Shortly after midnight on 20 August last year, a large goods truck driving down the N12 West highway near Alberton was struck from behind by a black BMW 540i, said to have been driven at high speed. It was not a serious accident: no-one was hurt, the truck was undamaged and the car was scraped along the passenger side, with the mirror broken.
But what turned a minor fender-bender into a political mystery is what unfolded next, as described in written statement from a witness and metro police and in interviews with amaBhungane. The BMW was driven by mayor Mzwandile Masina, breaking curfew in a city-owned car he had allegedly used without permission. He was removed from the scene before police investigations had finished and no witness statement was taken from him.
The truck driver, who has asked not to be named, told amaBhungane that he was driving an articulated truck owned by SF Logistics. Close to the turnoffs to the N12 and N3, he and his assistant in the passenger seat noticed in their rear-view mirrors that a car had appeared behind them, driving at high speed and swinging across lanes. “Then I heard a bump and noticed a BMW next to my back tyre on my side.”
He slowed the truck, stopped it and got out. Two more cars stopped behind them, with men climbing out and shouting “Mayor, are you alright?” They then approached the truck driver “saying that I had hit the mayor and they were aggressive. The driver (Masina) approached and he was shouting at me, and people stopped him.”
As the heated confrontation continued, a woman appeared and identified herself to the truck driver as Masina’s wife. “She was very understanding when I explained what had happened and she took him away.”
By now, according to a witness, the scene bore no resemblance to a minor accident, with a number of metro police vehicles arriving, as well as the mayor’s VIP protection entourage.
A metro policeman questioned both drivers and recorded a brief summary in an accident report, each driver blaming the other.
“Driver A (the truck driver) alleged he was travelling in the 2nd lane direction west when Vehicle “B” drive into him from the left side (illegible). Driver of Vehicle B (Masina) alleged he was driving west on N12 in the middle lane when Driver of Vehicle “A” come over to his lane and collided with him. The Driver of Vehicle “A” drive on and he manage to stop him.”
AmaBhungane asked the truck driver whether it was true that he failed to stop after the accident. He said that a heavily-laden goods truck could not be instantly stopped, but that he had slowed it down and stopped further up the road.
A second officer arrived at the scene at 00:50. By then, Masina had departed, and only the truck driver was present. The truck driver provided a sworn statement in which he made an additional allegation: “Immediately I hear a sound, he bumped my tyre of my back trailer and I noticed he was drug [drunk].”
There is no equivalent sworn statement from Masina in the accident report file. The accident report says drunken driving was not suspected, nor was it tested for.
Click on the Evidence docket to access the full accident report file.
At 08:30 that morning, a more senior officer, Superintendent Kelobogile Thepa, was told about the accident. She discovered that the BMW did not belong to Masina, but was a “blue light” VIP vehicle allocated to the office of the mayor.
Thepa was head of the Ekurhuleni Metro Police Department (EMPD) VIP protection unit at the time.
In a sworn statement attached to the investigations report, she said that after she found out that the mayor was driving an EMPD VIP vehicle, she notified the chief of police and requested him to intervene.
“He (Chief of Police) requested a meeting with the Mayor where he explained processes of vehicle policy within the EMPD and asked if the Mayor was aware that an EMPD vehicle is operated with a valid driving authorisation.
“The mayor expressed lack of knowledge with policies of the EMPD and promised never to operate an EMPD allocated vehicle as he is allocated officers for protection and conveyance.”
More questions than answers
In the thirteen months since the accident, no further investigations have occurred. The official position is that it was a minor accident warranting no further examination. But a number of aspects certainly appear to deserve further attention:
— Why was Masina allowed to leave the scene of an accident still under investigation?
— Why did police not question or record why he was on the road at that hour during a curfew?
— Why was he driving an EMPD car without permission?
— Why was possible intoxication not investigated when the truck driver explicitly accused Masina of being drunk?
AmaBhungane spoke to several people who were either on the scene or were familiar with the investigation. No-one would speak on the record, either because they were not authorised to speak to the media, or because they had been warned “not to say anything relating to the incident ever again”.
Said one person: “How can you investigate your boss objectively, a person who can make your life at work a misery. The reality is that there is a lot of intimidation happening at Ekurhuleni.”
Said another: “The Mayor has several personal cars. Why did he take this particular blue light car meant for police officers in the middle of the night? You need a permit to drive a car assigned to police. Is this not an abuse of state resources? When the accident happened, the mayor called his VIP entourage immediately and other senior EMPD officers, and yet this was a minor accident and straightforward.”
Mayor’s office responds
The mayor’s spokesperson, Phakamile Mbengashe, provided an explanation as to why the mayor was on the road during a curfew.
“On the evening of 20 August 2020, the Executive Mayor had just concluded a series of service delivery oversight visits in Vosloorus when he was notified of a medical emergency concerning a close family relative in Katlehong, which he urgently attended to. The family member subsequently passed away on the same day, 20 August 2020.”
Mbengashe provided a death certificate of the person showing she did indeed die on 20 August 2020.
The reason Masina was driving the VIP protection car himself was that: “At the time of receiving the notification of the medical emergency, the executive mayor’s protection unit had already completed their shift, and they were no longer in the company of the executive mayor.”
He claimed there was no intervention by the chief of police: “All EMPD processes were followed in accordance with the Department’s Policies.”
Mbengashe said the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) mayoral handbook, Section 126.96.36.199, dealing with terms for the use of official vehicles, leaves it to the discretion of the mayor to utilise a car at the expense of the municipality for any reasonable purpose.
However, this section deals with a specific vehicle allocated for exclusive mayoral use, including for personal purposes, whereas it is not clear that the same provision applies to VIP protection vehicles assigned to the mayor’s office.
Section 188.8.131.52 notes that, “The use of any other municipal vehicle by the Mayor is not permissible.”
Mbengashe said damage to the car had been minimal, isolated to only a rear mirror, and the mayor had covered the cost of the damage in his personal capacity.
However, pictures from the accident report show not only a broken mirror, but a long gash on the passenger side, running across both front and back doors.
If Masina blames the truck driver for the damage, why would he choose to pay for panel beating out of his own pocket?