On Monday, Sithembiso Mhlongo stood talking to the media in the blazing sun next to the bullet-riddled bakkie belonging to Camperdown ANC activist Lungisani Mnguni, who had been murdered earlier in the day. On Thursday Mhlongo was dead.
The ANC proportional representation councillor in the uMgungundlovu district municipality and ANC Youth League Moses Mabhida deputy secretary was gunned down in his Howick home.
Mhlongo initially survived the bullets fired by the assassins, who knocked on his door in the middle of the night, pretending to be police, but died in hospital on Thursday morning.
Mhlongo had been an influential figure in the campaign to have the region’s branches nominate Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as ANC president.
He is the 12th ANC official in the Moses Mabhida region — which includes Pietermaritzburg, Howick, Camperdown, Richmond and Estcourt — to have been murdered in what appears to be an open war in the province’s second-biggest ANC region.
Mnguni (34), a delegate to the ANC national conference in December who had been elected by his branch in ward seven at Mkhambathini (Camperdown) two weeks ago, was the 11th.
Police spokesperson Colonel Thembeka Mbhele confirmed the murder of Mhlongo (35) at his home in Howick’s Mpophomeni township. He had been shot in the head.
“Unknown suspects who pretended to be police officers ordered the victim to open the door of his vehicle. Upon opening the door, the suspects opened fire at him and he sustained gunshot wounds to the head. He was taken to hospital, where he later died.”
Mbhele said the motive for the hit on Mhlongo was unknown and that no arrests had been made.
ANC regional secretary Mzi Zuma said the details of the killing of Mhlongo, the chair of his branch at Mpophomeni, in Umngeni municipality’s ward nine, were still sketchy.
“What is concerning and disheartening in the region is that it has seemingly become a hot spot for such brutal killings of our activists and public representatives,” Zuma said.
“It is worrying that those behind these cowardly acts see young activists, who still have a long contribution [to make] in our movement, as a soft target.”
Zuma declined to speculate on whether the killings were linked or related to the build-up to the national ANC elective conference.
“At the moment, as the ANC, we would not like to speculate about the motive behind this heinous crime on our comrades,” Zuma said.
He said the regional party leadership, which had visited Mhlongo’s home on Thursday morning, called on ANC members and residents to assist the police in finding the killers of the two men.
“The death … adds more pain, as we were still trying to come to terms with the brutal killing of comrade Lungisani Mnguni,” said Zuma.
On Monday, it was Mhlongo and not Mkhambathini mayor Eric Ngcongo, or the local police, who was clearly in control of the situation at the scene of Mnguni’s murder.
Mnguni, a former youth league leader and branch chairperson between 2011 and 2014 who had returned to the area a few months ago, had been shot while delivering groceries to the nearby school.
His assassins shot at him in his car and finished him off when he tried to escape into a gorge at the side of the main road through Enkanyezini village.
Two months ago, Mkhambathini councillor and youth league leader Kwazi Everlast Mkhize (34) was shot a kilometre away while leaving a branch meeting.
Both ANC factions in the province have claimed “ownership” of Mnguni.
At the murder scene on Monday, Mhlongo was at first hostile towards the Mail & Guardian, instructing Ngcongo not to speak to the newspaper, which he accused of having an “agenda” against Dlamini-Zuma.
Mhlongo eventually agreed to an interview in which he was adamant that Mnguni, a teacher-turned-entrepreneur, was carrying a Dlamini-Zuma mandate for the December conference.
“He was elected as a delegate by ward seven branch, which has nominated Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. All seven wards have nominated Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for president,” Mhlongo said.
He called on the media to “leave the matter with the SAPS [South African Police Service]”.
“What is of concern is that this is the third person in this subregion to have been killed, with nobody being arrested. What is sad is that leaders of the [youth league] are being killed and nothing is happening to stop it. We will leave the matter with the SAPS and hope that they will do their job,” he said.
But the media were alerted to Mnguni’s killing by activists from the Cyril Ramaphosa-supporting faction in the province, who were adamant that he was “their” man.
A Ramaphosa campaigner in the Moses Mabhida region, who asked not to be named, said they had taken a decision to “keep quiet” in branches located in regions controlled by the faction supporting Dlamini-Zuma to avoid being removed from voters’ rolls for branch general meetings.
“We have had to design a strategy to say that, in some wards, lala phansi [lie down]. Sing the NDZ [Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma] songs, nominate NDZ, but when it comes to voting at the conference itself, they will not vote NDZ.
“Mnguni was part of us, it was known, but he had kept quiet and had received the nomination,” the source said.
“We have had to do this in eThekwini, Harry Gwala and Moses Mabhida regions. There are a lot of branches where our comrades are lying low and waiting for the conference,” he said.
“I am not saying that is specifically why Lungisani was killed, but he was part of us. He was in the taxi industry and [got] the school-feeding contract. Any of the three issues could have caused enough anger or jealousy for somebody to have him killed.”
ANC KwaZulu-Natal spokesperson Mdumiseni Ntuli said he “honestly” did not believe the two killings were linked.