South Africa


They pray with one eye open – spectre of death haunts Soweto’s crime-ridden White City

They pray with one eye open – spectre of death haunts Soweto’s crime-ridden White City
Community members of White City during a candlelight prayer held for the two murdered boys on 25 April 2023 in Soweto. The bodies of the two missing children were discovered at different locations by community members. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi)

White City is where Nqobizitha Zulu (5) and Tshiamo Rabanye (6) were mercilessly murdered. We took a deep dive into the area and were confronted by the impact of rampant, ruthless crime.

In many societies it’s rare to find the church and criminality spoken of in the same sentence. Not in White City, Soweto, the scene of the brutal murder and mutilation of two boys in April, where the boundary is so blurred that congregants pray with one eye open.

“No one feels safe at the moment,” Regina Mundi Church parish priest Father Nqobile Mzolo said. 

The Regina Mundi Catholic Church in White City, Soweto. (Photo:Felix Dlangamandla)

This famed church is the gateway to White City, but these credentials have not spared the landmark place of worship and others from criminals.

According to Father Mzolo, the last breach at the Regina Mundi church was about a month ago, when “they stole copper pipes and mirrors”. 

The Lesotho Evangelical Church of Southern Africa in White City. (Photo: Kabelo Mokoena)

The Lesotho Evangelical Church of Southern Africa. (Photo: Kabelo Mokoena)

Less than 5km from the Regina Mundi Church, one of the most recognisable churches in White City, is the Lesotho Evangelical Church in Southern Africa. While the church was not keen on getting into the details of the attacks, two church leaders told Daily Maverick that when criminals broke in and found nothing, they trashed the building.

The mere mention of the killings exposes the size of the wounds they have left in the hearts of locals.

About 15km from the evangelical church, five people died in an attack on the International Pentecost Holiness Church (IPHC) in Zuurbekom on 11 July 2020.

The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities found that the attack arose from a succession battle at the church.

The infiltration of religious gatherings by criminal elements in White City and surrounds is a new and rising phenomenon that shows crime knows no bounds.

Strolling through White City, it feels like any other area of Soweto, except the spectre of death still lingers more than two months after the boys’ murder. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Soweto fury as female relative arrested for murder, mutilation of two young boys

The mere mention of the killings exposes the size of the wounds they have left in the hearts of locals. 

White City’s proximity to the Regina Mundi Church, and historical sites such as the June 16 Memorial Acre affords White City bragging rights.

Congregants at the Regina Mundi Catholic Church is Soweto conduct their Sunday service in Johannesburg, South Africa, 16 June 2013. (Photo: EPA / Kim Ludbrook)

Thokoza Park, with its wetland, welcomes visitors to White City, and gives the area a natural feel, but this quickly dissipates as you walk further in and reality sinks in.

This is where Nqobizitha Zulu (5) and Tshiamo Rabanye (6) were murdered in May 2023. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Anger over Soweto child murders – ‘feed the killers to the sharks’

Murdered and dismembered, the Isisekelo Primary pupils were discovered by patrollers and residents in separate locations in Rockville and White City on 20 April after they went missing on 19 April. 

Nqobile Ndlovu (50) and her partner, Mthunzi Zulu (39), stand accused of the murders. They have already made at least two appearances in the Protea Magistrates’ Court.

A scene in White City where one of the two mutilated bodies of the boys was found on 20 April 2023 in Soweto. The other body was discovered by community members at a different location. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi)

Those appearances have not been easy on the boys’ families, especially Nqobizitha’s mother, Nonhlanhla Zulu. During the accused’s last court appearance Zulu threw a white object at the accused just as the magistrate postponed the case. 

The accused’s first appearances have not been easy on the court either. Officials had to implement strict safety measures as angry residents all wanted to be inside the courtroom.

History of pain 

White City came about when black people were forcibly removed from Sophiatown decades ago.

“Prior to that Boers lived here. Boer soldiers lived here. They would frequently be bused to work from here,” White City resident Musa Hlatshwayo said.

Its name is derived from dome-shaped concrete houses, many of which were white. “Another distinctive feature of those houses was their red rooftops,” Hlatshwayo said. 

“If you look around Mzimhlophe today, these houses still exist,” White City Ward 37 councillor Papi Chetsanga said.

White City is one of the oldest townships in Soweto, with its own customs, practices and trends. 

But for all its glittering credentials, White City appears at the top of the list for crime. The Moroka police station,which serves White City, made it to the top 30 of 144 police stations in Gauteng where the most crime was reported, according to the first-quarter 2022/23 SAPS crime statistics. The report covered seven crime categories.

We are imprisoned by criminals in our own homes. When you turn the other way it’s load shedding, unemployment.

The station made the top 20 for kidnappings and recorded an increase in this category, and also made the top 25 for sexual assault, the top 30 for robbery with aggravating circumstances and the top 20 for “trio” crimes (carjackings, house robberies and business robberies).

The station took fifth spot for carjackings, registering an increase of 79.5% in this category between June 2021 and June 2022. It also made the top 30 for malicious damage to property and the top 10 for illegal possession of firearms and ammunition.

Although, the statistics coming out of Moroka reflect escalating crime across the country, with the quarterly statistics released revealing that 6,285 people were killed between January and March 2023. Another 10,512 were raped in the same period.

Churches, households and businesses have come up with innovative ways to secure their premises and belongings, such as leaving cleaned sneakers and shoes to dry on roofs.

Churches, on the other hand, no longer keep anything of value inside, with congregants constantly living in fear. 

Most foreign and locally owned shops do not allow walk-ins after sunset. Customers are served through a small opening in the door. 

“We are imprisoned by criminals in our own homes. When you turn the other way it’s load shedding, unemployment,” said the 50-year-old Hlatshwayo, who was born in White City and has lived here all his life. 

Young and despondent

The bleak circumstances in the area have obliterated any hopes of finding work among many young people. When asked what they do for a living, a common response is “siyaphanda” “we hustle”), which has a broader meaning in township terms.

It’s a term mired in both honest and very dishonest hustling and has become a part of the practices and trends in the area and around Soweto.

“It can be playing dice, but there is nothing innocent about hustling,” a White City youngster known as “Sash” Mokone told Daily Maverick.


Residents said they don’t feel safe because of the high level of desperation among drug addicts.

“Drug dens have become a huge problem because this is where the sophisticated crimes involving shootings are orchestrated,” Chetsanga, the Ward 37 councillor, said.

Sometimes, marauding addicts chased out homeowners during robberies and used the houses as drug dens.

“We might quickly have to get back to when we used to protect ourselves. We have community structures and we are working with police on a structure to protect ourselves,” Chetsanga added.

An aerial photograph of Soweto’s White City. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Silver lining

Despite the alarming crime figures, Moroka police station commander Brigadier Shiburi said most crimes have stabilised thanks to sound collaboration between the police, residents, patrollers and the CPF, as well as crime imbizos involving ward councillors.

“The two murdered boys would not have been found if it wasn’t for the sound collaborations,” he said.

“We have a very good working relationship,” Shiburi added.

However, a White City patroller who attended the memorial service for the murdered boys told Daily Maverick they frequently receive death reports and that crime was on the rise. 

Despite the successes, Shiburi also expressed concern about new, sophisticated trends, especially in carjackings. But, patrol sessions had been intensified and the criminals had sought new hunting grounds in nearby Chiawelo. DM


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