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Family wants clarity on SANDF soldier killed in friendly fire in the DRC

Almost four months after Corporal Simanga Arthur Khuselo was killed in friendly fire in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), his family still grieves his loss and wants clarity on the circumstances of his death on 3 June.

When Khuselo’s three-year-old daughter tells her mother, California: “Mama, I want to see Papa,” she answers briefly, “As much as you want Papa, we also want Papa, but he is no more.”

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Khuselo died before a military operation in the village of Kilia, near the city of Beni in North Kivu province. 

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and the Tanzania People’s Defence Force — one of whose soldiers shot Khuselo — are part of the Force Intervention Brigade in the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in the DRC. 

When Khuselo signed up to join the peacekeeping mission in October last year, he had a mission of his own that he wanted to fulfill. 

“He went to the DRC to [save enough money to] build a home for his children,” says his wife.

California, who last saw her husband in October last year, said she used to send him monthly packages of his favourite food, “dry fruits, peanuts and muesli, biltong”, but she never gave in to his request for amasi because she was afraid the bag of fermented milk “would burst while in transport”.

She remembers speaking to Khuselo on a video call the night before he died. She also found photographs of him and his team in front of an army vehicle minutes before the fatal shooting occurred. 

On the day of Khuselo’s death, the SANDF announced that it would investigate the shooting. “Details of this unfortunate incident are still sketchy at the moment, and a board of inquiry has been convened to investigate the causes that led to this incident,” reads a statement. 

A tribute by the UN reads: “His untimely departure leaves a void that cannot be filled in the lives of his spouse … his friends, colleagues and loved ones. Simanga was a huge asset to 1 Tactical Intelligence Regiment and the Intelligence Corps alike.”

California and her two daughters received his body on Monday 14 June in a military ceremonial handover at the Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria. A military funeral service took place that same week in Zastron in the Free State. 

Since then, Khuselo’s family has not heard from the SANDF about the investigation into his death.

Mangaliso Jephry Khuselo, the brother of the slain soldier, believes “my brother was only a commodity” for the defence force. 

He dismisses claims that the friendly fire incident was an accident and says the family has enough reason to believe there was noticeable discord between Khuselo and the man who shot him. 

Mangaliso says the Tanzanian soldier, whose name is known to the Mail & Guardian, did not complete his tasks or work as part of the team Khuselo headed. He claims that Khuselo and the Tanzanian soldier had a dispute three days before his death. 

“There are things I don’t understand, and the SANDF is not answering,” says Mangaliso.

Brigadier General Mafi Mgobozi, spokesperson for the defence department, told the M&G the investigation into Khuselo’s death “is still ongoing” and it was not possible to elaborate on the matter. 

He confirmed that a board of inquiry was convened in July “to report on the circumstances surrounding his death”.

“At this stage, the president of the BOI [board of inquiry] is still busy with the investigation and [on] conclusion the BOI [findings] will be handed over to the convening authority,” Mgobozi said.

A UN spokesperson in the DRC, Mathias Gillmann, said the mission’s investigation was ongoing “so we would not be able to share any details at this stage”. 

Gillmann added that he was unaware of an investigation by the SANDF and that the peacekeeping force conducted an investigation into any fatality during a mission. 

An intelligence report, seen by the M&G, and correspondence with an intelligence officer in the DRC, might shed some light on the circumstances of Khuselo’s death. 

At the time of his death, Khuselo was part of Operation Fungula Macho (a village) in support of Operation Rwenzori II, in the Beni region. 

The intelligence report states that “the member was accidentally shot in his leg by [a] 7.72mm LMG [light machine gun] fire. Reportedly while preparing for movement.”

The soldier who shot Khuselo was preparing “for movement to Mutwanga” when the round went off, bounced off the armour plating of the vehicle door where Khuselo was standing at the drivers’ side and hit him from behind. 

Khusela was taken to the Malawi Defence Force Hospital, known as Malbatt in Beni, before he was transferred to the Tanzanian Hospital (Tanzbatt) at the Mavivi base 15km away.

He was declared dead on arrival because of “the loss of blood and the extent of his wound”. 

A South African army guidebook on safety precautions for stage 0 states that the chamber of the LMG must be empty, the breech closed and with no belt on the weapon. This stage applies to operational areas where no immediate danger exists, as it was in Khuselo’s case. It is only in stage 2 that the gun’s breech may be open (cocked), but the chamber is to remain empty. 

An intelligence officer who knew Khuselo said the slain man frequently complained to him about the soldier who shot him. The officer also recalled a dispute on the Monday before Khuselo’s death. 

According to the officer, the dispute centred on radar equipment used to detect opposition forces. The equipment was allegedly broken by the soldier who shot Khuselo. Despite the incident having landed Khuselo’s team in trouble, the soldier took the incident personally. 

Knowing the particulars of Khuselo’s death won’t bring him back, says his brother Mangaliso. But the family hopes the SANDF’s investigation might bring some closure.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a junior daily news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She was previously a freelance journalist and a broadcaster at Maroela Media and Smile90.4FM.

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