As the 2016 Local Government Election looms next week, Daily Maverick journalist Marianne Merten has pointed out that political assassinations have become so common that they are often dismissed by the police (and the media) as a normal part of the democratic process in South Africa: Marianne Merten on political killings. Her words reminded me that Prof Jane Duncan had warned two years ago about the rise of a culture of political killings - and the impunity that goes with much of the slaughter. And it also reminded me of a section of Drinking With Ghosts in which I recalled investigating the murder of an ANC councillor almost a decade ago:
Refongkgotso, Vaal Dam, 5 July 2007
The gruesome mob murder of Free State ANC Town Councillor Ntai Mokoena at his home in the Refongkgotso township on the outskirts of Deneysville yesterday has given local government the jitters for it is clear that the South African resistance-era practice of political assassinations die not die with the coming of democracy. Shop-stewards are still gunned down for building unions; mayors are still slain for backing the wrong political faction; rival taxi bosses are shot in turf wars over taxi ranks and routes; even the police are both the hunters and the hunted.
Photojournalist Paballo Thekiso and I head out on Thursday afternoon after Deneysville United Democratic Movement (UDM) Chairman Isaac Mokhatla and 16 other suspects appear in court in the industrial town of Sasolburg facing charges of murder and public violence – an hour and a bit’s drive south of Joburg, to the town of Deneysville nestled on the western edge of the Vaal Dam, with its 1970s boom-time facebrick homes with ageing speedboats in many yards, and out to the formal township of Refongkgotso, with its neatly fenced plots, modest brick homes and corrugated iron roofs. The media have smelled the blood of a political feud in the water, for there drives the Sowetan news-crew, and here we pass an SABC camera team. The trick of grafting for a weekly, when covering what every other news outfit is also working on, is to find an inside track that will remain fresh and unsurpassed by the dailies, online and wire services and the broadcasters by the weekend. “Damn! What do we do?,” I ask Thekiso. “We’d better at least do the house,” he replies, so I ask a bunch of youngsters where to find Mokoena’s house, and they direct us just around the corner, and to the right, on a road that loops off the township’s main street.
The house is sunny in pale yellow paint, with its typical red-polished cement front stoep gleaming, but other than being a little larger, does not stand out from its neighbours – except for its shattered windows and the crowds of mourners coming to pay their condolences. We park, remove our peaked caps and, assuming the correct respectful attitude, ask relatives if we may enter and if there is anyone we may talk to. We know we will not be able to speak to Mokoena’s widow, for she has now entered her sacred mourning period, and indeed we find widdow Nofisi Radebe sitting still and isolate on the floor before a single lit candle in a corner of the lounge, a dark blanket covering her head. We make a few discrete inquiries, but get nothing that explains the murder, so bow out.
Where to next? We drive to the Deneysville Police Station and interview Captain Stephen Thakeng who at least gives us a little backround, claiming that yesterday’s rioting that lead to the murder had its roots in a meeting convened by the UDM’s Mokhatla at the Deneysville Council offices to discuss an apparent Council plan to remove residents of the squatter camp next to Refongkgotso, named Holomisa after UDM leader, retired Transkei General Bantu Holomisa who took the mostly-Xhosa movement out of the ANC in 1997. The relocation to a settlement called Amelia near the Highveld fuel-from-oil industrial town of Sasolburg was opposed by the UDM and Holomisa residents because, we are told, they will have to pay rent they cannot afford and will be further away from friends and relatives.
Captain Thakeng tells us that several hundred people, mostly women, attended the meeting, at which they were told they would be addressed by the ANC’s Councillor Mokoena. But instead, a riot erupted and spread out from the offices, so the police called in reinforcements from Welkom, Bloemfontein and the Vaal who dispersed the rioters. It was thereafter that a mob had stormed Mokoena’s home and killed him. Things are still way too unclear for Thekiso’s and my liking, so we drive to the Council offices and taken note of the bent gate and broken windows, but are still at a loss to explain as to how the meeting resulted in murder.
So we drive back through Refongkgotso, and enter Holomisa, a really depressing settlement clinging by the skin of its teeth to the promise of the proper houses, tarred roads, electric lights, piped water and decent jobs that they stare at daily across an uneven stretch of veld where fresh green shoots pierce the ashes of an old veld-fire. Here there aren’t even graded dirt roads, just tracks weaving through the wasteland. An icy winter wind cuts straight across the desolate, litter-fouled fields, tugging at loose flaps of rusted corrugated iron and clapboard. Refongkgotso mans “give us peace,” but the very civil peace achieved by its relative prosperity was a thorn in the side of hardscrabble Holomisa.
By this stage it seems the other news crews have left the scene already, having got the shots and quotes they needed, but we need to understand how and whyit all unravelled, so we hang about in Holomisa. It’s just plain uncomfortable in the cold wind and getting moreso as the big smog-smeared red sun heads towards the horizon, but we just bide our time. A gap-toothed 67-year-old man complains about the removal plan: They want this place for a graveyard; the dead are better off than the living.”
Then Thekiso strikes up a casual conversation in Tswana with a group of three open-faced young women hanging laundry in the ill wind, a 24-year-old mother of one in a checked shirt, a 27-year-old in a grey tracksuit, and a 32-year-old wrapped in a blue blanket, carrying her baby on her back. Cigarettes and chit-shat are swapped, and finally, it just comes out that the women were at the Council meeting – and were involved in what happened afterwards.
“For six years, they [the Council] have been saying ‘we’ll come and install taps and electricity,’ but it’s all empty promises,” the 24-year-old tells us, saying they had still attended the meeting to see what was on the cards, “But no-one was there. Then Councillor Mokoena arrived in his car. He saw us and just laughed and drove off, so we closed off the street with stones so that no-one could see what we were doing and we broke the gate and vandalised the place. The police came, but didn’t stop us,” she said, though the police at least dispersed the mob – but it recoalesced around Ntai Mokoena’s house.
“We went to Ntai’s house and started stoning it,” the 27-year-old admitted to us. “We opened his gate forcefully. Ntai arrived, driving like a maniac; he drove into his yard and into the legs of one of Mokhatla’s right-hand men, and collided with his wall. He climbed out and beat up this mentally-disturbed boy who was on the march, then went inside – we think to go and get his gun. When he came out, he fired three shots in the air and got on top of his car.”
Except for the beating of the boy, the young woman’s version is confirmed to us by a neighbour of Mokoena’s who fiddled nervously with a tin of Zam-Buk ointment while saying Mokoena had spotted across two men hiding behind his neighbour’s wall; Mokoena had stacked bricks for the extension of his home in this neighbour’s yard, and the men had apparently been throwing bricks through his windows. The neighbour said the councillor had fired a shot at the feet of the men, but that unafraid, they had advanced on him. With tears streaming down her face, the neighbour said: “I have known Ntai for seven years. He was a nice guy...”
The 27-year-old rioter claimed rather that Mokoena had fired a shot directly at the two brick-throwers “but missed – and as he was cocking his gun, one of the men pushed him and he fell and lost the gun. Then the crowd came and stoned him and sang ‘Let this dog die!’ The men beat him, but the women were ululating. When I saw blood I ran away.”
A 15-year-old scar-faced boy doing tricks with a football with some friends near the murdered man’s house picked up the tale: “People were staring at him and not helping. He was breathing badly.” Mokoena died in the arms of his wife shortly after he arrived at hospital. “Some people are happy he’s dead,” the youth said, “they say he was a bad man because he tarred his own street only” – and indeed the loop of road on which the house sits is tarred unlike the other dirt roads which run off the main street. “We were promised houses with bathrooms inside, but it hasn’t happened – but his house is being extended and he bought his son a quad-bike,” the youth claimed. Already, UDM leader Mokhatla’s home, perched on the very border between Refongkgotso and Holomisa, has been petrol-bombed in reprisal.
The 27-year-old mother says: “I’m sorry that he had to die. It was not our intention.” The woman with the baby on her back grimly nods agreement: “We had no right to kill him, even if he didn’t help us. With the murder, I don’t think we’ll ever get houses. And with Mr Mokhatla in prison – he knew all the right tactics – who will defend us now?” The three women sensibly decline to give their names because tonight is the vigil for Mokoena and rumours of revenge are rife. One of them says: “The ANC is saying someone [among us] will have to follow him into the afterlife.”