THOUSANDS of illegal Chinese immigrants - many from the Mainland - are being smuggled into South Africa and provided with safe houses. Lured by the land of gold, tempted by a new-born democratic disposition and with the promise of a more luxurious life, an estimated 70,000 have settled on the tip of Africa. South African police believe that most of these illegal immigrants have connections to Chinese triads and have braced themselves for a lengthy war against the organised crime syndicates. Triads are involved in smuggling poached ivory and rhino horn, abalone and other seafood delicacies from Southern Africa to Asia, as well as drugs and illicit arms trafficking. They rate among the most sophisticated fraudsters in South Africa and are also believed to be heavily involved in prostitution rackets. As in other countries, Chinese triads abuse their fellow illegal Chinese immigrants as slave labour, extract monthly protection fees in repayment for smuggling them into the country and often coerce them into committing crimes for the syndicates. The South African police have set up undercover and visible units to deal with the triad problem but officials are deliberately vague about investigations and strategies aimed at counteracting triad activities. 'Triads are more difficult to infiltrate than other syndicates in this country,' said Captain Servaas du Plessis, chief of the Pretoria-based Aliens Investigation Unit. Most policemen here are white, Afrikaans-speaking men and would not be easily welcomed into the close-knit, mistrusting groups of Chinese criminals who conscientiously keep away from the law. 'We have a problem with the language and the culture. It is difficult to enlist the help of Chinese people because they are absolutely petrified of the triads,' Captain Du Plessis said. A recent string of vicious crimes targeting the South African Chinese community, including professional killing, kidnapping and extortion - tainted further by the involvement of corrupt policemen and other government officials in triad activities - makes it easy to see why Chinese residents are reluctant to report cases to police, let alone assist detectives with investigations. In Cape Town, a policeman, a prison warder and a Chinese businessman will stand trial in the Supreme Court in connection with the kidnapping and murder - for a fee - of wealthy Chinese businessman, Michael Shen. He is believed to have been killed as a result of bitter rivalry in the lucrative shark fin industry. City restaurant owner, Jack Yang Chi-Yen, was granted bail of 15,000 Rand (HK$30,000) in connection with the murder, last May. The prison warder and policeman are being held in custody after being arrested, again - this time in connection with an armed robbery in Johannesburg and two charges of extortion involving a Chinese businessman in Durban. All these crimes, committed after their release from custody on bail for Mr Shen's murder, are believed to have been committed at the behest of a triad. Three alleged triad members are to stand trial this month after police swooped on them as they were about to cut off the fingers of a Chinese businessman in Middelburg, Transvaal, when he refused to pay them R50,000 in protection money. Yi Wen-hsu and Zhitang Su are being held in police custody while Zong Xian-wuang is out on bail of R50,000. There are a number of tricky investigations being conducted into alleged complicity between triad members and police, customs and immigration officials. Several policemen told the South China Morning Post that they have been approached with the promise of hundreds of thousands of rands in exchange for tampering with police dockets and exhibits. One policeman, currently on trial for a murder, is said to have been offered R9,000 to kill a Chinese businessman. Despite the difficulties in investigating Chinese mafia-related activities, police have achieved some success and there are currently 15 known triads standing trial for various crimes around the country. Police have also succeeded in convicting and imprisoning a number of key triad members. Alleged Pretoria Chinese mafia leader, Fu Ding-chang, was sentenced by a Durban court to eight years' imprisonment in connection with fraud charges amounting to R138 million, in February. His eight accomplices were repatriated to Hong Kong. SOUTH African police commanders, preoccupied with political problems and hampered by a high crime rate, paid little attention to triad activities when they first became aware of syndicates setting up shop here in 1989. Several reliable police sources said top level meetings were held to discuss the problem, but that the Chinese 'mafia' were not, at that stage, perceived as a threat to the economy or the safety of residents. Until 1990 no illegal Chinese immigrants were deported as a result of police investigations. At the beginning of the decade, shootouts between rival organised crime groups in upmarket suburbs and the kidnapping of businessmen who were too afraid to lay charges when they were released, placed the triads in the public eye and served as a warning to police that they would become an uncomfortable menace. In 1992 police reviewed the situation and Captain Du Plessis and his 20-man team were established as an undercover special investigation unit. Recently South African officials have realised - with the opening up of borders and new opportunities in the post-apartheid era - that the triad problem is a real and rapidly growing one. 'A major Chinese mafia problem could develop in this country if we do not stop it now. They are one of the greatest threats in the world. They deal in everything and they are ruthless. They have got money. If they can't bribe you, they threaten you to coerce you into acting for them. If you don't adhere to their threats then they bump you off,' said one senior investigator. Now Captain Du Plessis' unit is openly conducting investigations and effecting arrests while other shadow units have been started in each province to carry out intelligence work. Hong Kong police have co-operated with South African authorities, sending out an alert when they believe key triad members have returned to the country. They have sent experts to lecture detectives about the structures of the triads. South African detectives have also visited Hong Kong.