‘Terrorised’ family shines a light on traditional leadership for vulnerable people

Khumbuzile Mfiki, with pain etched on his face, leans despondently against the charred yellow walls of his rondavel, using his wounded arm to point at two bullet holes inside his three-month-old son’s tiny bathtub. 

The level of violence inflicted on Khumbuzile’s body, as well as the several bullet holes scattered in the rondavel on the family homestead, highlighted the ambiguity between traditional and constitutional leadership after the near-fatal “eviction” of the Mfiki family from the land they have lived on for generations. 

This follows a violent incident in August last year when Khumbuzile, 26, was beaten to a pulp during an alleged mob-justice attack, when he was accused of being part of a spate of house robberies in Ndakeni village in the rural Eastern Cape. 

The interior of the Mfiki family’s household after the arson attack. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Khumbuzile sustained severe injuries in the August attack. Graphic pictures from his month-long stay in the hospital show a severely bruised face, a swollen right eye that he said he still struggled to see with, and dozens of sjambok-injury stripes on his body. 

Eastern Cape police spokesperson Colonel Sibongile Soci confirmed the case against eight men, who are known to the Mfiki family as neighbours, and are accused of leading the onslaught during an alleged drunken rage. 

The men, who have made three court appearances since December, the last of which was on 8 February, are Aviwe Jack and his brother, Buntu Jack; Musawenkosi Chukulu; Siphelele Dubula; Lwando Sophethe; Zolani Boqwana; Siviwe Maqula; and Sikholiwe Mfiki, who is Khumbuzile’s cousin. 

They are facing charges of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm. 

These charges, which Khumbuzile’s parents — Nolundi, his mother, and Gcobani, his father — are adamant they won’t drop, have resulted in the village traditional leader, Zamile Tengwa, allegedly leading the charge for the banishment of the Mfiki family, who have had to flee their home for fears of reprisals related to their steadfast determination to continue with the case. 

Tengwa told the Mail & Guardian this week that it was the community, not him, leading the charge for the Mfiki family to be removed and that he was merely a facilitator in the matter. However, the headman said he could not comment further on the issue. 

“The community has hired a lawyer to defend the accused men and to deal with the matter. I cannot speak further on it,” Tengwa said.

The M&G contacted the lawyer representing the accused, Sakhumzi Nombambela, for comment, sending several emails and messages to him personally, as well as through his office, NS Nombambela Attorneys. However, Nombambela had not provided the M&G with comment by the time of going to print. 

The situation came to a head on 6 February, when men allegedly came to Khumbuzile’s house in the dead of night to fire 12 shots inside the quaint rondavel, while the father-of-two slept with his partner and two-year-old daughter in his bed, with his infant son mere metres away. 

Nolundi Mfiki and Gcobani Mfiki at their family home. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

One of the shots struck Khumbuzile on his arm; another was a whisker away from hitting his daughter, with the bullet piercing the bed’s mattress and exiting through the base. 

Because it was dark, Khumbuzile said, the alleged assailants sprayed the inside of the house with shots from their positions at the windows and the door. 

There is evidence of bullet holes throughout the rondavel, including inside his son’s bathtub. 

But the violence did not stop there. After the shooting, and with their lives clearly at risk, Khumbuzile, his partner and two children, and his mother fled the home and the village after an alleged directive from the traditional leader that the Mfiki family had to be banished. 

Then, on 14 February, the same rondavel was set on fire with only Khumbuzile’s father, Gcobani, on the property. 

When the M&G visited the area, the strong smell of smoke still dominated the bullet-riddled home. 

A case has been opened for the shooting and arson, Eastern Cape police have confirmed.

Gcobani, however, was adamant that he was prepared to die rather than leave the property the family has lived on for more than 60 years. 

“What is most painful for me is that, when the headman [Zamile Tengwa] leads the community to evict us from our property, we have nowhere else to go. That is why I decided not to leave — I would rather die here at home if they want to kill us. There is no other place I can go to,” Gcobani reiterated. 

“It becomes even more painful because the people who are doing this to me know me very well. There is nothing bad that I have done in all the years that I have lived here, where I have had to go and report to the traditional council,” Gcobani added. 

He said the sight of his severely beaten son, as well as the subsequent shooting and arson incidents, was an agony he did not believe would ever pass. “It is an internal wound that will never heal. I will end up going to my grave without the wound ever healing,” Gcobani said.

The M&G spoke to Nolundi inside the freshly renovated main house on her property. She constantly adjusted her brightly coloured headwrap and restlessly fiddled with her hands, speaking with a hushed tone as she described the pain of her son’s brutal beating and subsequent shooting. Her eyes moved to the window at every loud sound.

The mother sews and tailors clothing to eke out a living as the family’s breadwinner, having benefited from the late Nomaka Mbeki’s upliftment programme for rural women. 

MaMbeki, as she was affectionately known, was the mother of former president Thabo Mbeki and lived in Ngcingwane, also in Dutywa.  

Nolundi said what had distressed her the most was that, during her son’s month-long stay in the hospital, items he had been accused of stealing had emerged in one of the village homes. 

This was after more house break-ins had occurred while Khumbuzile was recovering at East London’s Frere hospital. 

“The reason I can’t be at peace and drop the charges is that the alleged stolen goods emerged. That is what upsets me the most,” she said. “When we asked the traditional council and the headman to explain these stolen items’ sudden emergence, we were shouted at as if we are not from here. 

“We don’t even receive a chance to speak; the community drowns us out,” Nolundi added. 

During the M&G’s visit last week, an ill-tempered community meeting was held in Ndakeni, to discuss and attempt to ratify the Mfiki family’s banishment from the area. 

More than 50 community members gathered in the sweltering heat, some under the shelter provided by a neatly built corrugated steel structure and others in the baking sun. 

Tension-filled mumbles reverberated as soon as Nolundi rose to share the torment of her family’s mooted eviction. 

Although she was wearing a mask, which muffled her speech, Nolundi’s voice audibly broke as the thought of her ordeal seemingly became too much to bear. 

But the mother did not shed a tear throughout her almost 20-minute-long address. 

Representatives of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders, which forms part of the provincial government, were in attendance to mediate the volatile meeting.

iNkosi Langa Mavuso, the acting chairperson of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders, confirmed to the M&G that the body had to intervene in the community after it learnt that Tengwa, the area’s traditional leader, was allegedly leading the ejection of the Mfiki family. 

“Our role was to make peace in the community because we believe that the role of traditional leadership is not primitive, but rather reconciliatory. We went there to foster reconciliation, and the headman [Tengwa] should mediate and stop being a part of the people that are fuelling conflict in the area,” Langa said.

 “Our view is that people who live in the same village are, in essence, related to each other. That is why we always advocate for peace.

The meeting, which the M&G attended, failed to arrive at any concrete resolutions: the only agreement reached was that more meetings would be held to find a lasting solution. 

The Mfiki family were not appeased by the lack of an outcome, and immediately took flight to their respective places of safety, except for Gcobani, who was obstinate in his refusal to leave his home. 

The South African Police Service (SAPS) had also deployed two officers to the meeting and to escort Khumbuzile’s parents, who feared for their lives.

Eastern Cape police spokesperson Soci said: “The meeting is led by the House of Traditional Leaders to resolve the conflict in the village and is part of essential services to bring order and stability.” 

Soci added: “Community members will also utilise the opportunity to raise any matters that relate to safety and security and other crime-related matters. Police will respond to the concerns and give feedback on matters raised.”

All of this, Khumbuzile stressed, was traumatic for him, because he had to go into hiding at an undisclosed location, leaving behind his children, both of whom had fled and sought refuge with relatives in another village. 

The M&G drove with Khumbuzile to see his children, whom he had not seen since the harrowing shooting incident two weeks before.

“I cannot come back home until this matter is resolved until it is clear that I will be safe. I am forced not to see my children for safety reasons,” a dejected Khumbuzile said. 

“I need to be content with seeing them over the phone.”

His mother said the community had told them that, should the Mfiki family apologise, then the horrific  treatment would stop. 

“One thing I cannot do is ask for forgiveness for something I did not do. Instead, the community should have asked for forgiveness from us when they found out that their children had brutally assaulted my son,” she said. 

With little hope that a resolution will be found, the Mfiki family continue to live in fear, which is exacerbated by the fact that the community leaders who are meant to ensure everyone is treated equally are instead accused of being part of the problem.

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Khaya Koko
Khaya Koko is a journalist with a penchant for reading through legal documents braving the ravages of cold court benches to expose the crooked. He writes about social justice and human-interest stories. Most importantly, he is a card-carrying member of the Mighty Orlando Pirates.

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