POLICE investigating the execution-style murder of five African National Congress members in a KwaZulu-Natal township this week face the grim reality that their early leads point to complicity by their own officers.
The five victims, including two newly- elected ANC officials, were shot dead on Tuesday night in Isimozomeni, a township near Richmond in the volatile Midlands region.
Police are pursuing a number of leads, following up allegations by witnesses and local and national ANC officials. Two suspects are being questioned.
So far, most claims by witnesses centre on alleged involvement by police and security forces, and Sifiso Nkabinde, the Midlands warlord expelled from the ANC in March amid spying accusations.
Local ANC officials claim Nkabinde was seen distributing arms in the township hours before the killings. Other witnesses say members of the nearby Pietermaritzburg public order policing unit ordered South African National Defence Force personnel out of the area just before the murders.
Another newly-elected ANC council member, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal, said Nkabinde was seen with police near the township, and turned back a defence force vehicle that was heading there.
Nkabinde denies the allegations, adding that he had not been arrested. Police searched his house on Wednesday afternoon and did not find anything.
The acting head superintendent of the Pietermaritzburg unit, Herman O’Connell, also rejects the allegations of police complicity as “absolute nonsense”.
The killings came just days after by- elections in the region, in which the ANC won four of the five vacant seats. Nkabinde fought and lost the by-election under the banner of Bantu Holomisa’s National Consultative Forum.
The execution-style murders – councillors Bhekumusa Mchunu and Mbongenseni Mchunu, and Boy Dlamini, Mduduzi Mntungwa and Msheniyeni Nyide were dragged from their homes and shot in the head – shattered the relative peace that had surrounded the actual voting.
The by-elections followed the murder of Rodney van der Byl, one of two Richmond councillors who refused to resign in support of Nkabinde.
Van der Byl’s successor, Andrew Ragavaloo, also refused to step down and has lived under round-the-clock protection ever since.
Ragavaloo says three of the victims had told him hours before their deaths that they had seen Nkabinde distributing arms in the township. He says efforts to alert the police had evoked little response, and he was also told security in the region was being reduced.
“Someone here wants to destroy the council in Richmond because he has seen that for the first time he was defeated in the elections,” Ragavaloo adds.
Other ANC officials, however, play down Nkabinde’s ability to initiate the murders himself, suggesting instead that he was used by “third force” elements.
Weeks before Nkabinde’s expulsion from the ANC a military intelligence report handed to the province’s safety and security sub- committee alleged Nkabinde had unusually close links with several Richmond and Pietermaritzburg police units. It also emerged earlier this week that police investigating Van der Byl’s murder were believed to have implicated Nkabinde.
More than 200 soldiers and policemen have now been deployed into the area to prevent any explosion of violence. The remaining newly-elected councillors are under 24-hour protection.
The Minister of Safety and Security, Sydney Mufamadi, arrived in Richmond on Thursday for briefings from police and the province’s safety and security committee about the killings.
Richmond now faces the prospect of a second by-election to replace those killed. Ragavaloo says it is unclear whether anyone will want to stand. The ANC had struggled to find candidates willing to risk last Sunday’s by-election.