/ 19 February 2020

From the archives: For the first time, an insiders’ account of the Third Force

Third force weekly mail 1992
Third force weekly mail 1992

This article was published January 24 1992 in The Weekly Mail

Two young gangsters give an horrific account of how they were encouraged, equipped and trained to carry out violence against ANC-linked targets by the security forces. Their account provides a crucial missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle of what caused the violence which has rocked the townships. The gangsters have asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation against their families. Both the young men have been interviewed separately, at length, and their accounts confirm evidence provided by other sources 

A pair of Black Cat vigilantes, members of a notorious gang that operates in the eastern Transvaal township of Wesselton, describe how white police officers used the gang to bomb the office of a human rights lawyer and helped orchestrate a string of murders, assaults and arson attacks. And the very police officer responsible for some of these attacks, a Warrant Officer Van Zwiel, was appointed to investigate complaints against the Black Cats, say the dissident gangsters. They claim Van Zwiel helped to ensure few of them were charged for their crimes. 

The gang members decided to speak to the press because they had been threatened by other Black Cat members for voicing criticism of the gang’s activities and its close alliance with Inkatha. They are now in hiding in fear of their lives and their names have been changed to protect them. The gang is still operating in the township. “The Black Cats are harassing people today. They say they don’t want African National Congress comrades in the township. At Christmas time they killed two people. One of them was an ANC member. A few weeks before that they killed a man called December because he was a member of the ANC,” says Themba, one of the defectors. Other evidence supplied by the Black Cats confirm earlier Weekly Mail reports, based on testimony from high-ranking lnkatha defector Mbongeni Khumalo, that members of the South African Police in Ermelo released professional hitmen from Ulundi in August 1990 after they had been arrested for shooting up an ANC funeral and killing two of the mourners. 

The two Black Cats tell how their gang was initially formed to counter a pro-ANC civic organisation in the area. After suffering several defeats at the hands of the “comrades”, 32 Black Cats were taken to Ulundi and then Mkuze camp, where they underwent military training. They returned with instructions to establish themselves as an Inkatha force in the area. The younger of the two defectors, Themba, went for training. Lucas, in prison at the time after being convicted for possessing a homemade gun, missed the opportunity to be trained as a hitman. Both corroborate claims of police complicity in “black-on-black” violence in Wesselton and Inkatha’s alleged “forced recruitment drive” in the Transvaal which began about two years ago. 

The defectors also confirm allegations made by Khumalo, former head of Inkatha’s Youth Brigade and member of the organisation’s central committee. And although the two Black Cats told their stories separately to The Weekly Mail, there is a startling consistency in their accounts. Lucas recounts how white policemen picked three of the strongest Black Cats to petrol bomb the offices of lawyer Stephen Ngwenya as well as the shop, truck and homes of local businessmen in July 1990. “Van Zwiel gave them a 9mm handgun and later rewarded them with vodka and cigarettes,” says Lucas. He describes how the gangsters were urged by local town councillors, police and lnkatha to attack members of the Wesselton Action Committee (WAC). WAC became the enemy of the councillors after galvanising the community to boycott rents at the end of 1989 as a protest against alleged corruption being practised by the councillors. 

The Black Cats were formed in early 1990, ostensibly to combat crime perpetuated by another gang in Wesselton, the Ninjas. “But the main reason why the Black Cats were formed was to make conflict in the community. Although we claimed to be an anti-crime campaign we ended up committing the same crimes we were supposed to prevent,” says Lucas. Instead of handing the weapons they confiscated over to the police, they stockpiled them at the home of their leader, Chris Ngwenya, where they spent most of their time strategising. A man called Sabata Zwane, known as “Jwi”, also led the gang in several attacks in July 1990 the Black Cats fled to the municipal offices after being attacked by “comrades”. There, together with two municipal policemen known only as Glen and Jomo, they discussed how to attack members of WAC. “(Noah) Mchobokazi (then a sports organiser at the counciI was there. He gave us a 9mm gun and axes … Mchobokazi was the one telling us what we must do. He told us who we must attack (and that) we must divide into two groups.” 

Lucas alleges that two policemen, a Captain Botha and Van Zwiel were in constant contact with Mchobokazi, a knoWn lnkatha member who visited the gang members several times at Ulundi and Mkuze. He recounts how on the night of July 22 and into the next morning the Black Cats — named after the black whips they brandish  ran amok in the ‘location, breaking doors and win-dows of civic leaders and known ANC supporters, and attacking sever-al people with pangas, knives and axes. At least eight were admitted to hospital. 

The Weekly Mail is in possession of affidavits made to lawyers by victims and witnesses at the time. Lawyers’ attempts to get a restraining order on the activities of the gang proved futile. No arrests were made and the violence escalated. After the attacks the members stayed for several days at.the council offices where they were given money to buy food from Mchobokazi. They then fled to the Ermelo offices of the United Workers’ Union of South Africa (Uwusa), Inkatha’s trade union wing, where Mchobokazi handed over money to the local Inkatha strongman, Isaac Hlatswayo, for their membership fees. There, ongoing dealings allegedly took place with the police.

Van Zwiel would either visit them at the Uwusa offices or call the leadership to the police station. “We were staying in one office but the office was divided into two sections. Mchobokazi was there when Van Zwiel, Botha and one other came to speak to him … they spoke secretly so we could not hear. They took three of us, Patrick, China and “Jwi” (who was killed in an AK-47 attack last year). They gave them each a 9mm handgun. We saw the guns.” Lucas alleges that the police came to fetch them in a grey private car. That night, on July 25 1990, Ngwenya’s office was petrol bombed. Ngwenya reported the incident and a docket was opened, with Van Zwiel appointed as the investigating officer. The three gangsters returned the same evening, say the Black Cats, with provisions given to them by the two policemen for their services. 

Lucas tells how Mchobokazi brought limpet mines to the Uwusa offices and how the two policemen fetched the same three gangsters several days later. As they departed they told the remaining Black Cats not to worry if they heard loud noises in the night. On the night of August 6 explosives were thrown into Ngwenya’s offices and the home and shop of two civic members were bombed with limpet mines. Ngwenya confirmed this in an affidavit made at the time. On August 5 David Sihanyoni was shot dead. One week later, on August 11, a gruesome gun attack took place on the funeral procession of ANC mourners carrying Sibanyoni’s coffin. In his disclosures to The Weekly Mail, Khumalo described how a colleague had told him how members of a team of Inkatha hitmen, trained by the Department of Military Intelligence (DMI), had gone to the Wesselton funeral and ambushed the procession, opening fire on mourners and spraying bullets into the coffin. 

An Inkatha supporter, “Doctor” Hlatshwayo, was to be buried the same day as Sibanyoni. Lucas, who was with the team of hitmen — the “eight KZPs” on that day, tells the inside story: “Eight KZPs came from Ulundi in two cars. They were not wearing uniform. They came to the Uwusa offices the day before the funeral. Three of them were called Mandlanduna, Zweli and Nhlanhla. They taught us Inkatha songs … and told us they were going to shoot at the ANC funeral while we must stay at Doctor’s house.” (According to Khumalo, Mandlanduna is a professional assassin trained by DMI at their base in Caprivi. He, in turn, trained the Black Cats at Mkuze.) “The next day, August 11, we came from the Uwusa offices and went to Doctor’s house. We were singing. We stood outside the house. We saw the KZPs take positions on each side of the road to wait for the ANC funeral procession,” said Lucas.

“Mchobokazi had an AK-47 and Jwi had a 9mm handgun. They joined the KZPs who had 9mms and pump guns and other guns like AK-47s, but shorter. When the funeral procession came past they started shooting. We were watching. The one carrying the flag fell near the coffin. The coffin was dropped. “The one who fell, Jabulani Sibanyoni, was not dead. The one KZP, (identified as Nhlanhla Khawuia) ran forward and shot him in the head. He opened the coffin and shot the dead body many times,” he said. That evening SADF troops arrested about 30 people, including the eight KZPs, and confiscated their weapons. “A couple of days later they were all released and came to Chris’ house. Chris told me that after the SADF left, Van Zwiel and Botha released them … Chris told me the police did not take statements.” Khumalo told The Weekly Mail that after the kwaZulu hitmen were released, their confiscated weapons were also returned to Ulundi. 

Lucas has disclosed how members of his gang, after suffering a defeat in a battle with “comrades”, left the location in October 1990 for Ulundi, later to receive military training at the Mkuze military camp, which was run by a front for DMI. Lucas was close friend of gang leader Chris Ngwenya. “Chris told me their trainer was Mandlanduna. He trained them in the use of weaponry and lots of physical exercises to keep fit. “A soldier called ‘Sugar’ went to Wesselton to ‘man the fort’ while the others were away. He is now a resident warrior who leads the gang. I saw his KZP identity card. His real name is Lucky Hlongwane,” said Lucas. 

According to Khumalo, Hlongwane is one of the Inkatha hitmen trained in the Caprivi Strip. His name has been linked to several attacks on Wesselton residents last year, including the fatal shooting of shebeen owner Zini Shongwe, the hand grenade attack on her home on August 20 1990 and the gunning down of a male nurse, Andries Maphosa, on November 5 last year. 

Wesselton Extention, the newer part of the location now commanded by the Black Cats, became their headquarters. “Welcome to Ulundi” graffiti is plastered on walls and sign-posts. “When they came back (from Mkuze) they attacked people wearing ANC T-shirts and caps and took their clothes away. They would walk in groups harassing people and bragging about how they are Inkatha.” In August last year at the funeral of “Jwi” Zwane, five township residents were gunned down and killed by a busload of Inkatha members who came from Soweto.