A RUSSIAN DOLL
Part Three: EXPOSED — the SANDF ‘Torture’ Squad
Open Secrets exposes a military squad allegedly responsible for acts of torture and murder. The evidence implicates at least four units of the SANDF in crimes dating back to 2019. They are the elite Special Forces Brigade, the Military Police, Defence Intelligence and Defence Legal Services. The lead Special Forces operative allegedly involved was also the subject of a criminal investigation by Hawks investigator Frans Mathipa shortly before Mathipa’s assassination by a sharpshooter. All this raises concerns of a large-scale criminal conspiracy within the SANDF.
The first two parts of our Russian Doll investigation revealed a SA National Defence Force Special Forces unit to be the owner of at least one luxury German car that accompanied cargo loaded off and possibly on to the sanctioned Russian ship Lady R in Simon’s Town in December last year. We, in turn, linked that vehicle to a Special Forces operation three weeks later at the Mall of Africa in Midrand, the day alleged Islamic State financier Abdella Abadiga and his bodyguard were abducted from the mall. Importantly, the person hot on the spoor of this group — Lieutenant-Colonel Frans Mathipa of the Hawks — was assassinated on 6 August this year.
The mystery of the missing rifles
Our story today is rooted in a crime that took place some three years before the Lady R incident. On 23 December 2019, 18 R4 rifles and three pistols were reported as stolen from the strongroom safe at the SA Army Engineer Formation base south of Pretoria.
News of this was leaked to the media and it quickly made headlines across the country. This was not without reason: R4 rifles are the workhorse of the SANDF and can fire more than 600 rounds a minute. In the wrong hands these 18 rifles could cause mayhem. In this investigation, Open Secrets focuses on the hunt for the missing rifles by the SANDF.
Our sources speak out
Witnesses both within and outside of the government have provided evidence to Open Secrets. Their account of events exposes a broad criminal network within the military. Its members appear to hanker back to a time when military death squads operated with impunity in South Africa. Accordingly, we will not name sources.
In this article, we draw on a source who was present when some of the most egregious human rights violations took place. Their account is supported by two further sources with a contemporaneous understanding of events.
Where we have independently corroborated information this has been made clear.
While we expose the names of military operatives alleged to have committed grave crimes, it is crucial to note that we have drawn on insights from brave public servants and members of the public who, like the murdered Hawks officer Frans Mathipa, are committed to the democratic constitutional order.
Our investigation also draws on the circumstances of an SANDF board of inquiry established to investigate complaints of alleged criminal activity within the military. The board was headed by Defence Intelligence Brigadier-General John Moorhouse. According to a source who has direct knowledge of the work of the Moorhouse Inquiry, it heard the testimonies of dozens of witnesses and focused extensively on corruption and abuse of office in the military. It also heard evidence of torture, including some of the information we report on today.
Despite the Moorhouse Inquiry having wrapped up hearings almost six months ago, the final report, the same source says, appears to be gathering dust on the desk of the chief of the SANDF and possibly that of the minister of defence. It is imperative that the contents of the report, and the record and evidence presented, are made public immediately.
We now turn to the investigation into the missing rifles. But for contextual information or where we indicate otherwise, the story is as told by our sources.
Military Police start the investigation
The head of the Military Police, Rear Admiral Mokgadi Maphoto, appointed a team from the ranks of the Military Police to investigate the rifle theft from the army engineering base. The team included Lieutenant-Colonel Doris Phindani Netshanzhe (then holding the rank of major), the acting commanding officer at the Thaba Tshwane Military Police Office. Thaba Tshwane is a vast military complex south of Pretoria, not far from Freedom Park and the Voortrekker Monument. It is about 4km from the engineering base where the rifles went missing.
The Military Police soon established that while the doors of the strongroom were damaged with an angle grinder, this could only have been intended as a ruse. No angle grinder would have been able to open the massive steel door. Rather, the thieves had simply unlocked it. Camera footage confirmed that it was indeed an inside job.
The Military Police identified Lance-Corporal Sidwell Babini Tyawana and Sapper Tumelo Christian Mongale as suspects. Tyawana, who had left the base to join a training exercise in Oudsthoorn, was flown back to Pretoria, a distance of more than 1,000km, on a South African Air Force Caravan aircraft around the time of his arrest.
Military Police believed that Tyawana was the mastermind of the theft and had sold the weapons to criminal enterprises on the East Rand. Tyawana was arrested on 3 February 2020 and Mongale two days later. Both were granted bail when they appeared before a military court at Thaba Tshwane two months later.
We do not know Tyawana’s current whereabouts and if he is indeed alive, but according to records in our possession he was recorded as absent without leave (awol) on 24 April 2020, two days after having been granted bail by a military court. Given the covert nature of military justice processes, we do not know the outcome of the case.
While in custody, Tyawana swiftly agreed to cooperate with Military Police and Defence Intelligence. According to a presentation that Military Police head Maphoto made to Parliament on 27 August 2020, Tyawana actively assisted the investigation in identifying suspects or locations for investigation. This was presumably in the hope that he would be freed in return for his cooperation.
Tyawana’s cellphone was used to contact the purchasers of the rifles. Once contact was established Defence Intelligence could, and indeed did, use cellphone surveillance technology to track the suspects’ whereabouts. It is not known if this was done with a court order. In this way, Tyawana was the bait used to lure unwitting individuals into the arms of military investigators.
‘By any means necessary’
Netshanzhe, the Thaba Tshwane Military Police acting commander, said at the time that then Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula wanted the weapons to be found and returned by “any means necessary” as this was proving to be an embarrassment to the SANDF.
We do not know for a fact that the minister uttered these words, as it is hearsay — but as South Africa’s history during apartheid shows, security officials are quick to interpret instructions such as these literally.
Quoted in Daily Maverick, Mapisa-Nqakula referred to a group of 12 suspects arrested within days of the theft being discovered as “unpatriotic” and “self-serving thugs”, while their attorney described their detention as unnecessary.
According to a presentation made by Maphoto to Parliament in August 2020, charges against seven of the 12 were withdrawn and five were still to appear in court. We have been told that the 12 suspects, which did not include Tyawana and Mongale, were all eventually released as there was no evidence implicating them in any crime.
Special Forces lead the hunt
On the night of 4 February 2020, a team was assembled at the Thaba Tshwane military base. Their aim was to retrieve the missing rifles based on information obtained from Tyawana. The team consisted of two Defence Intelligence officials, two Military Police officials and a dozen Special Forces members in plain clothes. The presence of Military Police at this point would have been essential, for the military cannot simply usurp policing functions without authorisation.
Netshanzhe and a Colonel Mokone from Defence Intelligence were informed of the objectives of this mission. However, the Special Forces were in charge. They, in turn, were commanded by a man who used the name Musa or Mike.
Open Secrets has since established that Musa or Mike is in fact Colonel Sunnybooi Pinny Wambi. (See “Who is Pinny Sunnybooi Wambi aka ‘Musa’?” below.)
He is the very person who led the Special Forces “training exercise” (as the SANDF would have it) at the Mall of Africa on the same day and time that Abadiga, the alleged Islamic State financier, and his bodyguard were abducted. He was also a prime target of the investigation by Mathipa, the slain Hawks investigator, into Abadiga’s abduction. We established that the same cellphone number was used by Wambi and Musa. This was further confirmed by a WhatsApp profile photograph.
The vehicles carrying the group included a Mercedes-Benz, Toyota Conquest and Nissan Micra. These cars left the military base in a broken convoy. Approximately 10km outside the base the convoy reassembled and stopped on the side of the road. One of the Special Forces members then opened the boot of the Mercedes-Benz. Inside was a man known only as Nyambose. He had been badly beaten, possibly tortured. He was given some money for taxi fare and told by the Special Forces to “walk and don’t look back”. Nyambose is assumed to have been abducted by Special Forces as part of their “investigation” into the missing rifles.
The convoy then headed towards the East Rand, to Springs, as directed remotely by a Defence Intelligence officer using cellphone tracking technology. The vehicles then headed to Kempton Park, where the convoy stopped again near a McDonald’s outlet in the city centre. Here, at lightning speed, they abducted a 35-year-old man named Sphamandla who had been lured by Tyawana to meet them. Sphamandla was bundled into one of the cars and driven back to Thaba Tshwane military base, with the vehicles once again in convoy.
Torture at Thaba Tshwane
The convoy arrived at Thaba Tshwane at about midnight, stopping at the Thaba Tshwane Military Police area office. Sphamandla was taken to the Military Police bar known as Karob (Afrikaans for “carob”) where he was stripped naked, tied to a chair and tortured. He was beaten so badly with branches and sticks that his skin eventually took on a green hue. The beatings were accompanied by shouts of “Shaya! Shaya!” (Beat! Hit! in isiZulu) by Wambi and others who appeared to enjoy this sadistic task. At certain intervals the torturers used ice-cold water to waterboard him, a torture technique which simulates drowning.
The chief interrogator was reportedly Wambi, assisted by Netshanzhe. Other members of the team milled about outside the bar.
Wambi reportedly repeatedly asked Sphamandla in isiZulu, “Where are the weapons?”, to which he replied that uShukela (“Sugar” in isiZulu) was the one responsible. uShukela is believed to be the nickname for Tyawana.
At about 3am, the bar went quiet. Sphamandla had been beaten so viciously that he could no longer see. He was taken to the Nissan Micra and made to sit on the back seat. He declined an offer of water, requesting a beer instead. The man we know only as Sphamandla took a sip of the Hansa, then breathed his final breath.
Sphamandla’s body was taken back to the Karob Bar where attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful. Wambi intended to bury Sphamandla in the grounds of Special Forces headquarters at Speskop, southwest of Pretoria. Speskop is located about 4km south of the Thaba Tshwane military base and has served as the headquarters of the Special Forces for many years. It is in the middle of the Swartkop Park Nature Reserve, providing a large buffer zone between the base and nearby suburbs.
A hero’s welcome
A gathering took place at Thaba Tshwane in May 2020 to welcome the final recovered R4 rifle back to base. This took place in the midst of Covid-19 when the movement of South Africans was heavily restricted during one of the toughest lockdowns in the world. A small gathering of military officials was brought together, including Brigadier-General Eric Mnisi (the head of legal at the SANDF) and Doris Netshanzhe. Five BMW X5s, with blue lights blazing, met the welcoming party at the base. Wambi stepped out of one of the vehicles and handed over a weapon with the words, “Your last one.” The assembled dignitaries clapped.
This date accords with Mathopo’s presentation to Parliament; he, however, stated that the last four rifles were recovered.
Who is Pinny Sunnybooi Wambi aka ‘Musa’?
Pinny Sunnybooi Wambi led a “training exercise” at the Mall of Africa where Abdella Abadiga, the alleged Islamic State financier, and his bodyguard were abducted. This was the SANDF’s version in court papers following attempts by Abadiga’s brother to locate him and secure his freedom through an urgent application.
We have identified Wambi as the coach of a football team of teenage players known as Young Pirates FC in Sedibeng. On the soccer team’s various social media platforms, he is consistently identified by the nicknames Sanza or Musa.
It is worth noting that Wambi was given the rank of major in court papers in February 2023 following the Abadiga abduction. In court papers submitted by the SANDF in July 2023 (in response to Mathipa’s quest to gain access to Wambi’s cellphone records) he is referred to as a colonel. If accurate, this suggests a promotion in 2023 following the Abadiga abduction.
Who is Lieutenant-Colonel Doris Phindani Netshanzhe aka ‘Mama Skebenga’?
According to one source, Military Police official Doris Netshanzhe earned the nickname of “Mama Skebenga” (Mama Gangster) from Special Forces officers. We have been told that she was swiftly promoted from major to lieutenant-colonel shortly after the completion of the R4 recovery operation. She also enjoyed the privilege of a training course in Cuba.
Open Secrets has obtained a revealing statement made under oath to the Lohatla Military Police concerning threats allegedly made by Netshanzhe to a Military Police platoon commander. The platoon commander opened a case of intimidation against Netshanzhe at Lohatla military base which is still the subject of a Military Police internal investigation.
The context of the complaint is that Netshanzhe intervened in aspects of processing a rape case at a military base in a manner that the platoon commander thought was unprocedural and could bungle the investigation. The platoon commander is independent of Open Secrets sources. According to the statement, on 8 November 2022, the platoon commander was sitting outside a court at Khatu attending to a matter concerning the sexual assault.
Netshanzhe had wanted the platoon commander to be elsewhere and, according to an affidavit from the platoon commander, stated in a loud voice outside the court, in front of members of the public: “[Lieutenant,] you don’t know me very well. I talk to the Chief [of the] SANDF and Admiral Maphoto [head of Military Police] every day. I am well connected, I am untouchable. General Mnisi of Legal is my boyfriend. I work with Special Forces; we make people disappear. I was investigating officer on the weapons case. That is all over, where are they?”
The platoon commander, not knowing the context, states: “I did not understand her.”
Lifting the veil
South Africa has a long and complicated history of denying military complicity in criminal activity. At the end of apartheid it was a requirement of the political settlement that neither the apartheid nor liberation militaries should be held to account for criminal activity. At the time, the two primary hidden hands in South African political life — the military and corporate South Africa — were unchallenged lest they undermine the nascent democratic order.
More recently there has been no investigation of the impact of State Capture on the SANDF, notwithstanding the consistent rumours of the close political allegiance between the former chief of the SANDF Solly Shoke and the Zuma administration. As we reported in Part Two of the Russian Doll investigation, the military was the driving force behind draconian State of Emergency regulations drafted shortly before Zuma was pushed into leaving public office.
The Ramaphosa administration has not rocked the military boat, apparently for fear of it turning on him. Its support was, after all, crucial during the July 2021 rioting and looting instigated by a pro-Zuma faction.
However, this investigation exposes alleged criminality within the military which must be investigated and prosecuted by authorities outside of the military. For now, the targets of the alleged torture squad have been people, like Sphamandla, on the margins of society. However, if the Special Forces killed Mathipa, then it must be on account of a greater sense of power and protection.
Members of Parliament and aspirant MPs should know that if they do not push now for accountability there is no telling who will be next. This should give them all, including the President, sleepless nights until we have seen accountability.
Detailed questions were sent to the following parties named in this article. None responded at the time of publication. Should a response be forthcoming in the next few days, it will appended to this article. They are:
- General Rudzani Maphwanya, chief of the South African National Defence Force;
- Siphiwe Dlamini, spokesperson for the SANDF/Department of Defence;
- Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, Speaker of Parliament (former minister of defence);
- Brigadier-General Eric Mnisi, SANDF legal head;
- Lieutenant-Colonel Doris Phindani Netshanzhe;
- Colonel Pinny Sunnybooi Wambi; and
- Lance-Corporal Sidwel Babini Tyawana (all his messages bounced back undelivered) DM
Open Secrets is a non-profit organisation which exposes and builds accountability for private-sector economic crimes through investigative research, advocacy and the law. To support our work visit Support Open Secrets.