Picture: Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane – Delwyn Verasamy, M&G
By Tabelo Timse and Mashile Phalane
Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane allegedly offered a hometown political rival R70 000 in cash as a peace offering about three months before the man was gunned down execution-style.
There is no evidence that Zwane was in any way involved in the murder of Vusi Mlaba, an opposition activist from Zwane’s power base in Warden in the Free State – and there are indications that their relationship had improved recently.
AmaBhungane sent questions to the minister about the alleged cash offer, but he refused to confirm or deny it and to explain the nature of their relationship.
Prior to his murder, Mlaba told amaBhungane that he was troubled by Zwane’s alleged approach and felt his life was in danger, based on his own suspicions about Zwane’s motives.
He expressed this concern in the presence of an amaBhungane reporter during a meeting in February. Mlaba’s friend, Doctor Radebe, a local Democratic Alliance councillor, was also present and confirms Mlaba’s words.
Mlaba was shot 12 times just metres away from his house on Friday, April 29.
AmaBhungane visited Mlaba in February this year. At the time he was a confidential source concerning Free State politics.
“… he came to me to make peace.”
Mlaba revealed that he was arrested for intimidation in December 2014 and he spent three months in holding cells before being released after paying a fine. Although hundreds of community members participated in the protest, only he was arrested.
He said he believed the motivation for his incarceration was to punish him because on several occasions he spoke out against Zwane in local forums.
Mlaba told amaBhungane that not long after he was released Zwane visited him and offered him money: “He offered me R70 000 cash and I asked him what was it for. And he [Zwane] said ‘take it’. I looked at him, surprised. He then said he came to me to make peace.”
Mlaba declined to say whether he took the money or not.
He further claimed that Zwane travelled with large amounts of cash in the boot of his car and that, for instance, in December he had made a R40 000 cash donation to a school principal for a Christmas party.
Mlaba claimed that, at a funeral in mid-February, Zwane publicly apologised to him for all the wrong he had done against him, which Mlaba felt was bizarre.
Mlaba was worried by these events and the offer of cash and told amaBhungane he felt his life was in danger.
Due to the confidential nature of his discussions with amaBhungane, we could not report on his claims about the money offer at the time.
“… rumours and or unsubstantiated claims”
Zwane’s spokesperson Martin Madlala did not answer amaBhungane’s e-mailed questions to the minister asking him to explain the relationship between the two men.
Madlala said the minister was saddened by the untimely and tragic death of Mlaba and hoped law enforcement agencies were afforded the opportunity to investigate thoroughly.
Asked again specifically to respond to amaBhungane’s queries about the R70 000 allegedly offered, as well as Mlaba’s other allegations, Madlala said the minister had no further comment.
“He [Zwane] is of the opinion that the remainder [of the questions] engages with rumours and or unsubstantiated claims, but he had deemed it appropriate to convey his condolences,” said Madlala.
Residents of Ezenzeleni township, where Mlaba’s bullet-riddled body was found, believe his stance against corruption and lack of service delivery made him a target. His family believe it was a “political” hit.
They regard that suspicion as being bolstered by Mlaba’s defection three years ago from the ANC to the Democratic Alliance. According to his younger brother Mandla, while Mlaba was admired in the community, he gained enemies in local political circles.
Residents and family members interviewed by amaBhungane recalled that many of his confrontations at community meetings involved Zwane and his wife, Topsy, and their supporters.
“Mlaba was a staunch supporter of the DA”
Topsy is the speaker of the Phumelela district municipality, which includes Warden and Vrede. In 2013 Mlaba is said to have stormed into her office with a housing list and told her that the he was going to allocate vacant RDP houses to residents himself.
Mandla agreed that Zwane and his brother were rivals for many years but said their relationship had become “somewhat civil” in recent months.
Radebe, the DA councillor, who spoke at Mlaba’s funeral, was hesitant to conclude that the murder was politically motivated, but noted: “Mlaba was a staunch supporter of the DA who worked for the party tirelessly recruiting new members.
“In 2014 the membership doubled in Warden. We are shocked about his death and the manner in which he died.”
Mlaba, a father of five, joined the DA in mid 2013. But he had gained popularity in local ANC structures in the early 2000s and was later elected to the ANC branch executive.
A neighbour, 65-year-old Alina Maduna, described him as a quiet man who greeted everyone, but became aggressive when it came to community issues.
“He was the only one who had guts to speak the truth. My heart is sore because he was the only who fought for us,” Maduna said, wiping away her tears.
“… a straight talker”
Another neighbour, Samuel Nhlapo, told amaBhungane: “He was a straight talker; he wasn’t scared of anyone. In community meetings he would ask politicians tough questions, and if he wasn’t happy with the answers, he would tell them straight that they’re talking nonsense.”
Nhlapho, 63, who lives a few metres from the murder scene, said this was the only shooting in the 15 years he has lived in Ezenzeleni.
Mlaba’s body was discovered by a passerby on April 29 at 20:30 about 100m from his house in Ezenzeleni.
Recalled Mandla, his brother: “I arrived at the scene at about 10pm, his body was still lying there. I went closer to check if it was really him. I was shocked, he had about six bullet holes in his face and a bullet hole on his right hand. His body was full of wounds as well,” recalled Mandla.
Between sobs, he said that by looking at the scene and piecing together the sequence of events, there was no doubt in his mind that his brother had been executed.
Mandla said that he had then unlocked the door of his brother’s house and found two of his cellphones on the table.
“He never left the house without his phones unless he was going around the corner. So on this occasion, he wasn’t going far.”
“Then I heard the shots, more than 10 of them”
Residents who live close to the murder scene said they heard the shots but thought naughty children were playing with fireworks or throwing stones at houses.
“I was in bed and heard people quarrelling outside. I thought it was just youngsters from the tavern. Then I heard the shots, more than 10 of them.
“I looked out the window and saw a man walking away. I didn’t see anything else, but after a few minutes I heard screams,” said a neighbour who asked not to be named out of fear for his safety.
Family members said the killing came as a shock to them because Mlaba had made a decision late last year to keep a low political profile.
Mandla said the family had begged him to scale down his political involvement after several incidents of harassment and intimidation.
Mandla said his brother received death threat calls on his cellphone and was frequently visited by police who said they wanted to keep an eye on him.
“…they saw him as a troublemaker.”
Mandla said he was not impressed by the way the local police were handling his brother’s case.
He said he only received the case number five days after the murder when he called the investigating officer. amaBhungane witnessed the exchange.
“The local police here harassed my brother; they saw him as a troublemaker,” said Mandla. “We’re still waiting for the post-mortem report, and the investigating officer hasn’t come to speak to people who live close to the murder scene,” said Mandla.
The Bethlehem police spokesperson, Lieutenant Zweli Mohobeleli, said police could not confirm the possibility of a political assassination.
“We appeal to the family as well as the community to afford us time and space to conduct thorough investigation. We would like to appeal for calm,” Mohoboleli said.