Radebe, Ngcuka and the mysterious death of a judge

The mystery surrounding the seemingly violent death of acting Cape High Court judge and ANC struggle hero Patrick Ntobeko Maqubela continues to deepen.

Maqubela was found dead in bed at his luxury seafront flat on Sunday June 7 by fellow acting judge Jake Moloi, two days after police believe he died.

Moloi said there was a pillow over his face and blood on both the pillow and the sheets.

Maqubela’s high-level political connections included former prosecutions chief Bulelani Ngcuka and Justice Minister Jeff Radebe. ­He played a crucial role at the 2003 Hefer Commission, set up to investigate claims that Ngcuka was an apartheid spy.

A Mail & Guardian investigation can reveal:

  • Startling inconsistencies in the police version of the death, beginning with a bizarre pronouncement that he died of a ‘severe heart attack”.

    The police investigation was changed three days later to one of murder.
    Family members complained of being ‘left in the dark” about the police investigation, while his colleagues in the judiciary are equally perplexed by the handling of the case.

  • Both heaters were switched on high in Maqubela’s room, causing rapid decomposition of the body. The weather bureau confirmed temperatures on the day of the death were mild, ranging from 18°C to 24°C. The bureau said police had visited them to discuss weather conditions on that day.

  • Although she lives in Johannesburg, Maqubela’s wife, Thandi, was staying with her husband during the week of his death. On Thursday June 4, the day before police say he died, she is said to have visited Radebe in Cape Town, allegedly giving him reasons why her husband was unfit to be a judge.

    Radebe’s spokesperson, Tlali Tlali, refused to comment, saying: ‘The minister ... would not want to conduct himself in a manner that would call into question the integrity of a [police] investigation possibly currently under way.” Ngcuka also refused comment because of the ‘sensitivity” of the case.

  • On the day of the death the Maqubelas had a mystery visitor, who left later the same day. On the same morning, a woman who identified herself as ‘Amanda” contacted Maqubela’s secretary at court to say he would not be in because he had been taken to Groote Schuur Hospital.

  • Maqubela’s cellphone was used repeatedly over the weekend after his death, according to sources, and SMSes were sent from it to colleagues, family and friends telling them he would be out of contact. An SMS was also allegedly sent from the cellphone to Radebe, saying he had settled his differences with his wife.
Moloi found the body of 60-year-old Maqubela after he and others went looking for him at his Bantry Bay flat.

Moloi disputed the police finding that his colleague had died of a heart attack.

‘I found him lying face up, with his arms by his side, a sheet tucked over him and with a pillow on top of his face,” said Moloi.

‘There was blood on the pillow and on the sheets. Who looks like that if they’ve had a heart attack?”

Top forensic scientist David Klatzow said he was puzzled that the state pathologist called to examine the body concluded he had died of a heart attack.

‘It was remarkably imprudent for a state pathologist to leap to that conclusion, based on a decomposing body and blood stains that were not characteristic of a heart attack,” said Klatzow.

A former Umkhonto weSizwe commander in KwaZulu-Natal, Maqubela gave testimony at the Hefer Commission in 2003 contradicting claims that Ngcuka had betrayed him to the apartheid security police.

Family members say that he had taken out a life policy worth about R20-million and that his estate was valued at between R15-million and R20-million. He had a host of directorships in private companies.

Family members also claimed that the couple’s often turbulent relationship was a source of distress to Maqubela, who had allegedly stalled divorce proceedings when his wife’s mother died.

The couple is known to have received an unnamed visitor in their apartment on June 5.

The visitor, a man, was announced by security officials at the apartment block who were given permission to send him up to the flat. There is video footage of all arrivals and departures. The mystery visitor left that morning, while Thandi allegedly left the building later that day.

Police spokesman Superintendent Andre Traut said police are still treating Maqubela’s death as a ­murder, but had no suspects. Two of Cape Town’s top detectives, Reynold Talmakkies and Jo Dryden, are investigating, but could not be reached for comment.

Traut said the first postmortem could not determine the cause of death because of the state of decomposition of Maqubela’s body.

‘Bodily organs were sent away and a toxicology analysis was done, but the exact cause of death was inconclusive,” he said.

Police had requested further tests from the provincial department of health, said Traut.

But an exasperated provincial health spokesperson, Faiza Steyn, said she was ‘200% sure” no further tests had been carried out by her department. ‘We have handed over everything to police,” she said.

Sources close to the investigation said the man who visited the couple at their flat had been taken in by police for questioning but had been released.

After several approaches by the M&G, Thandi Maqubela promised to answer questions at a later stage, but failed to do so.

A law firm named Martins Weir Smith later wrote to the M&G stating that ‘we advise that counsel who has been instructed to represent our client (T Maqubela) is currently overseas and that he will attend to address [sic] a response to your aforementioned email subsequent to his return on 7 September 2009”.

Moloi said he is haunted by Maqubela’s death.

‘Every day someone asks me if there has been a breakthrough in the case, and I thought about him as I walked into my chambers this morning.

‘I’d known him for 15 years. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. He was a smiling, likeable person,” he said.

‘I don’t think you ever get over finding someone like that. It was one of the biggest shocks of my life.”

The case of Mr X
Maqubela has taken some damning political secrets with him to the grave.

His list of political connections reads like a who’s who of ANC luminaries, but Maqubela never publicly revealed the identity of ‘Mr X”, the man he believed betrayed him to the security police.

A former Umkhonto weSizwe commander, trained in Swaziland, Maqubela was detained after his unit was accused of planting bombs at targets including Durban’s army recruitment centre.

Among the high-profile mourners who attended his funeral in his hometown of Qumbu, in the Eastern Cape, were the former prosecutions chief Bulelani Ngcuka and his wife Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, and Justice Minister Jeff Radebe and his wife Brigitte.

In his eulogy, Radebe described Maqubela as ‘a gallant soldier of ... Umkhonto weSizwe [who] contributed to many MK activities in and around Durban, making this city one of the most bombed cities during our struggle ... “

Defended by Chief Justice Pius Langa, then a junior counsel, Maqubela was sentenced to 20 years in prison for high treason in 1982. He served nine years in Pollsmoor and Johannesburg Central prisons.

He came to prominence when former foreign affairs official Mo Shaik and former transport minister Mac Maharaj alleged that Ngcuka had betrayed him to the security police.

But Maqubela denied this when he testified before the Hefer Commission in Bloemfontein in 2003.

Ngcuka, his former housemate in Umlazi and Claremont, could not have been an apartheid spy, he told the commission. Ngcuka spent three years in prison in the 1980s for refusing to testify against Maqubela at his trial and did not betray him, Maqubela said. But, he said ‘Mr X”, a University of Natal student, was who he believed had ‘shopped” him and other KwaZulu-Natal underground ANC operatives to police.

Maqubela threw a curve ball when he testified that Shaik and Maharaj knew Mr X’s identity. He told the commission he had learnt that Mr X compromised certain comrades who were killed in Swaziland. He had heard Mr X had committed suicide in Lusaka while in ANC detention.

Former president Thabo Mbeki set up the Hefer Commission after allegations against Ngcuka in a City Press report, based on an investigation by ANC intelligence structures in 1989 and 1990 that found Ngcuka might have been police agent RS452.

The ANC investigation was led by Shaik, and Maharaj supported Shaik’s allegations by confirming the investigation. But the Hefer Commission found that Ngcuka ‘probably never” acted as an agent for the apartheid government.

The M&G sent a list of questions to Ngcuka this week, including requests for a character reference for Maqubela and whether Ngcuka had shared business interests with the judge. Through his spokesperson, Sipho Ngwema, Ngcuka replied that he would not like to be ‘drawn into” the circumstances surrounding Maqubela’s death because of the ‘sensitivity” of the matter.

At the time of his death, Maqubela had notched up about 60 directorships, company records show. Some may have related to his work as an attorney and not have been his own. A number of the interests were in the field regulated by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka when she was minerals and energy minister. He appeared as a director of companies, including Spear Petroleum, Karmaq Minerals, Royale Energy Africa and Eyabantu Petroleum.

Some of his interests suggested particular proximity to the Ngcukas, including his directorship in Eyabantu Petroleum, alongside Mlambo-Ngcuka’s longtime adviser and spokesperson, Khanyo Gqulu, and Ilima Projects, which he chaired and involves two relatives of the Ngcukas.

Maqubela met Ngcuka when they both joined a law firm in Durban and were admitted as attorneys in 1978. Maqubela was articled to Griffiths Mxenge, the Durban-based human rights lawyer assassinated by a police hit squad in 1981.

Maharaj said that he had heard that Maqubela told the Hefer Commission that he knew who Mr X was, but had no idea what he was talking about. ‘You would have had to ask him,” said Maharaj. ‘I can’t hope to clarify his imagination.”

Shaik said he had known Maqubela as a comrade and was ‘deeply disturbed” to hear of his apparent murder. ‘One of the problems has been that too many of these murders in the country go unresolved,” he said. ‘I held him in high respect, and did not necessarily agree with what he said at the Hefer Commission, but he was a loyal comrade.”

Shaik said he did not know who Maqubela referred to when he mentioned a Mr X at the commission.

Glynnis Underhill

Glynnis Underhill

Glynnis Underhill has been in journalism for more years than she cares to remember. She loves a good story as much now as she did when she first started. The only difference is today she hopes she is giving something back to the country.
  • Read more from Glynnis Underhill
  • Client Media Releases

    SMS API in retail stores
    Social work academic to receive international award
    Make your personal brand work for you
    NWU honours struggle heroine on Africa Day