Violence Unveiled

Blood and sand: The murder of UCT students

By Rebecca Hodes 7 October 2019

Beachgoers enjoy the sun on 12 January 2019. In December 2018, private security company Professional Protection Alternatives, tasked with patrolling Clifton beaches, was accused of forcing members of the public off the beach citing safety concerns.. Photo: Leila Dougan

On Saturday 28 September, Cebo Mheli Mbatha, an 18-year-old student at the University of Cape Town, was murdered on Clifton beach. His death, in the wake of the rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, casts another glare at the violence of South African society.

I

In Albert Camus’ novel, The Stranger, the protagonist, Merseult, is sentenced to death for murdering “an Arab” on a beach in Algeria. The Arab is never named. Camus was renowned for his moral opposition to capital punishment, and he has woven this stance into the fabric of The Stranger. In the book’s last chapter, Merseult recalls how his father had

[G]one to watch a murderer be executed. Just the thought of going had made him sick to his stomach. But he went anyway, and when he came back he spent half the morning throwing up.

This scene captures Camus’ own experience, recounted in a posthumous autobiographical novel, in which he writes of his own father coming home after witnessing an execution, and vomiting. While Camus strongly denounced capital punishment, he was more interested in questions of consciousness, rather than blandishments of moral certainty.

The Stranger is about a man who is essentially indifferent to the suffering of others, a character ostensibly without consciousness. Yet he is conscious and, in Camus’ writing, this consciousness unfolds as one of both darkness and light: Merseult watches the sky, loves to swim, and is kind to a neighbour’s dog. He also smokes a cigarette next to the coffin in which his mother is soon to be buried, and he goes to watch a comic film the night after her funeral.

Rather than depicting him solely as evil, Camus seeks to step intricately through the increments of Merseult’s character, to understand and convey how a human, indifferent to particular forms of suffering, can still be humane. Merseult’s personhood, and his actions, are also a social allegory. They represent the moral strivings and failings of a society.

II

On Saturday 28 September, Cebo Mheli Mbatha, an 18-year-old student at the University of Cape Town (UCT), was murdered on Clifton beach. His death, in the wake of the rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, casts another glare at the violence of South African society.

Both Uyinene and Cebo were murdered in public places, Uyinene at the Clareinch Post Office in Claremont, and Cebo at Clifton beach. These locations are significant, because they are both part of “the commons”, and because they are ostensibly “safe”. There is no more banal and bureaucratic a place than the post office, where Uyinene had gone to fetch a package on 24 August 2019, and where she was raped and murdered by a government employee. 

On 28 September, a dearth of policeman and law enforcement officers, combined with the rapidity of the advertising and organising of events on social media, saw perhaps 3,000 revellers on the beach from around midday, largely unpoliced, and drinking a lot of liquor. With its backdrop of Lion’s Head, its smattering of igneous boulders, and it vast, front-row views of the Atlantic, Clifton is a contender for the world’s most beautiful beach.

My account below, of what happened that night and the following morning, is based on the facts reported by the UCT Executive via email, and on conversations with people who work, both formally and informally, at Clifton. None are named, and their roles are not identified.

III

At around midday on Saturday 28 September, three Golden Arrow buses arrived at Clifton, packed with young revellers. Sixteen minibus taxis arrived around the same time. A crowd of as many as 3,000 young people assembled on the beach, enjoying the beautiful evening. People brought with them large cooler boxes, many of which contained “hard tack” alcohol. Some of the young men who arrived were carrying knives. One had apparently brought with him a gun. Drugs were involved, principally cocaine (or other “sniffable” substances). While the sun was still up, the day proceeded fairly normally. The beach was festive and the atmosphere joyful. As it got dark, this changed.

The number of people stabbed at Clifton that night was perhaps as high as 11, but not lower than five. At a certain point in the night, one man ran amok, stabbing a number of people. A number of women were raped. A number of people were robbed. Properties were vandalised. Eventually, policemen, law enforcement officers and private security guards began trying to get people off the beach. Some found their way back, through Clifton’s warren of passages, and because the beach — as with all other public spaces — is essentially impossible to “close”. People returned to the beach from both the Mermaid’s Cove area, following what is known as “Seagull path”, and, presumably, from the area around “Moses” beach, where Clifton ends and the bay’s rockier promontory begins.

Cebo Mbatha, a first-year Humanities student known as “Cheesy”, was at Clifton that night with three of his friends. A few weeks earlier, he had attended the funeral of Uyinene Mrwetyana. Concerned about the safety of his younger sisters, in his last telephone conversation with them he warned them to be “very cautious” and “to be aware of thugs”. Cebo’s father, Linda Mbatha, reflected on his decision to allow him to attend UCT. His son had:

[A]sked me that he wanted to come study here. It wasn’t a difficult decision for me. I was happy to have somebody in my family coming here to sharpen his future.

Cebo was known as vivacious and charismatic, but also as “super chilled”. As with Uyinene, his future was bright. What better way to celebrate life and enjoy yourself than to go to Clifton beach with your friends on a Saturday evening?

Clifton Third Beach, 3 October 2019 (Photo credit: Rebecca Hodes)

At around 9 pm (perhaps earlier, no definitive timeline has yet been released), two young men approached Cebo and his three friends, who were sitting on Clifton Third Beach. The men tried to rob them, but Cebo fought back. He was stabbed in the chest. His lungs filled with blood. He bled to death on the steps of Clifton Third Beach. His other male friend was stabbed in the leg, and hospitalised. The two young women they were with were able to get away without being physically attacked.

There are a lot of people to blame for Cebo’s death, and more finger-pointing, much more, is needed. As of Friday 4 October, almost a week after his murder, no arrests had been made. Despite the ubiquity of security cameras, which should provide a deep pool of evidence for the South African Police Services to begin their investigation, no known action has yet been taken in arresting suspects or bringing formal charges.

On Sunday 29 September, the morning after Cebo’s murder, the lifeguards began to clean up the beach. This is not their job, but there was no-one else to do it. They were worried that the bottles would soon be broken, crushed into shards in the sand, where they would wedge themselves into toddlers’ feet. Every bin on the beach was filled to the brim with booze bottles. The lifeguards filled up a wheelbarrow, four times over, with glass bottles, to clear the beach. Clearly, laws against the consumption of alcohol on the beach had been violated en masse the previous evening.

IV

There are many questions that follow, but perhaps this is the most important: how will justice be served for Cebo Mbatha?

From this flows many other questions: Who committed this crime, and why? Where were the police? Where was law enforcement? Who organised this event and facilitated (likely at a profit) the transport of a huge number of young people to a public place, with vast quantities of alcohol and drugs, and no further regard for their safety that day and night?

Booking a Golden Arrow bus requires logistical nous. I know, because I’ve just spent 20 minutes on the phone trying to get through to their Charter Hire department. Of course, it is in their best interests to make the buses available cheaply and accessibly. To pay for the bus hire, you can either make an electronic bank transfer or you can pay in cash at their depot. In response to my question regarding what whether they were any rules applied to bus hire, a Golden Arrow employee responded:

Yes. There are always rules and recommendations.”

So, who hired the buses that took the young people to the beach that Saturday, and did they also arrange return? How did they justify or allow their passengers to board the buses with cooler boxes, destined for a public place, and packed to the brim with alcohol? How did these young people get these drinks in the first place? Who paid for them, and why? These questions are mounting, growing exponentially. They’ve gone viral in my brain, a plague of questions: inquenza.

I’ll stop here. I need to staunch this flow. As I write this, I’m on call waiting for Golden Arrow, trying to source a quotation on hiring a bus, to ascertain how much money was needed to book transport to Clifton on 28 September 2019. It’s Friday afternoon in their office. I can hear people talking loudly, and a baby crying. After 14 minutes, the man I’ve been speaking to returns to the line.

Oh, you’re still here?” he says, surprised that I haven’t hung up yet. He apologises for keeping me waiting, because “there is a problem with the system”. I agree. I agree.

The phone call lasts for 19 minutes and 24 seconds, and ends with Golden Arrow advising me to call back on Monday morning. Over the duration of the call, I am given five different estimates for the cost of hiring a bus from Khayelitsha to Sea Point in November 2019. The cheapest I am quoted is R3,290 for a return, and R3,220 for a one-way “drop off”. Somebody had to have the cash and the connections to book these buses. They are partly responsible for what happened at the beach that night.

V

At the memorial service for Uyinene held at UCT on 2 October 2019, Graça Machel, the former Chancellor of UCT, gave an impassioned speech. She said:

Something absolutely and deeply wrong is happening in our society. What has happened, where did we fail? What is happening that our families are nurturing murderers and rapists. It is in our families… What has gone so wrong? This is not the country we fought for… for people to be afraid.

UCT Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng echoed these sentiments, speaking at a protest at Parliament in the wake of Uyinene’s murder. She said:

In 1994 when we voted, we thought we are voting for our liberation. But it seems like we went into another form of bondage.

Together with questions about South Africa’s present, the murder of two UCT students over the duration of five weeks also raises questions about South Africa’s past. Machel made this explicit in her speech at UCT, in which she challenged university staff to examine “the problem, the root causes of why and how we got to the point of where we are, as a society”, to loud applause.

The violence against Uyinene and Cebo has brought to the surface something that lies deeper, much deeper than the shallow grave that Uyinene’s murderer dug for her corpse. It is deeper than Clifton’s boulders — Plutons — the chunks of broken-off magma that graze the coast. This violence is mixed in with sand, diamonds, coal and silica. And for Cebo, the sand of Clifton, which is especially sticky. It lodges itself in your feet and thighs and buttocks. It finds its way into crevices. It is sloughed off rock and mollusc, shiny bits of shell and mother of pearl. You’ll find it later, in your shoes, your pockets, your bed. Some of it may even make its way into Cebo’s grave.

V

On Tuesday morning, 1 October, I drive onto UCT campus. The perennial search for parking begins. I drive straight up the mountain, knowing that the higher I go and the steeper the walk, the more likely I am to find a spot. UCT’s chronic parking problem is this: it is both exceedingly difficult and undesirable to build a parking garage on a mountain.

On my way up the hill, I pass a colleague walking with a young woman. I assume that they are discussing something for a seminar, or an essay she had recently written, or perhaps a thesis in preparation. Their conversation is warm and engaged, yet pointed. The student is speaking, her professor is listening.

This is the best of UCT: an internationally renowned scholar, taking a friendly stroll, with a bright and talented student. I stop and offer them a lift, but they are enjoying the exercise. My colleague explains that she has left a boiled egg in her car and, on this baking spring day in Cape Town, this could go nuclear.

I walk straight to the building in which I work, and to the office of a colleague who is the director of the Safety and Violence Initiative. We confer about an upcoming seminar, and decide to hold a moment of silence to commemorate another death of one of our own. This is the worst of UCT. DM

Rebecca Hodes is a medical historian based at the University of Cape Town. She is currently writing her second book, about sexual health in post-apartheid South Africa.

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