South Africa

The Black Widow: How Thandi Maqubela spun her web of lies

By Rebecca Davis 8 November 2013

A former political prisoner and respected acting judge, found dead in his bed. His wife, a glamorous businesswoman who denied any responsibility. It’s been five years since the death of Patrick Maqubela, and on Thursday his widow Thandi was found guilty of his murder, labelled a lying manipulator by the judge. It was a case which had everything: sex, money, even the involvement of Justice Minister Jeff Radebe. REBECCA DAVIS was in the courtroom when the verdict was handed down.

When Judge John Murphy announced in the Cape High Court that he found Thandi Maqubela guilty of the murder of her husband, she said nothing. She didn’t call out, or cry, or faint – as she had in court the previous day, prompting suspicions that she was angling for a medical-related delay to the judgment. She stared ahead expressionlessly. As soon as possible, she put on the large pair of sunglasses, which she has donned on entering and leaving the courtroom every day.

As usual, she wore an elaborate headdress: the trademark of her many days in the dock. She didn’t bow her head when a policewoman stepped forward to cuff her hands behind her back. She allowed herself to be steered down into the holding cells, which will provide her temporary home as if she was being escorted into a cocktail party.

Five years ago, Maqubela would have been no stranger to cocktail parties. She was a successful businesswoman, a South African distributor for a range of aloe-derived products called Forever Living. She was married to Patrick Maqubela, a prominent attorney who seemed to be on a certain track towards becoming a judge. They split their time between Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Patrick Maqubela’s ancestral home in Qumbu, Eastern Cape. The couple had two daughters and raised a third, from another relationship of Thandi’s. The family had a lavish home in Sandton, valued at R17 million.

Thandi and Patrick Maqubela had been romantically involved for 30 years in 2009. But despite the apparent glamour of their existence, all was not well behind the scenes. Patrick had been a former MK cadre, detained as a political prisoner throughout the 80s and released from Robben Island in 1990. He won some high-profile post-prison roles – most notably as Legal Advisor to SAA, until a clash with CEO Coleman Andrews put paid to that – but it appears that by 2009 things had begun to unravel for Patrick.

His partners at Daly & Associates, his law firm, complained that he hadn’t worked or contributed financially to the firm for months. He was living well beyond his means and was heavily in debt. A financial advisor told him that his best option was to put the Sandton home on the market, since the bond alone was costing over R120,000 per month to service, but Thandi apparently refused. Financial woes were not the major source of stress in the relationship, however. It appears that Patrick was, simply, a remorseless philanderer.

In 2007 Thandi had been made aware that her husband was frequently seen in the company of young women. She discovered, apparently with the aid of private investigators, that he was carrying on relationships with a number of women. She began to compile a dossier of evidence: photographs, phone records, hotel bills. At one point she went so far as to travel to Bloemfontein to confront one of her husband’s young lovers – but there were many more. Patrick Maqubela’s doctor, who prescribed him Viagra, testified in court that he seemed “rather proud” of his “acquisitions”.

Maqubela’s sexual conduct, in conjunction with the evidence of his financial troubles, suggested that he was “struggling psychologically,” Judge Murphy wrote. “No doubt the stresses and strains of his life as an underground operative and as a political prisoner took their toll. This court is in no position to make a moral judgment about the deceased and we do not make one.”

Thandi Maqubela was happy to make such a judgment. Unable to persuade her husband to change his ways, she chose a different tack. She began to meet with her husband’s friends, colleagues and relatives, showing them the evidence of his frequent infidelity. One such witness testified that she was “very collected” in their meeting, and “very systematic in explaining and dealing with the contents of the dossier”. She would apparently talk frequently about her personal crusade to persuade the young from getting involved with “sugar daddies” like her husband.

Thandi also took steps to expose her husband in the media, contacting The Sowetan, providing them with evidence and encouraging them to run a scandalous expose. (In the end they reportedly did not do so out of fear of being sued.) None of this was denied by Thandi in court, who rationalised her actions by saying it was an attempt to force Patrick to end his destructive behaviour.

“Her apparent lack of concern for the repercussions of such a public humiliation of the deceased for him, herself, her children and their extended family is frankly astonishing,” Judge Murphy wrote in his judgment. “Her perception of how to deal with the deceased’s behaviour is symptomatic of her manipulative and vindictive nature and an inability to contain her impulse to have her way at all costs.”

Patrick Maqubela was a close friend of Justice Minister Jeff Radebe’s. On Wednesday 3 June, 2009, Thandi met with Radebe in Cape Town after he granted her an appointment alone. There she presented Radebe with her evidence and said that she wanted to go public with it. Radebe testified in court that he believed Thandi came to him in order to definitively scupper Patrick’s chances of ever being appointed as a permanent judge. It worked; there was no way that Radebe would have been able to countenance his appointment thereafter. Jeff Radebe spoke to Patrick that same afternoon and told him what had transpired. Patrick was reportedly embarrassed but not surprised. He said that he planned to divorce his wife – though Thandi had previously told Radebe that her religious beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness would not permit this.

The following day – Thursday 4 June – was the last time that anyone would ever speak to Patrick Maqubela. On Sunday 7 June he was found dead in his bed in the Bantry Bay apartment he’d been staying at while working as an acting judge. Coroners said later that it was likely he had died on Friday 5 June.

The great difficulty of the case was that it was impossible to determine with certainty Maqubela’s cause of death. This was because of the extent of decomposition to the body, which seems to have occurred because a heater had been turned up so high and because Patrick was for no apparent reason wearing two sets of clothes on top of each other. (It was suggested that Thandi Maqubela, who had a background as a nurse, would have been aware that this would result in rapid decomposition.) The prosecution maintained that Maqubela had been suffocated to death, possibly with a piece of clingfilm found in a bin which contained Thandi’s fingerprints. The defence countered that Patrick had died of natural causes, pointing to an existing health condition of hypertension. The court found that the medical evidence could not rule out either possibility.

On the morning of Friday 5 June, Thandi Maqubela had been visited in the apartment by a man called Vela Mabena, a sales rep for her company who claimed he had simply dropped by to collect a book from her. On the basis of his presence in the apartment near what might have been the time of Patrick’s death, Mabena was prosecuted alongside Thandi for his murder. The two claimed to barely know each other; in his judgment, Murphy conceded that there appeared no evident motive for Mabena’s involvement. What was suspicious, however, is that cellphone records revealed that Mabena and Thandi had texted and called each other several times in the days after the body was discovered, and particularly after Thandi gave her initial account to police.

Why would they have found it necessary to communicate in this way, asked the judge, if the ostensible reason for their contact – to pick up a book – had been concluded? It didn’t look good. But there was not a shred of DNA evidence linking Mabena to the scene, and records showed that he had spent only between five and 20 minutes within the apartment complex. Given this, Judge Murphy said he was forced to acquit Mabena – though he stressed that his verdict should be seen as one of “not proven” rather than a resounding statement of Mabena’s innocence.

When it came to Thandi, however, there were numerous incriminating factors. Just a few weeks prior to Patrick’s death, she had contacted Liberty Life to try to make inquiries about the status of her husband’s life insurance policy. (He had in fact renewed it, after a few years’ lapse, just two months previously – to the tune of R20 million. Technically Patrick died insolvent due to his debt, but thanks to the life insurance payout there ended up being R12 million to be split among his heirs.) Subsequent to Patrick’s death, she also submitted a will to the Master of the High Court of Johannesburg which listed his wife as the beneficiary and executor of his estate. This was found to be forged: Patrick in fact died intestate.

Thandi Maqubela’s story was that she left the Bantry Bay apartment on Friday morning to run errands, and her husband was alive and well. She claims they had arranged to meet at the airport on Friday afternoon to fly to Qumbu. When her husband failed to appear, she took it as evidence of his characteristic unreliability and decided to fly home to Johannesburg instead. However, cellphone records show that she booked a ticket to Johannesburg well before the time at which she was allegedly stood up by her husband.

What really sunk Thandi, though, was the evidence that she had taken her husband’s cellphone after his death and sent messages from it to various persons after he had died. This was established because the same cellphone base stations were trigged at the same points by Thandi’s phone and Patrick’s phone that weekend. Her aim was clearly to provide the impression that her husband was still alive. Some of the messages she sent while masquerading as her husband were merely excuses for not being able to talk on the phone: “I cannot phone at the moment sorry,” for instance, she sent to their daughter.

Most bizarre and in some ways poignant, however, was the text message she sent from her husband’s phone to herself. “Please forgive me for all the things I have done to you,” it read. “I cannot even face you. Yes you have a point. I need help. Thanks for being there for me. I love you.”

Judge Murphy suggested that this SMS and others were intended “to create the impression that the relationship problems were on the mend, and hence when the body of the deceased was discovered, as it surely had to be, she could be seen as being without knowledge or blame”. This is no doubt accurate, but it’s also possible to read the message as a tragic form of wish-fulfillment.

It was the mountain of lies told by Thandi Maqubela during the trial, and her suspicious actions following his death, that ultimately signed her conviction despite the lack of forensic evidence. Judge Murphy described her as a “mendacious witness”, and said: “She has deliberately told no less than 30-40 lies on material issues, both in and out of court”. Her behaviour could only be read as incompatible with innocence, Murphy said.

Speaking to journalists after the guilty verdict was handed down, Patrick’s ex-wife, Nzwaki Nginza-Maqubela, said that Patrick’s family was hoping for a life term for Thandi when sentencing occurs on 20 November, describing her as a “danger to the community”. One of the saddest sights, however, was that of Thandi and Patrick Maqubela’s young daughter slipping quietly out of the courtroom after the verdict, walking down the road pursued briefly by photographers. Robbed of a father, she now faces many years without a mother. DM

Photo: Thandi Maqubela is seen outside the Western Cape High Court. Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA)

Read more:

  • Black widow Thandi Maqubela guilty, co-accused acquitted, in the City Press


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