On the face of it, it was just another small-town murder. But even after policeman William Nkuna was convicted for killing Frances Rasuge and his sangoma, Madimetja Kutumela, was exonerated, the fear remains. Kutumela was run out of town and people of Themba still fear the imprisoned Nkuna. Why? KARYN MAUGHAN reports.
Everyone in Themba knows where Desmond Mkhonto's hair salon is in Hammanskraal. It’s called "La Des" and is located in a converted garage building on a residential street far away from the town's thriving Themba Centre Mall. Anyone can tell you how to get there.
"La Des" can only accommodate two clients at a push and it's seldom busy. There is nothing outwardly exceptional about it. Its faded interior and cracked mirrors give no indication of just how much this box-like room with its leaking basins has seeped something sickly into the Themba community.
This was the last place that Frances Rasuge was ever seen alive. It was the place where Desmond Mkhonto, then 29, carefully relaxed the young policewoman's hair in preparation for a funeral she planned to attend with her new boyfriend.
Rasuge was one of Mkhonto's regular clients, a beautiful woman who took care of her appearance, but whose private life was more messy. Court records would show that the 27-year-old revealed little of herself and her complicated love life to those who were close to her. She was quiet and usually said little in the normally gossip-fuelled environment of the hair salon.
After her hair was completed, and for reasons that have never been explained, she phoned her married ex-lover, who came to fetch her.
William Nkuna paid Mkhonto for the sculpted hair style he had created for Frances. She walked away with the man who would later spill her blood on the floor mat of his Colt bakkie and entomb her naked and bound body in the yard of his RDP home.
Rasuge's remains would lie undiscovered for eight years, before building contractors broke through a cement slab and found her skull.
The man who had washed her hair would be dead two days after he led police to her killer.
That was the time, people will tell you under their breath, that "bad things" came to Themba. And something like fear, but darker, buried itself beneath the surface of this quiet and otherwise ordinary town.
As forensic teams carefully uncovered Rasuge's bones, that strange fear became far harder to ignore, especially for Desmond Mkhonto's family.
The Mkhonto family have never spoken publicly about the young man's seemingly inexplicable death. But the discovery of Rasuge's bones – and the resolution that it brought to her family – has clearly wounded them.
Mkhonto's father, Lawrence, is startlingly candid about his unhappiness at Rasuge's remains finally being uncovered.
"I’m very cross about this because I was trying to forget my son. Every time I look at his photo, I’m starting crying. I remember him."
Lawrence Mkhonto's ambivalence towards Rasuge, a woman he glimpsed briefly as she walked in and out of his son's hair salon, is powerfully linked to his belief that she was, in some way, responsible for Desmond's death.
"My heart was very sore because he died because of Rasuge and the state, they couldn’t find Nkuna if it was not for my son. Because he talked straight, he told them: ‘William Nkuna took her here from my hands. She was the last customer I’ve done. Here’s the receipt. He paid me and everything.’
"If my son said I don’t know that guy, he just took her and go… they would never have found Nkuna. My son died for the truth. But the state doesn’t care about my son."
Poppy Maponyane, Desmond's grandmother, is also deeply unhappy about what she sees as the police's failure to properly investigate his death. Repeatedly pointing at a gold-framed picture of the young man, who she describes as "very healthy, very handsome", she says she can't accept doctors’ finding that he died of natural causes.
She remembers every detail of her grandson's sudden illness, which started a day after he told police that Rasuge had left his salon with Nkuna.
"When I asked him he said ‘I just woke up this morning and my hands were not feeling well. I tried to go to the kitchen to get something to eat before I start working but I couldn’t walk properly and then I came back here. I wanted to do somebody’s hair but my hands were numb.’
"And after that, he said even the legs… he couldn’t walk again. And when we take him to hospital, he couldn’t speak any more. And I said to him, ‘No, don’t worry you will be okay.’ But he say to me no [she drags her finger across her throat’). I said ‘No, you are not going to die.’
"Then in the evening, they put him on the machines and what what. He was breathing like someone who’s got asthma. He was trying hard for the air."
Maponyane claims the doctors who examined Desmond didn't know how to treat his condition.
"The doctors didn’t explain. They were just amazed what was going wrong with that boy. Even us, they didn’t tell us anything."
She, like the rest of her family, blames Nkuna for Desmond's death.
"Because we think that maybe because he did give the evidence… maybe Nkuna was afraid and then he sent somebody. Maybe he gave somebody something to give him to drink or to eat or did they put something here. We don’t know. But something did happen because he was healthy. If I got the chance to speak to Nkuna I'd ask him what really did he do to this boy, what did he give him?
"Everybody knew that this was something to do with Rasuge but the police never came here.
I think that if she hadn’t come here that day, he would still be alive."
Beneath the Mkhontos’ fear that Desmond was poisoned, lies a deeper, darker fear that he was a victim of something far harder to identify and prosecute."I didn't believe in these witchcraft things before," Lawrence Mkhonto tells me as we stand outside his home, "but now I do. Now I believe."
Lawrence Mkhonto's fears are not isolated. And they have made victims of the Themba community, senior police officials and, in a twist that would eventually result in a successful lawsuit against justice authorities, Nkuna's sangoma, Madimetja Phineas Kutumela.
Kutumela was briefly charged with Nkuna over Rasuge's murder but all charges against him were ultimately dropped. During dramatic evidence before the North Gauteng High Court, the self-described traditional healer told how he'd been abducted by police and tortured into making a false confession about his involvement in the disposal of Rasuge's body.
He revealed how he was arrested on South Africa's border with Botswana two months after Rasuge disappeared and was detained for 132 days at four different police stations.
Kutumela claimed police resorted to the worst of apartheid-era torture tactics to force him to confess using Rasuge's body parts to make muti. He said he was tied up and given electrical shocks, kicked in the ribs and forced to stand naked while shots were fired over his body.
Kutumela's head was also covered with a wet bag and a rubber object at different times, making him fear he would suffocate.
A medical doctor would later testify that Kutumela had three broken ribs, a bleeding eye, an injury to his foot, which appeared to have been poked with something, and bruises and scratches caused by trauma.
In evidence that was accepted by the High Court without reservation, Kutumela said he had real fears that the police would kill him if he didn't tell them what they wanted to hear: that he had kept Rasuge's body parts as powder at his home.
He later also falsely claimed that he had thrown her body into the Jukskei River.
In reality, Kutumela testified, he had never met Rasuge.
After the charges against him were dropped by the National Prosecuting Authority, Kutumela claimed he was again kidnapped and tortured.
This time, he said, he was almost drowned. Unknown officials also threatened to cut off his penis. He said he was forced to lie naked on the ground while shots were fired over his head.
The police vehemently denied torturing or kidnapping Kutumela. Instead, they claimed that he admitted obtaining Rasuge's body from Nkuna and cutting off her tongue, breasts and private parts for muti. He and Nkuna then threw the rest of her body into a river.
Acting Judge Khami Makhafola rejected the police's evidence in Kutumela's damages case as devoid of all truth.
He found that police not only arrested Kutumela without any grounds, but used violence and torture on him. The judge described photos of the traditional healer's injuries as a "despicable spectacle of cruelty".
The court later awarded Kutumela half a million rand in damages. The ruling was not appealed by the police, and it would later come back to haunt one of the senior officers found to have been central to the abuse meted out to Kutumela.
Senior Hawks officer Tsietsi Mano would be named in Kutumela's lawsuit as central to his ill fated and ultimately futile efforts to "point out" the non-existent dumping ground for Rasuge's body.
The man tasked with investigating the brutal murder of slain right-wing leader Eugene Terre'blanche was strongly criticised for his apparent complicity in the torture inflicted on Kutumela. The High Court also found that Mano had obtained an arrest warrant for Kutumela under false pretences.
While the damning findings made against Mano did not dissuade the police from promoting him, they came back to haunt him during the Terre'blanche murder trial.
In an argument that ultimately persuaded Judge John Horn to throw out a statement made by Terre'blanche's teenage murder accused as evidence, defence advocate Norman Arendse accused Mano of being a "serial torturer".
Confronted by the Kutumela ruling against him, Mano sighed: "That's the court decision... I may not agree but I can't change it".
Mano has never admitted wrongdoing in the Rasuge investigation, or apologised to Kutumela, who was driven out of his community by terrified residents, convinced that he had evil spirits at his command.
But the prosecutor who ensured Nkuna's conviction, deputy director of public prosecutions Johann Smit, isn't afraid of admitting that Kutumela's arrest was a "mistake".
"It became clear throughout the docket that that person had nothing to do with the disappearance or murder of Frances Rasuge, so it was not a factor that played a big role in my preparation of the case and my presentation of the case to the court. It was already water under the bridge."
Smit is an old-school prosecutor who operates strictly within the realm of what can be proved. When I ask him about the pervasive culture of fear in Themba and the murmurings of witchcraft, he's clearly uncomfortable.
"Some of my witnesses did tell me that they were afraid of William Nkuna and that I was informed by the police that he was a very powerful and feared person in his community. It was not necessary for the purposes of the case to go into detail as far as that is concerned but it links up with what I’ve always said before. In my mind, he’s a cold-blooded killer and I think everybody would be afraid of somebody like that.
"I was aware of the fact that people at the salon were afraid to come forward and to give evidence. If I recall correctly, I didn’t call anybody from the salon and I think that might have been why. But throughout the trial, it was clear that Nkuna was not a meek and mild person and everyone who spoke about him did so with apprehension, with fear."
Smit describes Nkuna as a possessive psychopath whose jealous obsession with Rasuge meant that he would never allow her to love anyone else. But he doesn't want to talk about the almost otherworldly power that Nkuna wielded over the Themba community.
"I remember when he was sentenced... People were stopping their cars and dancing in the street, hooting their horns. They cheered when I drove past. I'd never experienced that before," he says.
Back in Themba, I ask a local woman if she remembers the day and she nods.
"That day we thought that the devil was gone from here..." she trails off.
But why are people still afraid, I ask her.
She stares ahead of her.
"The devil is like poison in the water," she says, "You can't put the devil in a cage."
No one wanted to tell me where Nkuna's house was. Fear trickled from their eyes. I could feel it. DM
Photo: Fear still lingers around the murder of Frances Rasuge.