Mafika Mndebele’s eyes are bloodshot, his face drawn; the effects of his itinerant lifestyle. The ANC Youth League (ANCYL) Emalahleni regional secretary from Newcastle has been on the move since he survived a shooting that claimed the life of ANC comrade Wandile “Manqasha” Ngobeni at a drinking lounge in Madadeni township three years ago.
In 2016, Mndebele was sitting next to Ngobeni in a group of about 10 or 11 people, “so close” that when the shooting subsided “his blood was all over me”.
There was, Mndebele remembers, “a lot of shots, and then silence”.
The hitmen were cool as you like before they opened fire: “The first guy started dancing. He was very unknown to us. He was dancing funny but we felt safe there because we knew the owner, so we laughed him off and carried on enjoying ourselves,” says Mndebele.
“He went away and came back with another guy. They simply took out their guns and started shooting.”
Ngobeni was shot 28 times. Mndebele, twice. A bullet grazed his side, another entered his foot.
“I remember them leaving slowly, as if nothing had happened. One guy lit a cigarette and started smoking it as he walked away,” says Mndebele.
The two hitmen were arrested and later released on bail. One of them was subsequently rearrested on an unrelated charge pertaining to an unlicensed firearm.
Mndebele is adamant the assassins meant to kill him, too. He has been looking over his shoulder ever since, moving from one friend’s house to another, holding on to the anxiety to preserve his life.
Arrested and charged
In March, Newcastle mayor Ntuthuko Mahlaba — who had taken up the position on the first of that month — was arrested and charged with murder, attempted murder and two counts of conspiring to commit murder in connection with Ngobeni’s death and Mndebele’s injuries. Out on R20 000 bail and placed on “special leave” by the ANC, Mahlaba’s next appearance in the Madadeni magistrate’s court is scheduled for 15 August.
Mahlaba was charged around the same time that Harry Gwala District mayor Mluleki Ndobe wound up in the accused stand at the uMzimkhulu magistrate’s court. Ndobe, uMzimkhulu municipal manager Zwelibanzi Sikhosana and three others were charged with the 2017 murder of Sindiso Magaqa.
Magaqa, a former ANCYL national secretary, had been a councillor in uMzimkhulu and was vocal about corruption related to the yet to be completed multimillion-rand upgrade of the town’s Memorial Hall.
Charges against Ndobe and Sikhosana were later withdrawn as rumours swirled that one of the state’s witnesses had recanted his testimony against the two ANC officials after being “turned” while awaiting the trial, which is scheduled to commence on October 14. KwaZulu-Natal’s acting director of public prosecutions, advocate Elaine Zungu, said the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) would “look into these allegations” and respond once it was in a position to do so.
More than a decade of politically motivated murders in KwaZulu-Natal has seen the province endure its bloodiest period since the internecine violence between the ANC/United Democratic Front and Inkatha (renamed the Inkatha Freedom Party in July 1990) in the 1980s and 1990s. While members of social movements and other political organisations and parties have also been murdered, the majority of the more than 100 people killed in the post-apartheid bloodletting have been ANC members. Most allegedly murdered at the orders of comrades as the political volatility at ANC regional level becomes increasingly violent with the jostling for positions and patronage.
The blood-letting has now extended to witnesses, whistleblowers and police officers investigating cases of political murder and corruption. In early August, it was revealed that one of the lead investigators in the R208-million corruption case involving former eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede had been hospitalised following a shooting attempt on his life in Johannesburg.
Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi confirmed that the detective had been involved in several corruption investigations involving municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal.
Mulaudzi said this was the first such attempt to kill a Hawks member involved in investigating corruption and political murders in KwaZulu-Natal and that the “necessary precautions had been taken to ensure the investigations would not be undermined”.
Yet, there are also instances of witnesses in the province being “turned”, disappearing or being murdered, causing investigations to falter, charges to be withdrawn and prosecutions to teeter.
A witness to the 2016 murder of Ngobeni, Mndebele is deeply afraid for his safety. As are the others who were at the Kasi Lounge in Newcastle that fatal evening.
Martin Sithole was murdered at around 5pm on 12 May, outside the bottle store he owned on Voortrekker Street in the central business district of Newcastle.
A businessman and former ANC Ward 4 branch treasurer, Sithole was reportedly shot 28 times. His friend, Buthanani Shange, was also killed. The Hawks later confirmed that Sithole was a key witness in the murder case against Mahlaba, the Newcastle mayor.
The 47-year-old was murdered on Mother’s Day. His wife, Nokuthula, and four children are still traumatised. Their daughter, Nokukhanya, who started her first year at Wits University in 2019 is receiving counselling.
Nokuthula has little time to mourn. Her’s is a parent’s burden, to keep her family together and ensure her children heal as much as they can. To figure out Sithole’s business affairs. To ensure the monthly bills are covered. She is worried she will have to remove her 15-year-old daughter, Makabongwe, from the R11 000-a-month private school at which she is studying at, disrupting her support network and life even further.
Nokuthula says her husband “was very secretive” and “didn’t tell me anything about the issues related to the organisation [the ANC]”.
She had not pressed Sithole on the volatility in Emalahleni until the Hawks visited their home earlier this year to interview him. Nokuthula says the visit made her anxious. “I asked him, ‘Are you protected enough?’ There were so many ANC people here that day … He just smiled and told me, ‘Would you be happy if I died and no one testified?’”
That her husband died for a principle is of cold comfort to Nokuthula. She says he was not protected by guards and had become more concerned about their safety in the weeks leading up to his death.
“He was sensing something. He was starting to feel unsafe,” says Nokuthula, who remains adamant that members of “the party that my husband loved so much” are behind his murder.
Witnesses like Sithole are brazenly murdered. Others “disappear”, either because of fear and intimidation or more nefarious machinations. There have been concerns among politicians, prosecutors and the police that co-accused who have accepted Section 204 deals and turned state witness are susceptible to being “turned again” while in police custody or out on bail, getting paid or the threat of being killed the motivators.
An ANC provincial executive committee member, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not mandated to speak to the media, pointed to the recent withdrawal of murder charges against eThekwini Ward 80 councillor Mthokozisi Nojiyeza as an example. Nojiyeza, his brother Phumlani and an associate, Nkosinathi Mbambo, were arrested in December for the October 2019 murder of another city councillor, S’bu Maphumulo.
“Both Nojiyeza’s co-accused had turned Section 204 witnesses and were supposed to testify against him. They were granted bail and they have disappeared, that’s why the case has fallen apart,” said the ANC leader. The NPA said they had to investigate the allegation before responding to media questions.
This article was originally published on the New Frame.