21 July 2024 | 05:45 AM

Why violence erupted in Ermelo

Key Takeaways

A police intelligence report obtained by the Mail & Guardian has exposed that a vicious struggle for access to jobs and tenders provided the backdrop to the political violence that gripped Wesselton township in Ermelo in February this year.

The report, marked “secret” and dated February 17, was compiled by Captain Victor Mavuso, the commander of the Mpumalanga counterterrorism unit, and is based on an interview with local ANC activist Bongani Phakathi, whose removal as a Wesselton ward candidate was widely credited with sparking the unrest.

The report is addressed to Mavuso’s superiors, the provincial head of crime intelligence and security intelligence.

Mavuso’s report provides fascinating insight into the fight for access to resources in Wesselton that has pitted a local pressure group, the Msukaligwa Concerned Citizens (also known as the Msukaligwa Community Committee — MCC), against Sibusiso Sigudla, a local strongman and ally of Mpumalanga premier David Mabuza.

In the interview, Phakathi, a political rival of Sigudla, said that he was caught in the middle of this tussle, though he was clearly the MCC’s preferred candidate.

In his summary, Mavuso highlighted some of the issues that he identifies as having triggered the unrest. They include:

    • The failure to give timeous attention to the concerns of the citizen’s committee;


    • The self-imposition of Sigudla, a member of the ANC regional committee, as “the sole representative of ANC on tenders and employment decisions around Ermelo”;


    • The failure to take steps against Sigudla for his “dubious dealings”; and


  • Nepotism in employment and the issuing of tenders in the municipality, in public works and in the surrounding mines.

Mavuso interviewed Phakathi in Pretoria after he handed himself over to the police following suggestions by national commissioner Bheki Cele that Phakathi was suspected of organising the violence.

Phakathi made it clear that the MCC are no angels either.

Mavuso takes up the account from 2009 when Phakathi was employed by Ramdel Construction to be a community liaison officer for the N17 construction project outside Ermelo.

“The job description of Bongani [Phakathi] was to facilitate the employment of workers and subcontractors in that project.

“Around January 2010 — Bongani’s truck and a bakkie were stopped from ferrying workers to the N17 project. On arrival at the scene, Bongani realises that the transports were stopped by the Msukaligwa Community Committee members who were demanding to meet the project manager.”

On the same day the group met the project manager and they raised allegations that Phakathi “takes bribes” during the employment and subcontracting process.

They were advised to open a criminal case, which they did, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

Sometime later, according to Mavuso’s report, Phakathi was approached by two members of the MCC who suggested they bury their differences.

“The two members alleged they had been hired by Sigudla to discredit him — and received payments from Sigudla through the chairperson of the committee … It is further alleged that they were promised tenders in government institutions and the local mines as payment.

“The two men who approached Bongani mentioned that they are angry at Sigudla because he failed to keep his promises.”

According to the police report, the MCC was well organised and met twice a week at a local school in Ward 5 to discuss employment opportunities, the placement of people in the Msukaligwa Local Municipality, the Gert Sibande District Municipality, provincial departments, local mines, Eskom and Spoornet, and tender opportunities.

“This effort of MCC has resulted in them having a huge command within the community of Ermelo,” Mavuso said.

After the rapprochement with members of the MCC, Phakathi started to facilitate employment at the N17 project for this group.

“On the other hand, MCC proceeded [to look] for jobs through staging marches, some violent, in different mines by using intimidation strategies.

“MCC strategies were having difficulties to achieve what was desired, because [for] all places they were informed that it is only Sigudla who is recognised to facilitate any tender or employment.

“This was caused by the fact that Sigudla had introduced himself as an ANC REC [regional executive committee] member instructed by the premier to facilitate employment and issuing of tenders.”

When contacted by the M&G, Sigudla refused to discuss the allegations. (See “Sigudla responds” below)

According to Mavuso’s report, matters came to a head in late 2010 when ANC branches started nominating ward candidates for the local government elections, which were held in May. It suggested that Sigudla used his influence to manipulate the process, including refusing to launch the branch where Phakathi was the chosen candidate.

“Sigudla became a member of the regional list committee and also had an opportunity to impose his preferred candidates,” the report said. This included replacing Phakathi in Ward 5 with another candidate.

In January 2011, the MCC handed over a memorandum of complaints to the municipal manager of Msukaligwa, Ace Dlamini, who promised to respond in seven working days.

When he did not, on Sunday February 13 the committee held a community meeting at which they discussed their demands.

Mavuso’s report said Phakathi claimed he was not present but was at a funeral.

“According to Bongani’s [Phakathi] sources, the theme of the meeting was that by Monday they do not want Sigudla because ANC had failed them — This then triggered the current violent unrest.”

During an interview with the M&G three months ago, Phakathi said he feared for his life and did not trust the Mpumalanga police — they had made it clear they believed he was fomenting the protests.

That fear was behind the decision by Phakathi to hand himself over to police crime intelligence in Pretoria, with the assistance of former Mbombela mayor Lassy Chiwayo, a fierce critic of Mabuza.

But Phakathi previously told the M&G he was interrogated for 14 hours by the Mpumalanga head of the Hawks, General Simon Mapyane.

“Mapyane asked me where I worked and where I got the money from to fund the protest. He asked me about my relationship with [provincial legislature member and perceived rival of Mabuza] Fish Mahlalela and — Lassy Chiwayo.”

Mpumalanga police confirmed that Mapyane had interviewed Phakathi but denied that he had asked him about his work or his relationship with politicians.

Police spokesperson Brigadier Lindela Mashigo told the M&G at the time that Phakathi was questioned because police believed he “could assist in establishing certain facts and provide the police with an understanding of the unrest in Ermelo and not because he was believed to be instigating it”.

The secret report shows Phakathi did indeed offer valuable insight to the police. Whether they have made proper use of his information is another matter.

Sigudla responds

Contacted by the Mail & Guardian in relation to the contents of the police intelligence report, Sibusiso Sigudla went on the offensive.

“I was expecting your call. My intelligence has informed me that you were going to call me and who you have been meeting. We know everything about you.

“I will not answer those questions related to Bongani [Phakathi]. I don’t work for the N17 project. You have been writing articles and making allegations in my name, but I didn’t take it up with my attorneys because we wanted the elections to run smoothly.

“Why don’t you publish the fraud cases that he is facing? Print whatever your president Bongani is telling you … you are from this region and you should know what is happening and its politics … welcome to the revolution.”

Contacted again, Sigudla said: “Don’t harass me. I said I don’t want to speak to you again,” and hung up. — Lungile Dube

The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.

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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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