On Wednesday 11 December six people in the Msomi home at Hammarsdale, near Durban, died, when a group of gunmen surrounded the house and opened fire on those inside it. Similar attacks in peri-urban and traditional rural areas are not unusual. While most attacks on farmers and on politicians receive media coverage few of the murders or ordinary folk do. That it is possible for well-armed men to operate with impunity in these areas points to serious problems with policing, including intelligence, at local station and Cluster area. These killers have access to a range of guns and seem to have no problem acquiring ammunition. The bodies of Mhlengezi Khumalo, killed in an apparent political hit in Pietermaritzburg in February., and Gundane Mthethwa, killed in the reign of terror in eMpembeni near Richards Bay the same month, were riddled with an estimated two dozen or more bullet wounds. There have been some positive developments in national and provincial policing in 2019 and priorities for 2020 must include improved rural safety and an intensified clampdown on illicit guns – which should start with vastly improved policing of the taxi industry.
The taxi industry, hitmen and guns
The taxi industry is associated with the deployment of hit men, including for political assassinations. It may also employ armed guards who are not necessarily PSIRA compliant. It is a threat to state security. Many police members allegedly operate taxis or receive protection money from one or other faction, and some powerful operators are well connected politically. Convictions are few and far between, including when buses are attacked. Despite claims by the Department of Transport that it regulates the industry without fear or favour there is a conspicuous lack of transparency in its operations, including those relating to the implementation of a new public transport system in Durban.
Mandeni was one of various areas in which taxi violence claimed several lives. In June, Siyabonga Mbonambi who had, for years, played a prominent role in a local taxi association, was gunned down. In 2010 he had survived an attack by armed men at his rural home in which a brother and a toddler nephew died. Nothing has changed in the past decade. Those allegedly behind the violence then were linked to a long-distance association accused of operating illegally in his association’s route, with evidence of complicity on the part of certain police. The present context is one in which there are tensions around leadership within Mbonambi’s association. An informer, who was subsequently killed, named the hitmen and alleged they had been sent by a taxi rival. The only witness to the killing was Siyabonga’s brother, Sam, whose life has been in great danger since the murder. Investigators claimed that they could not trace the killers, despite reports that they were seen visiting contacts in the Mandeni area. Sam gave up his job and moved around. He was not at his home when police arrived there in September looking for him. They claimed an informer had linked him to a crime. Only when pressed to do so did they identify themselves properly, and advised that they had come from Empangeni, a distance away. They had not notified the local Sundumbili station of their presence, which is against SAPS regulations. Sam subsequently reported to Empangeni SAPS together with his lawyer; he was not charged. On 28 November, when Sam was at his own home, gunmen apparently sent to kill him murdered his fourteen-year old nephew who presumably saw them. At another Mbonambi home a short distance away, another nephew of Sam and Siyabonga was murdered on 14 December by men who appear to have been looking for another close relative of theirs who has also been threatened with death. The police acted swiftly and NIU members arrested the alleged hitmen at a hostel at Umlazi. Sam has finally been placed in Witness Protection. At the end of December, one of the alleged killers of Siyabonga was arrested near Mandeni. It is now up to investigators and prosecution to ensure they build a strong case.
The shooting of Thabiso Zulu
In 2018 the Public Protector (PP) instructed the Minister of Police to provide protection for whistle-blower and ANC stalwart Thabiso Zulu whose life has been in grave danger since 2017, Despite two State security threat assessments confirming that Zulu’s life is in grave danger the Minister blocked the protection and referred the PP’s report for court review. Amidst continuing threats, Zulu has continued to spend most of his time locked away and moving only with people who try to protect him. Appeals to, among others, President Ramaphosa and parliament have fallen on deaf ears.
On 25 October Zulu was warned by a security industry person that there were plans to kill him in within days. The next night he was shot and injured walking with a friend near where he was staying in Pietermaritzburg. Handguns and a rifle were used but, by the next morning, the Mountain Rise SAPS, an historically problematic station, had not secured the crime scene nor retrieved the cartridges. Why did police intelligence not have, or use, that information to pre-empt an attack?
Loss of confidence in DPP’s office
Following a failure by local police to arrest anyone for a spate of killings in eMpembeni, the office of the national commissioner arranged for a new team to report to the Cluster Office. Arrests for three separate murders followed swiftly. Accomplices initially charged indicated that they would turn state witness, made statements, and were placed in Witness Protection, and the arrests of two members of the widely feared N family followed. Petitions with hundreds of signatures were presented to court opposing bail. The investigators did commendable work, even risking their own lives in what is an extremely dangerous area. However, in a shock decision seven months after the arrests a senior prosecutor declined to prosecute the N family members on the grounds that the two state witnesses claimed to have made statements under duress. This appears a blatant lie because they had been examined on more than one occasion by a District Surgeon, and appeared in court, and had never mentioned any abuse. What is truly incredible is that charges have not been re-instated against the two men who had themselves faced charges, and had also perjured themselves – raising serious questions about whether people facing such charges can now avoid prosecution by turning state witness and later retracing their statements. Community members have completely lost confidence in the prosecution service, especially as a very wealthy member of the N family had boasted during his bail application that he enjoyed a good relationship with two prosecutors, including one working in the DPP’s office. A climate of intense fear prevails, once again, in eMpembeni,
Lessons for 2020
Rural safety of all, farmers and residents of traditional land alike, must be a priority in 2020, starting with a drastic improvement in the gathering and use of intelligence, and the monitoring by management of stations in which gunmen appear to operate with impunity. Road-blocks of taxis, and investigations of all those involved in guarding them, could impact on the circulation of illegal guns (if no warning is given). The Firearms Unit of the SAPS should be strengthened with further personnel with proven clean records. Prosecutors also need to work with, and guide, investigators from an early stage, and not wait until investigations are nearing completion.
See www.violencemonitor.com for reports on eMpembeni and Thabiso Zulu (2018/2019) and re: taxi violence. 2010 report ‘The attack on the Mbonambi family, Dendethu : An Indictment of the failure of the SAPS and KZN Transport to enforce the rule of law’