Zimbabwe arrests South African man over Victoria Falls airport bomb threat; fined US$300, as airport security tightened


HARARE – The Zimbabwean presidency confirmed on Monday the arrest of a South African man, Cuan Reed Govender, 26, who is believed to have sent a bomb alert email that disrupted travel last Friday, even causing President Emmerson Mnangagwa to abort a flight to Victoria Falls mid-journey. 

South African John Doe arrested and fined over vic Falls bomb threat
President Mnangagwa was forced to abort the Vic Falls mission following the bomb threat. 

Govender has since been fined US$300 by the Harare Magistrates Court for unlawful possession of ammunition. He was taken to the Harare Magistrates Court on March 2 where he appeared without a lawyer before magistrate Sharon Rakafa, but was remanded until March 4 for plea recording. 

He was fined on March 4, the date he returned to court. 

So serious was the "John Doe" bomb threat that it ostensibly compelled Mnangagwa to retire the Airforce of Zimbabwe Commander Rtd. Air Marshal Elson Moyo – and many deduced this as a dismissal – replacing him with Air Vice Marshal John Jacob Nzvede. 

In confirming the arrest of the "John Doe" behind the bomb threat email, George Charamba, Mnangagwa's spokesperson, stated on X (formerly Twitter), “our security services have traced the so-called John Doe to one Cuan Reed Govender.” 

He added, “In the interests of ongoing operations, we leave it at that for now. We thank Zimbabweans for remaining calm while operations are underway. We hope to reach closure very soon”.

Govender, a resident of Elizabeth Avenue in Durban's Molkwood neighbourhood, was apprehended on March 1 at Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport. X-Ray scanners detected five bullets in his luggage as he prepared to board an Airlink flight to Johannesburg

He flew to Zimbabwe on February 26 for a week-long visit to supervise a money transfer business where he serves as the general manager. This was his inaugural trip to the country.

On March 2, he was brought before magistrate Sharon Rakafa at the Harare Magistrates Court without legal representation. He was remanded until March 4 for plea recording, when he was fined. 

In 2020, Govender lost his left hand due to injuries from an armed robbery. He informed Zimbabwean investigators that the blue bag he carried to the airport, which contained the bullets, was the same one he used at the shooting range after purchasing a gun for self-defense. He suggested that he must have forgotten to remove the bullets.

Last Friday, Mnangagwa's private jet returned to Harare from Victoria Falls following a warning of a “credible bomb or firearm threat.” The alert was emailed to regional airline Fastjet at 8.10AM, approximately two hours before Mnangagwa's scheduled landing.

An Air Zimbabwe Boeing 737 remained on the tarmac for several hours with passengers from Bulawayo onboard. 

Meanwhile, Kenya Airways flight KQ792, which was due to land at the airport, circled over Victoria Falls for several minutes before diverting to Livingstone Airport in Zambia.

The warning email, sent from by an individual identifying as John Doe, carried the subject: ‘Threat BUQ VFA!!!!!!’ BUQ is the airport code for Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo International Airport in Bulawayo, while VFA stands for Victoria Falls Airport.

The email read, “Credible bomb/firearms threat boarding AirZim BUQ to VFA 1 March 24 and other flights that day.” 

It continued, “Was part of the operation but could not go through with it myself. Targets are flights and the conference in VFA. They know I have absconded so flight dates may change but original plan was tomorrow. Have armed militia already in VFA staying at N1 and Shearwater Explorers Village, may have moved already. Some armed colleagues and bombs already in Vic Falls. Threat is imminent, alert authorities immediately.”

A thorough search of the Air Zimbabwe plane and the airport yielded no bomb. However, security has been heightened at the nation's airports, including restricting terminal access to non-travellers.

Security tightened

Mnangagwa later travelled to Victoria Falls to address the opening of the 56th UN Economic Commission for Africa.

Security was on high alert at Victoria Falls.

According to a notice from the Airports Company of Zimbabwe, only airport staff and those travelling were allowed to enter the terminal.

The drop-off point to the international terminal was sealed off and a secondary screening process was introduced at the boarding gate.

Only after the search can luggage be shrink-wrapped.

With an increased police and army presence, they also physically checked all luggage that went through the scanner.

Victoria Falls International Airport has also confirmed that security measures have been heightened in the wake of the bomb threat. 

In a statement to stakeholders, Victoria Falls International Airport’s acting airport manager Vupenyu Shava, said they had decided to implement heightened security measures to mitigate potential risks and to secure the facility.

“In response to a bomb and firearm threat that was received on 1 March 2024, the Airports Company of Zimbabwe Private Limited has deemed it necessary to take immediate action to ensure the safety and security of both passengers and airport personnel. Consequently, the company has decided to implement heightened security measures to level three (3), which is significantly higher than the normal baseline level,” he said.

Lingering doubts about the credibility of the bomb alert

The authenticity of the bomb alert that disrupted Zimbabwe's air travel is a matter of ongoing investigation. And the situation presents two contrasting perspectives.

On one hand, the threat's credibility is underscored by the swift and serious response from the Zimbabwean authorities. The email warning was specific, detailing targeted airports and the presence of an armed militia. This had to be taken seriously. An inescapable reaction to such [potentially] grave alert.

This, coupled with the fact that it led to President Emmerson Mnangagwa aborting his flight to Victoria Falls, highlights the perceived credibility of the threat. 

The authorities' decision to heighten security measures across the nation's airports further attests to the seriousness with which the threat was taken.

On the other hand, the possibility of the threat being a hoax cannot be shaken off. Despite the stringent security measures and thorough searches conducted, no bomb was found on the Air Zimbabwe plane or at the airport. Super questionable. And seriously undermines the credibility of the bomb threat.

Furthermore, the suspect in custody, Cuan Reed Govender, was found with bullets in his luggage but not explosives. His physical disability, having lost a hand in an armed robbery, also elicits doubts about his ability to execute such a threat.

Govender's explanation that the bullets were left in his bag from a visit to a shooting range adds another layer of complexity to the situation. His claim, if true, could suggest a misunderstanding rather than a credible threat.

While the threat caused significant disruption and was treated with utmost seriousness, the lack of any discovered explosives and the circumstances surrounding the suspect suggest the possibility of a hoax. 

However, as investigations are still ongoing, it's very much obvious a definitive conclusion cannot yet be drawn. It's important to note that authorities often err on the side of caution in such situations to ensure public safety. 

But, given that Mnangagwa survived a bomb attack at Bulawayo's White City Stadium in 2018, attempts to permanently eliminate him are always a concrete reality to contend with. The man also survived that 2017 infamous ice-cream assassination attempt. 

One can conjure a plethora of theories on the authenticity of the bomb alert; however, a conclusive determination of the threat's authenticity will ultimately hinge on the outcome of the ongoing investigation.

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