13 April 2024 | 11:13 AM

Doubts dog puzzling murder trial

Key Takeaways

It is 18 months since ANC heavyweight Wandile Mkhize died in a hail of bullets close to his home near Margate, but his death remains fraught with unanswered ­questions.

What was the motive of the two men, one a municipal labourer and the other unemployed, charged with shooting him and his friend Nhlakanipho Shabane? What can be made of the claims that a policeman, who has since been killed in a car crash, tampered with the evidence? And who are the co-conspirators who, according to the indictment, believed Mkhize was preventing them from winning municipal contracts?

Mkhize, an ANC regional executive committee member, was aligned to Jacob Zuma and had been given the task of rallying the South Coast to back Zuma before the ANC’s Polok­wane conference. At the time of his death, he was trying to heal divisions in the movement. Did he have political enemies?

Writing in the South African Crime Quarterly, independent researcher David Bruce said that some political killings since the end of apartheid stem from interparty conflict but that most are linked to “local political rivalries and connections to criminal networks, notably in the taxi industry”.

The killings are “once again reaching a rate of intensity comparable to that experienced in KwaZulu-Natal in the late 1990s”, Bruce said.

According to him, only six prosecutions have led to convictions in political murder cases. (See “Unsolved cases show up justice system” below).

Swift arrests, scant success

Mkhize, an executive councillor in the Hibiscus Coast municipality, was murdered in June last year. The police were lauded for the swift arrest of Kwanele Hlongwa and Dumisani Skhakhane in connection with the crime.

Their murder trial resumes during a high court hearing in Ramsgate in April next year, but there are doubts about the prospects of a conviction. A senior ANC source, who spoke anonymously, said that there are already signs that the prosecution is under pressure.

Police spokesperson Captain Thulani Zwane said that the motive for the murder is still unknown and the only gun discovered during the investigation, when Hlongwa was arrested, cannot be linked to the murder.

Hlongwa has been charged separately with unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition.

Zwane refused to say what evidence links the accused to the crime and said the matter is too sensitive to discuss. But Hawks spokesperson Paul Rama­loko disputed claims that the motive is unknown, although he would not elaborate.

The ANC source said the fact there are conflicting reports is reason enough to feel anxious about the case.

“I’m not surprised that the police can’t link the gun to the murder because [to my knowledge] not a single cartridge was recovered from the crime scene,” he said.

From jail

Skhakhane said during a phone call from the Pietermaritzburg prison that, according to his police interrogators, he was seen with Hlongwa at the Spar supermarket in Manaba, Mkhize’s home suburb, and at a bar, The Keg, on the day of the murder.

However, he denied this, insisting that he hardly knew his co-accused. He claimed that there is no CCTV footage of him at the supermarket on the day in question. Police have accused him of accepting R50 000 for the hit, but this is false, he said.

A senior ANC member, who also asked not to be named, suggested that “extremely powerful people” might have been involved.

“Wandile could have upset any one of them, whether intentionally or not,” he said. “He wasn’t just another politician on the South Coast. He exerted considerable influence at local, provincial and national level.”

The source said that Mkhize had “climbed up the political ladder very quickly and that would have upset a different group of people”.

“He was also very influential in youth structures and played a pivotal role in securing Julius Malema’s first term as the ANC Youth League president. However, Wandile failed to prevent a second Malema term, when Malema had become a problem. Some might have read that as a failure, or even a betrayal.”

An SMS sent by Mkhize to Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula shortly before he was murdered indicates that he was striving to bring unity to an organisation torn by “contradictions”. It refers to a “contest for space by former leaders of the [youth league] within the ANC NEC [national executive committee]” and says he was worried that “if we collectively don’t rise above what divides us, Mangaung will be worse than Polokwane and our movement and country will be at great risk”.

The source said some could have read Mkhize’s determination to unite the party as a refusal to take sides.

‘So many possibilities’

“It’s quite plausible that one of the factions fed somebody false information, which could have resulted in the murder. There are so many possibilities, but it looks like there was definitely an external influence.

“I’ll be very surprised if there’s a conviction. Too much is at stake for a lot of people.”

In its summary of the substantial facts, the indictment states that, some time before the murder, “there were issues regarding the granting of tenders within the Hibiscus Coast municipality”. “Certain persons believed that … Mkhize was the one who was obstructing them being awarded the tenders. The accused and certain other persons [collectively referred to as ‘the assailants’] conspired and decided to kill Mkhize.”

However, the indictment makes no further mention of the individuals or their identity, and the police will not say whether further arrests are being contemplated.

“We cannot talk about individuals who are not arrested yet,” said Ramaloko. “We need to satisfy ourselves that they are linked to the case before we bring them to book.”

The prosecutor in the case, Makhosi Mthembu, refused to be interviewed. The National Prosecuting Authority’s communications department did not respond to written questions.

Local ANC sources also claim that a cellphone found at the scene of the murder, which could have provided vital evidence, went missing.

Mysterious missing cellphone

One official claimed that, shortly after the murder, before any arrests were made, a cellphone was picked up at the scene by an off-duty warrant officer, Nkosi Khoza, who allegedly did not hand it in as evidence.

Khoza died in a car accident near Pietermaritzburg last month.

Another ANC official from the region, who wished to remain anonymous, is also aware of the missing cellphone. “That phone could have revealed a lot about the murder. What we found suspicious is that Khoza was one of the first people at the scene, even though he was off duty,” the official said.

The Hawks have denied any know-ledge of the phone or of Khoza’s alleged intervention.

Unsolved cases show up justice system

Since 2003 there have been at least 107 political murders in KwaZulu-Natal and only six appear to have been solved, independent researcher David Bruce said.

Some appear to flow from interparty competition, in line with the sectarian militarisation of the province in the 1980s and 1990s.

The launch of the National Freedom Party in 2011 was also followed by a spate of attacks, reportedly leading to 22 deaths.

Between 2003 and 2013, nine Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leaders were murdered, Bruce said, a figure that excludes ordinary members. Most prominent among them was Thomas Shabalala, an alleged “warlord” of Durban’s shack city Inanda, shot dead in 2005.

An ANC internal inquiry found 38 members have been murdered since 2011. Bruce said this represents an increase and that many of these murders “are believed to have been connected to internal ANC rivalries”. A particular intensification was noted before the ANC’s Polokwane conference.

He estimated that less than 10% of the political murders in the country since 2003 have been solved, raising “serious questions about the effectiveness of the criminal justice system”.

In two of the KwaZulu-Natal convictions, the court was told that the murders were linked to internal ANC conflict.

Recent political killings in the province include those of:

• Rajah Naidoo, independent councillor, Durban, 2007;

• Jimmy Mtolo, South African National Civic Organisation provincial treasurer, New Germany, 2008;

• Sthembiso Cele, ANC Youth League chairperson, Umgababa, 2009;

• Mfanafuthu Elliott Maphumulo, IFP councillor, Gingindlovu, 2009;

• Jabulani Khumalo, ANC leader, Nongoma, 2009;

• Sibongiseni Shange, IFP councillor, Eshowe, 2010;

• S’bu Sibiya, ANC regional secretary, Durban, 2011;

• Wiseman Mshibe, ANC councillor, Durban, 2011;

• Mthembeni Shezi, ANC councillor, Durban, 2012;

• S’bu Majola, ANC branch chairperson, Escourt, 2013;

• Makhosonke Msibi, ANC councillor, Nongoma, 2013; and

• Siphumelelo Buthelezi, National Freedom Party councillor, Ulundi, 2013. – Siyabonga Mchunu

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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