the current poaching crisis began with the loss of at least 244 rhinos.
About the Case
Sibusiso Eric Nzimande is the Regional Court President for the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and, until his provisional suspension in October 2018, was responsible for overseeing all regional magistrates’ courts in KZN and making recommendations for the appointment of acting magistrates.
During his tenure as Regional Court President, Nzimande sat atop a corrupt patronage network whereby he solicited bribes in exchange for securing appointments to acting magistrate positions. Some of these magistrates further spread the rot of corruption throughout the judiciary by soliciting bribes from attorneys in exchange for favorable outcomes for their clients. The accused were often charged with violent crimes such as murder and rhinoceros poaching as well as serious human rights abuses.
Between November 2011 and December 2016, suspicious payments were deposited into Nzimande’s bank accounts, many of which were made by magistrates, prosecutors, and attorneys, including acting magistrates appointed by Nzimande. In many cases the payments occurred shortly before or after the appointment of the acting magistrate by Nzimande. A whistleblower affidavit from an individual who worked for one of the magistrates provides a detailed accounting of corrupt activities among a network of attorneys, prosecutors, and magistrates, some of whom were appointed by Nzimande. This magistrate’s clients included alleged rhino poachers, wildlife traffickers, child rapists, murderers, and other alleged perpetrators of violent crimes and serious human rights abuses.
Nzimande was provisionally suspended by the Minster of Justice and Correctional Services in October 2018; however, the Magistrates Commission misconduct inquiry remains stalled and has been plagued by attempted evidence tampering and witness intimidation. No further disciplinary measures and no criminal charges have been brought against Nzimande, who continues to receive his government salary, or against the vast majority of the individuals implicated in his corrupt patronage network.
Proposed Action & Impact
The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, as implemented by Executive Order 13818, enables the executive branch to impose targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for committing acts of corruption or human rights violations. Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act requires the U.S. government to sanction officials of foreign governments who have been involved, directly or indirectly, in significant corruption if the evidence is credible.
Sibusiso Eric Nzimande should be sanctioned by the United States pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, as implemented by Executive Order 13818, §1(a)(ii)(B)(1) as a “current or former government official…who is responsible for or complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in corruption, including the misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery.” Nzimande should also be publicly designated pursuant to §7031(c) of the annual Department of State Appropriations Act for the significant acts of corruption he committed as a foreign government official.
EIA hopes that the application of United States sanctions against Sibusiso Eric Nzimande will catalyze the Government of South Africa to prosecute Nzimande and his associates for crimes they have committed and rid corruption from the country’s judicial institutions. This will lead to a more secure and stable South Africa, which in turn will improve South Africa’s capabilities to tackle wildlife trafficking and hold corrupt actors accountable for their actions.