Parliament building firebug or scapegoat? Zandile Mafe’s family speaks out about the man behind the headlines

Alleged Parliament arsonist Zandile Christmas Mafe in the Cape Town Magistrates' Court on 11 January 2022. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Zandile Christmas Mafe, the man accused of setting Parliament ablaze, is currently surrounded by many narratives pertaining to his character and alleged crimes. His last appearance in the Cape Town Magistrates’ Court on 11 January was marked by several revelations, including a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, the addition of a terrorism charge by the State against Mafe and his subsequent announcement that he would go on a hunger strike should his bail application not be heard.

‘We don’t have that special relationship,” said Sibongile Matiwane, a cousin of alleged Parliament arsonist Zandile Mafe.

According to Matiwane, Mafe had previously lived in Mafikeng in North West, where his three other siblings also resided. Matiwane added that Mafe’s sister passed away some time ago, leaving him with two remaining brothers. 

He lived with one of his brothers in Mafikeng, where they stayed in the same yard, according to Matiwane, before Mafe left “for greener pastures” in Cape Town.

“He told me he was working in a bakery,” said Matiwane. “Then when this lockdown started, that’s when things start to turn left.” Matiwane explained that paying rent and buying food to eat became difficult for Mafe during this time. He went on to describe Mafe’s life as one characterised by trying to stave off poverty and make ends meet.

“He was completely alone,” said Matiwane of Mafe’s life after moving to Cape Town. While Matiwane and his brother also reside in Cape Town, he explained that Mafe usually contacted his brother if he needed help. Matiwane recalled that Mafe had one other relative in the province, a niece living in Strand, but she too passed away. 

Speaking on Mafe’s psychological state, which came under question recently in court and resulted in the decision to admit Mafe to Valkenberg psychiatric hospital for evaluation, Matiwane said he had never seen any signs of emotional instability in his cousin.

According to Eric Ntabazalila, spokesperson for the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the prosecution received a document after Mafe’s first court appearance confirming the district surgeon’s diagnosis that Mafe experiences paranoid schizophrenia. Ntabazalila said they had no choice but to bring this to the court’s attention on Tuesday.

For Matiwane, Mafe’s personality is one partial to solitude and privacy. “He likes to sit there, maybe read something or whatever, but he doesn’t like to engage with a lot of people.”

Another of Mafe’s cousins, Vintiwembi Matiwane, echoed this account of the accused’s character. “He’s a quiet person. He likes his own space, because of his stuttering. That is why he’s always alone,” said Vintiwembi Matiwane. “But, if you give him the chance to speak, then he can express himself.”

Sibongile Matiwane disclosed that Mafe had what he would describe as a friend; an “old man” Mafe knew when he lived in Langa, before moving to Khayelitsha. Matiwane was not aware that Mafe had moved to Khayelitsha until after he made headlines for his alleged crimes. 

When asked if they believe that their cousin could ever commit the crimes he is accused of, both Sibongile and Vintiwembi Matiwane answered without hesitation: “No.”

For Vintiwembi Matiwane, the entire situation seems like a matter of Mafe being in the “wrong place at the wrong time”. “I don’t believe he could have done that,” he concluded, suggesting that the blame is being unfairly dumped on Mafe.

Ntabazalila denied any such claims of persecution. “We don’t have anything personal against him,” he said. “What we are dealing with is the evidence that we have in front of us, which points at present to him.” Ntabazalila emphasised that the prosecution did not know of Mr Mafe prior to the case.

“I give him [the] benefit of the doubt,” said Sibongile Matiwane, who described Mafe as never having stolen or committed any crimes. “Let the law take its course.”

In the face of having his bail application postponed, Mafe announced in court on Tuesday that he would go on a hunger strike.

“The court cannot be held to ransom,” declared Ntabazalila. “We hope that he’s changed his mind, and is cooperating and eating so that we can go ahead with the case. And also give him, then, the opportunity to prove he is innocent.”

Ntabazalila said they would await the outcome of the psychiatric evaluation report and recommendations from the experts at Valkenberg, and then take the case forward accordingly. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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  • Is a district surgeon qualified to make a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia? When will anyone see the cctv “evidence”, the “explosive devices”?

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