/ 4 June 2015

Glebelands: Fingers pointed at untouchable ‘serial killer’

Kill site: Glebelands hostel is the crime scene of at least 21 murders since February 2014.
Kill site: Glebelands hostel is the crime scene of at least 21 murders since February 2014.

On May 17 Sipho Ndovela, a resident of the Glebelands Hostel in Umlazi, Durban, was acquitted of attempted murder in the Umlazi Magistrate’s Court.

As he stepped out of the courthouse, three gunmen pumped one bullet into his head and three into his chest. 

“Sipho was lying dead on the ground in his own blood, metres away from the court; his arms outstretched,” recalls Vanessa Burger, an activist working with the hostel dwellers’ association, uBunye Bamahostela, and who has spent much time trying to get to the bottom of the endless violence that has racked Glebelands since early last year. 

Burger says she was not surprised by Ndovela’s cruel death. “We were expecting it; we were all worried.”

She believes Ndovela was killed because he was due to make a supplementary statement that afternoon at the Umlazi police station about the murder of Fikile Siyepu, another resident killed at the hostel on January 15.

AmaBhungane has seen an initial statement Ndovela made to Burger a day after Siyepu’s death, in which he alleged that, while sitting outside the hostel’s block 49 with Siyepu, he saw Bongani Hlope drive up in a bakkie and collect 10 men whom he (Ndovela) had previously seen taking part in the ongoing Glebelands terror. 

Soon afterwards the 10 men reappeared; this time six of them were carrying handguns, which they pointed at Ndovela and another companion. 

He then realised that Hlope “appeared to have armed them and dropped them off out of sight behind Block 49 in order to ambush them as they left”, the statement goes on.

Shooting erupted and Ndovela took refuge in a kitchen. He states he later found Siyepu dead in a passageway in a pool of blood.

Burger says that, according to Ndovela, he had omitted Hlope’s name from his initial statement about the incident to the police after the investigating officer told him this was irrelevant information.

He was a “sitting duck”
On the day of Ndovela’s death she was intending to accompany him to Umlazi police station, she says – he was too nervous to go on his own – to make a supplementary statement implicating Hlope by name.

“Ndovela was a sitting duck,” she says. “At the identity parade he pointed out four guys that shot Fikile. His family was being harassed; his wife was told he wouldn’t see court.”

Hlope is facing attempted murder charges in connection with an attack on Mzikayise Mbekela, who was shot in the ankle and struck on the head with an axe at the hostel’s Block 56 on April 26 this year.

He appeared in court for a second time on May 21 and the case was postponed. Burger, who attended the hearing, says Hlope was not asked to plead and has yet to testify.

The number of violent deaths at Glebelands since early last year is disputed. KwaZulu-Natal police spokesperson Colonel Jay Naicker put the figure at 15. 

But according to Burger and KwaZulu-Natal violence monitor Mary de Haas, Ndovela’s death followed six other Glebelands murders this year: Phumlani Ndlovu (January 16), Siyepu (February 15), Simeko Nhlela and Siniko Ncayiyana (March 25), Fikile Jumbile (April 2) and Thulani Kati (April 10).

Subsequent murders have brought to 21 the confirmed death toll since February 2014, Burger says. A further eight killings reported by hostel residents were unconfirmed.

No sign of Premier’s R10.m security plan
The continuing violence is a sad reflection on KwaZulu-Natal Premier Senzo Mchunu’s much-trumpeted announcement last September of a R10-million security plan at Glebelands, including CCTV cameras, access control and fencing, and the deployment of a special police unit.

Mchunu also dissolved the block committees, accusing them of stoking violence by illegally selling hostel beds. Residents told amaBhungane that the committees had been the only forum for them to air their views and complaints. 

The violence has raged on, as Burger, De Haas and Vusi Zweni of the hostel dwellers’ association told national police commissioner Riah Phiyega, Police Minister Nathi Nhleko and the acting head of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), Israel Kgamanyane, in an open letter this year.

Burger, who has collected dozens of statements from residents, many seen by amaBhungane, says Hlope has been repeatedly fingered by victims. “I have taken 50 statements from victims linking Hlope to violence or illegal evictions. Seventeen of them went on to open cases at the Umlazi police station; I have the case numbers,” she said.

One of these was a sworn affidavit by a female Glebelands resident, Philile Ngubane, implicating him in her eviction.

“Some are too fearful to mention his name – they say ‘you know who we mean’, and if you ask if they mean Bongani Hlope, they say ‘yes’.”

According to Burger and two Glebelands residents amaBhungane interviewed, the block chairpersons were initially targeted.

“He won control of eight blocks by forcing out existing structures and now he does a collection – he tells residents he needs herbs and guns to protect his guys. He charges R50 to R100 per resident. It’s usually once a month; it can be more often.”

Community live in fear of one man
A source who pleaded not to be named, saying: “He can kill me today, not tomorrow”, alleging that: “He keeps holding meetings and I still hear shooting – and people are still dying.”

He admits that he pays protection money. “A person died for refusing the other day,” he claims.

A few weeks earlier, the amaBhungane reporter met traditional healer Patrick Shozi (37), who said Hlope convened a meeting in Block 42 where he told block occupants to pay R50 “to buy guns and herbs to protect you against the guys with guns”.

When Shozi refused, he alleged there were various attempts on his life, including an incident in which close to 20 shots were fired at him and a companion at the hostel. 

“Thursdays to Sundays are the worst days,” Shozi told me. “People earn money during the week, so at the weekend it seems they celebrate – with our blood.”

That night, while Shozi was away, his room was broken into and ransacked and his possessions burnt.

The next day, Burger and an amaBhungane reporter found him in Umlazi nervously pacing and making repeated phone calls.  He wanted to retrieve his belongings from his room, but Hlope was reported to be holding a meeting there.

Sitting on the ground, his head in his hands, Shozi started crying:  “All the people are gathering outside the building, even though the premier said no more gatherings at Glebelands. 

“Mr Hlope is there having a meeting … he spat at my door; he’s asking where is the healer who lives there. There are gentlemen there carrying assegais; now I’m very afraid.”

We followed him to the Umlazi police station, and while he made a statement, Burger asked an officer to arrange for an escort to accompany Shozi to his room. 

The officer mentioned that two women had been shot and injured at Shozi’s block the previous night. She also said that an illegal meeting at Block 52 had just been dispersed by police.

Victims all name same suspect but don’t make statements
She then referred Burger to Colonel KD Singh, the Umlazi head of detectives in charge of all Glebelands cases, who told her many arrests had been made at the hostel since 2010. 

His biggest problem, he said, was that people didn’t come forward to make statements about violent incidents.

“I have 50 cases on file, and all of the victims mention Hlope,” Burger said. “I sympathise with people who open cases and then nothing happens.”

Shozi and two amaBhungane reporters headed back to Glebelands, escorted by three police vehicles. Three plainclothes detectives accompanied them upstairs to his room.

Inside, chaos confronted them: the room had been ransacked and the furniture, including an open fridge, lay overturned on the floor. Shozi rested his head on a concrete slab outside the room, a deep rasp of misery emanating from his chest.

They made their way to the back of the block where most of his belongings – clothing, traditional medicine he had collected from as far afield as Mozambique and Malawi and his grandfather’s muti bag – had been torched.

50 police officers needed to protect one man
They looked on as Shozi retrieved the only salvageable item, his traditional healer’s vest, and carefully placed it in a plastic sleeve lying in the ash. 

As they stood there, Shozi received an anonymous phone call. He was being watched, the caller warned, and could be killed right there and then.

The amaBhungane reporters hurried to their vehicles with Shozi, and made their way to the Glebelands sports ground, where they were joined by about 50 police officers in bullet-proof vests. They escorted Shozi to his room and helped him move his furniture to safety.

Later that week Burger told the amaBhungane reporters that police had unsuccessfully raided Hlope’s room in Block 52 for firearms.

Three days after Sipho Ndovela was shot dead outside the Umlazi Magistrate’s Court, Hlope appeared at the same court, amid a heavy security presence, on charges of attempted murder.

The case was postponed until July 7 after the magistrate, citing a conflict of interest because she had heard Ndovela’s May 18 case, asked for it to be transferred to a another court. Hlope is out on bail.

Since then, according to Burger, residents reported four more Glebelands killings; two were residents who have not yet been named.

One of the victims was Bongani Kati, brother of Thulani Kati, who was gunned down at Glebelands the day after Hlope’s court appearance.

No direct evidence has been presented that Hlope was involved in these murders.

Who is Bongani Hlope?

Bongani Hlope, named by numerous people as central to the continuing
Glebelands Hostel violence, was apparently born in Umkomaas, on KwaZulu-Natal’s south coast.

A source, who lived in the town at around the same time, estimates that Hlope was born in about 1986, which would make him about 30 years old.

Repeated attempts to contact him this week, including the sending of 10 detailed questions to his cellphone by SMS, drew no response.

According to Vanessa Burger, who works closely with the hostel dwellers’ association, uBunye Bamahostela, Hlope previously lived at the Jacobs and KwaMashu hostels in Durban.

The source claimed that he was unwelcome in his home town and that his unpopularity relates to a robbery from a stokvel.

“He’s the kind of person who loves money – he’s doing all this at Glebelands for money – his main intention is to get rich.”

The source remarked that Hlope is charismatic and persuasive: “What I’ve noticed is that he’s really good at mobilising people to listen to him. He can convince people to do something to please him even if it’s a bad thing.”

Burger and others interviewed by amaBhungane say that his method is to work through others.

“He makes all the decisions,” said one Glebelands resident. “But he doesn’t go himself – he sends young men who are 20, 25 years old.”

At least five people amaBhungane has interviewed allege that he is regularly seen in the company of a policeman based at the Berea police station in Durban.

Burger confirmed that this allegation has cropped up in the dozens of residents’ statements she has collected.

“They are often seen driving around Glebelands together in the same vehicle, and attending ANC meetings together,” she said.

Last year, the Mail & Guardian published an amaBhungane article about Glebelands in which residents alleged that there was a connection between Hlope and a local ANC ward councillor, in whose company several residents claim to have seen him.

Asked about Hlope’s alleged association with the Durban policeman, KwaZulu-Natal police spokesperson Colonel Jay Naicker said the provincial police commissioner had tasked the head of detectives in KwaZulu-Natal to investigate all Glebelands cases, but “this information has not surfaced in our investigation”.

In an apparent tilt at Burger and De Haas, Naicker continued: “We are extremely concerned that organisations desperate for funding are peddling such information to the media in desperation to get media coverage for their funding, rather than having a genuine interest in solving the problems that exist in Glebelands.

“This is a serious hindrance to our investigations and only serves to fuel further violence, as such individuals are aligning themselves with a certain group in the hostel.”

He said the police would not be pressured into making premature arrests._ amaBhungane reporters

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.