Mandela's gamekeeper who turned poacher

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The Independent Online
WHAT AWFUL punishment awaits the thief who stole Nelson Mandela's goldfish? Ever since I heard about Petrus Kotze's escapade, I have felt a profound sense of disquiet. Not because I am worried about him coming over here and raiding my pond (though come to think of it, two pit bulls and security towers may not be enough) but because... well, it's a long story.

Back to Kotze. He is said to have admitted scooping a shopping bag full of fish from the pond at the 81-year-old former South African president's Cape Town home. What adds spice to the story is that Kotze is a police inspector, working for the National Protection Service. He was supposed to be checking on security at the house when he allegedly turned goldfish rustler, though how he was caught (unlike the goldfish) is not clear. You would have thought that a security expert would have some idea of how to bypass any alarms or cameras. Maybe the fish turned him in.

Never having visited South Africa, I know next to nothing of its criminal system. But the offence is clearly being taken seriously, because Kotze has already appeared in court (the case was adjourned) and he has been suspended from duty. You get the impression that he is in for more than just a smacked wrist.

The incident raises all sorts of issues. Are presidential goldfish hugely sought after on the black market? Is there a secret demand for fish formerly owned by the rich and famous? If so, John Major had better step up security. Was Kotze planning to breed from the Mandela stock?

Were they mere goldfish, the sort of thing you win at fairs or were they actually koi carp, which can be worth thousands of pounds? And how come Kotze managed to catch them in a shopping bag? Fish might be dumb, but they are not stupid. And what sort of security guard wanders around the presidential gardens armed with a shopping bag rather than a nightstick, an Uzi and a large-sized Mace anyway?

It's hard to know whether to feel sorry for Kotze for getting nabbed just for taking a few goldfish to entertain his children, or to condemn him for shirking on his duties of guarding the former president, a man who has probably made more than a few enemies in South Africa. My feelings veer towards the latter, not just because my instinct is to side with the fish, but also because he caught them with a shopping bag rather than by traditional methods. At least my misdemeanour can claim some extenuating circumstances.

It all happened a couple of years ago, when I was one of a small pioneering group exploring the fishing possibilities of Arunachal Pradesh, which borders Tibet, Bhutan and Burma. We were the first white group to be allowed in the country since Victorian times.

Unfortunately, that didn't impress the fish. Oh sure, we caught the first chocolate mahseer recorded for perhaps 80 years, and a few other mahseer up to 20lb. But I use "we" in the widest sense of the word. Despite fishing hard for 10 days, I didn't catch a bean. It was one hell of a long way to go, despite the many other wonders of the trip, to cast all day from dawn to dusk for blankety-blank.

I was, outwardly, philosophical about it, saying things like, "Well, that's fishing", and laughing a lot. Inwardly, I was glum as hell. I had seen fish, touched those caught by others, even hooked one myself for about 20 seconds.

But none of that counts, especially when the photos are developed. My ineptitude has enabled me to travel to some exotic places, such as the jungles of Ecuador, and fail. But at least I caught something, though small and inedible.

All that way, thousands of pounds, for nothing. Days of travelling in hellish conditions, climbing like an ibex just to get from camp to river, wondering if I would ever see another sunrise. It was too much for one who lives by the rod. And so, on the final leg of our journey out of Arunachal Pradesh, while travelling along the vast Brahmaputra river and watching dolphins, I hatched my plot to avoid being totally waterlicked.

It is a sorry story, but the time has arrived to come clean. Next week, I will reveal why I will probably never be allowed in the Tollygunge Club again.