Bodyguard Phinda Thomo was found dead in an apparent suicide in his Soweto home five years ago. Yet there has been no closure for his family, who do not believe this father of four took his own life. Their anguish was compounded by unverified claims made after his death that he killed himself because he had been having an affair with First Lady Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma when he was her private bodyguard. To add to the ongoing mystery, Daily Maverick has now established that there was a quiet public inquest into Thomo's death, which revealed some startling contradictions in the evidence. By GLYNNIS UNDERHILL.
First Lady Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma’s former private bodyguard Phinda Thomo was discovered in the bloodied bath of his rented Soweto home by his cousin on 4 December 2009. “He was holding a gun in his right hand, and had an open wound on his right neck and he was motionless,” Vusi Thomo said in his police statement.
While he was the first person on the scene, he was not informed that an inquest was being held into his cousin’s death. Neither was the rest of the family told about the inquest, although the police inquest docket seen by the Daily Maverick contains a “notice of inquest” stamped by the magistrate’s court, indicating his brother would be notified in advance.
“No-one told us there was an inquest,” his brother Phumlani Thomo confirmed. “We knew nothing about it. Why did they not inform us? I was very close to my brother.”
Thomo’s death remains shrouded in mystery after it was widely speculated that he had killed himself because he had been having an affair with Ntuli-Zuma when he was her private bodyguard, and she was pregnant with his child. Nobody knows who peddled this information to the media; police declined at the time to comment on the bodyguard’s death.
The allegations that Zuma’s second wife had been having an affair with her bodyguard were later denied by his nephew Khulubuse, but those who knew Thomo said they were not surprised by the scandalous claims he might have been having an affair with MaNtuli, as she is known.
They described the bodyguard as a “ladies’ man”, who lived life to the full and feared no-one.
Thomo’s 76-year-old mother Thenjiwa wept when she spoke about the death of her charismatic son, who was father to four of her grandchildren.
“We don’t know what happened, but I don’t think he committed suicide. When I went there to his house, I saw him lying in a bath. His face was facing upwards, and he looked like he was sleeping. He was sitting up high in the bath. Everything was tidy, there was nothing crazy in there. He was just all right in the bath and his right hand was on his lap with a gun in it.”
Her voice broke as she asked: “Can you say that is a person who has committed suicide?”
The family felt helpless in the face of the claims coming out at the time of Thomo’s death that he was having an affair with Ntuli-Zuma. His mother said she did not go to the police with her concerns that it was not a suicide, as she believed they would not listen to her.
“My son is not going to come back, whatever I do. The police have told us nothing, nothing, nothing, since he died. When did this inquest take place?”
The Daily Maverick has established that a public inquest into Thomo’s death was held on 23 November 2010 at the Protea Magistrate’s court in Soweto, with magistrate Molefe Ratlou presiding. Statements and forensic evidence contained in the police inquest docket were handed to the court, and there were no witnesses called.
This was an informal public inquest, at which Thomo’s death was quietly recorded as a suicide.
As they were unaware an inquest was happening, none of Thomo’s family or friends were present, nor were they given the courtesy of being informed about the findings.
Acting senior magistrate at the Protea Magistrate’s Court Molapi Kganakga has said he will look into the inquest, and follow up on why the family who live nearby in Soweto were not told it was happening.
Kganakga said if there was an informal inquest in which the magistrate looked into police dockets, it would be open to the public. If no family members were present and the magistrate decided not to proceed and subpoena witnesses, he would record a finding.
“I will look into the matter. Normally if it is an informal inquest, the magistrate looks into the police dockets and decides if there is anybody to be blamed or not. Thereafter, the next of kin will be called, and informed of the decision of the magistrate.”
Questions remain about why Thomo’s family were not notified a public inquest was happening.
Leading forensic expert says inquest revealed “glaring omissions and inconsistencies”
A top forensic expert, who asked not to be named, studied the police statements and forensic evidence in the police inquest docket presented to court, and said: “There are definitely aspects in the autopsy report and scene investigation that are contradictory and worthy of re-examination.”
It was highly unusual the family had not been notified about a public inquest into a death and it “raised a red flag”, as it was vital that interested parties were informed, the expert said.
The office of the Gauteng Director of Public Prosecutions should have been contacted to see if it had received or sanctioned this inquest. “They may already be aware of the glaring omissions and inconsistencies in the matter,” said the forensics expert.
Clarity has not yet been obtained about whether the office of the Gauteng Director of Public Prosecutions viewed or sanctioned the record of the inquest. The person who had the key to the office where the 2010 inquest documents were kept happened to be away on holiday when Daily Maverick inquired.
But given the length of time that has passed, and the fact that nobody has spoken to the Thomo family, it seems unlikely anything has been done about these “glaring omissions and inconsistencies” in the inquest evidence.
What is clear is that the police did not have any suspects in the case as they repeatedly claimed in their own statements presented at the inquest that Thomo had committed suicide.
Here are some of the apparent contradictions spotted by the Daily Maverick, while the forensic expert said there were many more that raised concern:
There are police photographs of Thomo’s body lying propped up in the bath, the gun resting on his lap in his right hand. The bodyguard is pictured sitting on a towel mysteriously found under his body, as observed by his mother on the day of his death.
A photo plan of the scene is included in the documents found in the police inquest docket.
Lucas Visser, a superintendent with the ballistics section of the South African Police Service who is an examiner of forensic ballistic-related cases and had by that stage examined in excess of 5,300 cases, conducted the forensic ballistics examination.
Visser examined exhibits 3.3.1, which was a 357 mag calibre fired cartridge case, and exhibit 3.3.2, which was a .357/.38 calibre fired bullet.
The ballistics expert stated that the fired cartridge case had been fired from the 357 mag calibre Taurus model 669 revolver found at the scene.
“It cannot be determined if the bullet mentioned in 3.3.2 was fired, or was not fired from the firearm (the 669 revolver) mentioned in 3.1,” Visser wrote.
Visser stated that the exhibits and tests had been sealed in an evidence bag and placed in a laboratory.
Thomo told police he had found his cousin in the bath in a pool of blood. “He was holding a gun in his right hand, and had an open would on his right neck and he was motionless.” There was no suicide note at the scene, he said.
In contrast to the description from Thomo’s cousin of how he entered the home with a key he found on a windowsill, a statement from a police officer written on the morning he died, described the method of entrance to the house as “Physical Force”. Yet there is no elaboration on this entry, and clarity could not be obtained as the investigating officer in this case died a few years ago, Daily Maverick was told.
For Thomo’s aggrieved family, learning that a veil of secrecy was thrown around a public inquest into his death has given them further cause to worry about whether they will ever find peace. His sister Jabu Thomo said the family is still in turmoil about what happened to him. “We have been told nothing. We loved my brother so much, we would have all been there at the inquest. It is painful for me and my family that we still don’t know what happened to him.”
Vusi Thomo said his younger cousin appeared to be in a good place before he died because he had recently come to consult him about getting married to his fiancee. Asked if he believed his cousin committed suicide, as he apparently said in his police statement, he said: “We don’t know the real truth. He is the one who knows, and he is gone. He is the only one who knows what happened.”
The bodyguard who loved life
Thomo clearly embraced life, and his work and private life was, by all accounts, never dull. Before he signed up to work for the president’s wife, he worked as a private bodyguard for influential people like Fikile Mbalula and Julius Malema.
Malema said Thomo was one of his bodyguards for a period when he still supported President Jacob Zuma and the ANC, and he had sat with him in his main car.
“Thomo looked after Mbalula, then he came over to me. He was with me for a few months or so. He was in my main car,” said Malema. “He was loyal, disciplined, and always neat, clean and followed instructions with military precision. After he left me, I think he went on to Ntuli-Zuma.”
When the rumours started about Thomo’s affair with the First Lady, people who worked with him did not know if there was any truth to them, but they were not surprised at the stories. Malema fondly remembered Thomo as being “easily distracted” by women.
Thomo had come to work privately for him after an introduction by Zuma’s long-standing principal bodyguard, Major-General Mzingaye Mxolisis Dladla of the South African Police Service’s Presidential Protection Service, said Malema. After his death, he said they had been informed Thomo had committed suicide, and had been unaware of his family’s concerns.
The public inquest to which the Thomo family was not invited took place four months after allegations were sent in a letter to media houses in June 2010. Purportedly signed by concerned members of the Zuma family, the letter claimed that Ntuli-Zuma had been having an affair with Thomo and the child she was carrying was his, and not that of her husband. Khulubuse Zuma distanced the family from these claims.
Ntuli-Zuma is one of Zuma’s four wives, and the speculation continued after the child, Manqoba Kholwani (Zulu for Believe It) Zuma, was born in August 2010.
Last year Thomo’s death was back in the headlines after a Tanzanian man based in South Africa, Steven Ongolo, was arrested for extortion in a case involving Ntuli-Zuma. Investigating officer Brigadier Clifford Marion told the court that in one SMS to Ntuli-Zuma, Ongolo threatened to tell the media and Zuma that Zuma was not the father of one of Ntuli-Zuma’s children. Another SMS related to a claim that the 2009 death of her bodyguard was suspicious. Ongolo was sentenced to three months in jail, or a fine of R10,000, after pleading guilty to three counts of crimen injuria in the Durban Regional Court.
Last month Ntuli-Zuma fell under the spotlight again when the Sunday Times alleged she had been evicted from the Nkandla homestead after being accused of trying to poison her husband. And last week the President and Ntuli-Zuma were reportedly both seen at St Anne’s Hospital in Pietermaritzburg, after their three children and a cousin were involved in a road accident. The Zuma family was surrounded at the hospital by a cluster of bodyguards, people they depend on with their lives.
Thomo quit as Ntuli-Zuma’s private bodyguard six months before he died, without telling those close to him why he was leaving her employ. Presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj said he would have to look into how Thomo came to be working as a private bodyguard for Ntuli-Zuma.
His former girlfriend Lerato Shabangu, who lived with Thomo for seven years before they broke up, said he soon after found work with popular comedian David Kau.
Shabangu is the mother of Thomo’s ten-year-old son, Sbahle, and she is still seeking closure over his death. “My son misses his father a lot,” she said. “I am struggling a lot too.”
Thomo had come to her Soweto house in Orlando, where she stays with her grandmother, the night before his death, to give her R1,500 for his son’s graduation event at his junior school.
“He left instructions for us to pack a bag for his son, as he wanted to spend time with him that weekend,” Shabangu recalled. “I even spoke to him the morning he died to discuss the arrangements with him. I feel he wouldn’t have committed suicide, as he had everything to live for.”
In their last call on the morning of his death, Thomo told Shabangu he had beaten tuberculosis and had celebrated his good fortune the night before. He was also planning to get married to his fiancee, she said, and had previously talked to her about having his four children live with him under one roof. It was something she was still considering when he died.
“Phinda taught me how to enjoy life,” said Shabangu. “He was a ladies’ man, and everybody loved him. He had everything to live for and he loved life.”
The day Thomo was buried was an emotional one for many, and family and friends were amazed to see Ntuli-Zuma openly sobbing at his funeral. “The First Lady wept so hard, she outdid the family,” said one of the funeral-goers. DM
Photo: Phinda Thomo.