NEW FRAME

Violence-torn KZN: Where witnessing a murder could be a death sentence

By Niren Tolsi for New Frame 15 August 2019

The funeral service of slain former ANC Youth League secretary-general Sindiso Magaqa on 16 September 2017 in Umzimkulu. Magaqa died in a Durban hospital two months after being shot multiple times. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Thuli Dlaminii)

Most of the victims of the more than 100 politically motivated murders in the province in the post-apartheid era have been ANC members, but now witnesses and even police officers appear to be on hit lists.

First published by New Frame

Mafika Mndebele’s eyes are bloodshot, his face drawn; the effects of his itinerant lifestyle. The ANC Youth League Emalahleni regional secretary from Newcastle has been on the move since he survived a shooting that claimed the life of ANC comrade Wandile “Manqasha” Ngobeni at a drinking lounge in Madadeni township three years ago.

In 2016, Mndebele was sitting next to Ngobeni in a group of about 10 people, “so close” that when the shooting subsided “his blood was all over me”.

There was, Mndebele remembers, “a lot of shots, and then silence”.

The hitmen were cool as you like before they opened fire: “The first guy started dancing. He was very unknown to us. He was dancing funny but we felt safe there because we knew the owner, so we laughed him off and carried on enjoying ourselves,” says Mndebele.

He went away and came back with another guy. They simply took out their guns and started shooting.”

Ngobeni was shot 28 times. Mndebele, twice. A bullet grazed his side, another entered his foot.

I remember them leaving slowly, as if nothing had happened. One guy lit a cigarette and started smoking it as he walked away,” says Mndebele.

The two hitmen were arrested and later released on bail. One of them was subsequently rearrested on an unrelated charge pertaining to an unlicensed firearm.

Mndebele is adamant the assassins meant to kill him, too. He has been looking over his shoulder ever since, moving from one friend’s house to another, holding on to the anxiety to preserve his life.

Arrested and charged

In March, Newcastle mayor Ntuthuko Mahlaba – who had taken up the position on the first of that month – was arrested and charged with murder, attempted murder and two counts of conspiring to commit murder in connection with Ngobeni’s death and Mndebele’s injuries. Out on R20,000 bail and placed on “special leave” by the ANC, Mahlaba’s next appearance in the Madadeni Magistrate’s Court is scheduled for 15 August.

Mahlaba was charged at around the same time that Harry Gwala District mayor Mluleki Ndobe wound up in the accused stand at the uMzimkhulu magistrate’s court. Ndobe, uMzimkhulu municipal manager Zwelibanzi Sikhosana and three others were charged with the 2017 murder of Sindiso Magaqa.

Magaqa, a former ANC Youth League national secretary, had been a councillor in uMzimkhulu and was vocal about corruption related to the yet to be completed multimillion-rand upgrade of the town’s Memorial Hall.

Charges against Ndobe and Sikhosana were later withdrawn as rumours swirled that one of the state’s witnesses had recanted his testimony against the two ANC officials after being “turned” while awaiting the trial, which is scheduled to commence on 14 October. KwaZulu-Natal’s acting director of public prosecutions, advocate Elaine Zungu, said the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) would “look into these allegations” and respond once it was in a position to do so.

New targets

More than a decade of politically motivated murders in KwaZulu-Natal has seen the province endure its bloodiest period since the internecine violence between the ANC/United Democratic Front and Inkatha (renamed the Inkatha Freedom Party in July 1990) in the 1980s and 1990s. While members of social movements and other political organisations and parties have also been murdered, the majority of the more than 100 people killed in the post-apartheid bloodletting have been ANC members. Most were allegedly murdered at the orders of comrades as the political volatility at ANC regional level becomes increasingly violent with the jostling for positions and patronage.

The bloodletting has now extended to witnesses, whistle-blowers and police officers investigating cases of political murder and corruption. In early August, it was revealed that one of the lead investigators in the R208-million corruption case involving former eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede had been admitted to hospital following a shooting attempt on his life in Johannesburg.

Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi confirmed that the detective had been involved in several corruption investigations involving municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal.

Mulaudzi said this was the first such attempt to kill a Hawks member involved in investigating corruption and political murders in KwaZulu-Natal and that the “necessary precautions had been taken to ensure the investigations would not be undermined”.

Yet, there are also instances of witnesses in the province being “turned”, disappearing or being murdered, causing investigations to falter, charges to be withdrawn and prosecutions to teeter.

A witness to the 2016 murder of Ngobeni, Mndebele is deeply afraid for his safety. As are the others who were at the Kasi Lounge in Newcastle that fatal evening.

Innocents eliminated

Martin Sithole was murdered at around 5pm on 12 May, outside the bottle store he owned on Voortrekker Street in the CBD of Newcastle.

A businessman and former ANC Ward 4 branch treasurer, Sithole was reportedly shot 28 times. His friend Buthanani Shange was also killed. The Hawks later confirmed that Sithole was a key witness in the murder case against Mahlaba, the Newcastle mayor.

The 47-year-old was murdered on Mother’s Day. His wife, Nokuthula, and four children are still traumatised. Their daughter Nokukhanya, who started her first year at Wits University in 2019 is receiving counselling.

Nokuthula has little time to mourn. Hers is a parent’s burden, to keep her family together and ensure her children heal as much as they can. To figure out Sithole’s business affairs. To ensure the monthly bills are covered. She is worried she will have to remove her 15-year-old daughter Makabongwe from the R11,000 a month private school where she is studying.

Nokuthula says her husband “was very secretive” and “didn’t tell me anything about the issues related to the organisation [the ANC]”.

She had not pressed Sithole on the volatility in Emalahleni until the Hawks visited their home earlier this year to interview him. Nokuthula says the visit made her anxious. “I asked him, ‘Are you protected enough?’ There were so many ANC people here that day … He just smiled and told me, ‘Would you be happy if I died and no one testified?’”

That her husband died for a principle is of cold comfort to Nokuthula. She says he was not protected by guards and had become more concerned about their safety in the weeks leading up to his death.

He was sensing something. He was starting to feel unsafe,” says Nokuthula, who remains adamant that members of “the party that my husband loved so much” are behind his murder.

Witnesses like Sithole are brazenly murdered. Others “disappear”, either because of fear and intimidation or more nefarious machinations. There have been concerns among politicians, prosecutors and the police that co-accused who have accepted Section 204 deals and turned state witness are susceptible to being “turned again” while in police custody or out on bail, getting paid or the threat of being killed the motivators.

Withdrawal of charges

An ANC provincial executive committee member, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not mandated to speak to the media, pointed to the recent withdrawal of murder charges against eThekwini Ward 80 councillor Mthokozisi Nojiyeza as an example. Nojiyeza, his brother Phumlani and an associate, Nkosinathi Mbambo, were arrested in December for the October 2019 murder of another city councillor, S’bu Maphumulo.

Both Nojiyeza’s co-accused had turned Section 204 witnesses and were supposed to testify against him. They were granted bail and they have disappeared, that’s why the case has fallen apart,” said the ANC leader. The NPA said they had to investigate the allegation before responding to New Frame.

Recently, Sbonelo Mchunu, the deputy head of operations at the eThekwini metro police department, confirmed that 60 councillors in the city received police protection. Two of those cops, 61-year-old Sergeant Zephinia Dladla and Constable Sonto Mhlanga, 40, were killed while guarding the home of Ward 53 councillor Moses Zulu in May.

Many of the city’s councillors also have bodyguards paid for by ratepayers. In 2012, the city was paying R1.4-million a month for bodyguards for 11 councillors. By 2015, this had more than doubled to R36-million a year. According to the municipal medium-term revenue and expenditure budget for 2019-2020, spending on community and emergency services will increase by R337-million to R4.1-billion in this financial year. The municipality has budgeted R213-million for external security and VIP guards.

Marked men’

While KwaZulu-Natal politicians appear to have easy access to state-funded protection, it is more difficult for whistle-blowers and witnesses to acquire protection, unless they enter a witness protection programme.

For Mndebele, this is not an option: “These cases can go on for years sometimes, how do we spend that time away from our families and who will support them while we are not working?”

Another ANC member said that if witnesses remain in communities, they embolden “others to be brave and speak up”.

Some, like Thabiso Zulu, have been speaking out.

Zulu doesn’t confirm a meeting or its venue until the very last minute. Even then, being early or late may save his life.

When he arrives, Zulu is accompanied by three bodyguards and a driver, paid for by friends and family members, he says, because the state has not offered him protection despite security assessments confirming that he risks being murdered.

Zulu, a former ANC and ANC Youth League regional leader in KwaZulu-Natal’s southern Midlands area, is a whistle-blower and anti-corruption activist. He testified at the Moerane Commission, which concluded its investigation into the province’s political murders in May 2018.

Zulu says he and another ANC leader, Les Stuta, have been passing on information related to malfeasance and political assassinations to ANC leaders and the police for years. This has endangered his life.

Remember, we have broken an omertà by going public with our allegations and evidence,” says Zulu. “There are so many people within the ANC who we have offended that it’s inevitable we are marked men.”

Ongoing pursuit

Despite assessments by crime intelligence and the State Security Agency, as well as a public protector report, indicating that Zulu’s life is in danger, he has yet to receive police protection. Sebasha Mehlape of the Civilian Secretariat for Police Service did not respond to New Frame’s request for comment regarding Zulu’s protection.

This has left Zulu frustrated and constantly looking over his shoulder, which is affecting his family.

I have a seven-year-old son and he told me, ‘Dad, if they kill you, I will run away. But when I grow up, I will come back and kill them.’ This angers me, because my son should be thinking about football, Chappies [bubblegum], whatever else young children think about. He should not be thinking about one day coming back to kill someone who killed his dad,” says Zulu.

This has not deterred Zulu in his pursuit of justice. He says ANC members often come to him with evidence or leads. This includes documents allegedly confirming corruption linked to the ballooning costs of refurbishing the Memorial Hall in uMzimkhulu .

These were given to him by Magaqa, who had become fearful for his life. Magaqa was shot soon afterwards and died less than two months later in hospital. He was 34 years old and one of the ANC’s brightest.

I’ll keep doing what I am doing,” says Zulu. “Even if the system is collapsing, there are still many good people in these government institutions and we have to keep fighting.”

A rare smile breaks Zulu’s otherwise serious and harried facade when asked if the ANC, the source and focus of much of the violence in KwaZulu-Natal, can self-correct. “The ANC and self-correction, that’s like mixing water and paraffin,” he replies. “We are too far gone.” DM

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