Midlands murder mystery

Sideshow: Protesters outside the Umzimkhulu magistrate’s court during Mluleki Ndobe’s appearance earlier this week. (Mlungisi Mbele)

Sideshow: Protesters outside the Umzimkhulu magistrate’s court during Mluleki Ndobe’s appearance earlier this week. (Mlungisi Mbele)

Tuesday.

It’s remarkably quiet outside the Umzimkhulu magistrate’s court complex, peaceful even — just another day in the squalid but picturesque southern KwaZulu-Natal Midlands farming town.

There’s a police water cannon and some armoured vehicles parked to the left of the building, but the blue wall of police that had lined the perimeter fence the previous day is gone. 

So are the TV cameras and the media horde that turned up, along with several hundred supporters of both sides, for the bail application of Mluleki Ndobe, mayor of the Harry Gwala district municipality, the day before. 

There’s a small group of people with a loudhailer calling for a local man accused of stabbing two youngsters to be denied bail. None of the pedestrians who pass by on their way to the KFC store across from the court appear to be particularly interested in what they have to say.

There’s nothing to suggest the mayhem of the day before, when charges of murdering former ANC Youth League secretary general Sindiso Magaqa and attempting to kill fellow councillors Jabu Masiya and Nontsikelelo Mafu were withdrawn against Ndobe and municipal manager Zwelibanzi Sikhosana because of insufficient evidence.

Ndobe and Sikhosana, who were arrested on March 16, were out of court in a few minutes after prosecutor Shohana Moodley announced that she wanted to withdraw the case against them provisionally because of a lack of evidence.

Weird move that. One would have assumed the state would have had either physical or witness evidence linking Ndobe and Sikhosana to the killing before arresting them.
Ndobe is number three on the ANC provincial list, after all.

Some evidence that the inter-ministerial task team had at its disposal must have ceased to be, unless Ndobe’s supporters, who claimed he was being stitched up as part of a political conspiracy, are right.

Perhaps a state witness recanted a statement implicating the two in the murder some time between their being arrested two weeks ago and their appearance in court on Monday?

Either way, the state had no evidence. Provisional or not, the case was withdrawn and Ndobe was off the hook.

Ndobe was hardly out the door before he was swamped by a flood of microphones and cameras. His “I don’t want to comment” comments turned into a mini-press conference on the courthouse verandah.

Ndobe’s supporters took him to “greet the masses” outside, where he used a traffic department vehicle’s loudhailer to address the faithful, who by this time knew he had beaten the rap and were singing and waving the A4 posters proclaiming their leader’s innocence.

Back to Tuesday. The atmosphere is far more relaxed inside the court complex. It’s packed, but the cops are way less hostile than the day before. There’s no TV cameras today — the celebrity accused is gone and so are they — and only a handful of journalists have stuck around.

Magaqa is still dead, whether Ndobe is an accused or not, so it makes sense to find out what the state’s case is, but the media circus has moved on.

A prosecutor clears the court roll of partially heard matters ahead of the bail application by the three remaining accused. It’s less than a minute per accused. Conveyor-belt stuff, adjournments for pre-trial conferences, but it still takes ages.

A fourth accused in the Magaqa case, alleged hitman Sibusiso Ncengwa, was arrested before Ndobe and the others. Ncengwa abandoned his bail application and is getting ready for the indictment in his case to be served in the regional court next month. Perhaps a plea bargain between Ncengwa and the state will happen and he will become a witness against former cops Sbonelo Myeza and Mlungisi Ncalane and businessman Mbulelo Mpofana. Perhaps he doesn’t have the money for counsel or for a bail application.

We get going. Myeza is up first. Led by his counsel, he outlines the exceptional circumstances he needs to get bail: he’s a family man with no previous convictions; he knows the other accused, but not so well; he was in Umzimkhulu looking for a child he fathered with a woman he broke up with 15 years ago.

Moodley takes over. Myeza clams up, refuses to answer her questions, on the grounds that they might incriminate him, even one about whether or not he owns a red BMW. For an ex-cop, Myeza doesn’t appear to be doing much of a job of convincing magistrate Fezile Msengana to give him bail. Perhaps the application is really about finding out what the state has — or doesn’t have — on him and his co-accused.

Things wrap up. Mpofana’s counsel wants an adjournment so that his client can testify and be cross-examined in a single day. None of the legal teams object to the accused being remanded in custody until April 8. There’s no rush: any sense of urgency that came with this case appears to have left the previous day with Ndobe and the TV cameras.

It’s back to business as usual.

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