The role of Umlazi SAPS in the murder of Sipho Ndovela

The body of Sipho Ndovela outside Umlazi Magistrate Court in May 2015. Photo by Vanessa Burger

On Friday 15 September the Durban Magistrate’s Court sentenced Mxoleleni Hopeson Bhani to life imprisonment for the murder of Sipho Ndovela, killed on 18 May 2015 at the Umlazi Magistrate’s Court, and 12 years for the attempted murder of another Glebelands resident. But there were others – police members – also implicated in Ndovela’s murder. Bhani did not act alone. Glebelands will never be free of violence and fear unless officers colluding with killers are brought to book.  The late Sipho Ndovela was the former Block 56 chairperson. He ran a small tuckshop and provided security at a nearby taxi rank.

Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

On 26 April 2014, a notorious Glebelands warlord (now deceased) and his thugs attacked Sipho Ndovela and some of his friends – also block committee members – at Block 56. During the struggle the gun of one of the armed assailants went off, injuring both the thug and Ndovela.

During the same incident, one of Ndovela’s friends was axed in the head and shot in the foot. Ndovela was the key witness in his case. The man was later placed in witness protection after he received death threats from the warlord. The thug opened a case of attempted murder against Ndovela.

The investigating officer (removed from the case some months later) had been implicated the month before in the torture of Zinakile Fica, who died during interrogation at the Umlazi SAPS’s detective branch in Isipingo – an investigation which the dysfunctional IPID has, four years later, still not concluded. This officer was one of many Umlazi SAPS members accused by the community of collusion with hostel hitmen.

Four suspects, including the warlord, were subsequently arrested and the case eventually set down for hearing on 21 May 2015 at the Umlazi Magistrate’s Court. However, the investigating officer had wrongfully and in an apparently willful attempt to sabotage the case, arrested a man who bore a similar name to one of the actual attackers. This man lived in a different block to the real suspect, had been at work on the day of the crime and was not involved with the warlord or his friends.

Ndovela’s attempted murder charge, of which he was acquitted minutes before he was gunned down at court, was scheduled for 18 May.

During a raid on 29 April 2014, Umlazi SAPS officers accused Ndovela of possession of an unlicensed firearm. They failed to find a gun so allegedly assaulted him, destroyed his belongings and trashed his room, which they then ordered him to leave. Working with the warlord, the same officers were regularly fingered by residents as actively involved in the wave of illegal and violent evictions that purged block committees from the old blocks at this time.

Like others targeted, Ndovela subsequently fled to Block R. A few weeks later he learned the warlord’s thugs had broken into his old room and stolen what was left.

On 15 February 2015, Ndovela had gone to visit his friend, Fikile Siyephu at Block 49. While they were sitting outside, talking and enjoying a beer, the warlord drove up in an open bakkie, collected about ten of his thugs and then sped off. Ndovela said he assumed they were going to a nearby tavern.

The incident unsettled Ndovela and he decided to return to Block R, warning Siyephu that he did not think it safe for him to remain there alone while the warlord and his thugs were in the vicinity.

As they got up and made their way to the passage that bisects Block 49, Ndovela stated that the same men the warlord had collected only a few minutes before, suddenly appeared at the entrance to the passage. Ndovela realized, when he saw their guns leveled at him and his friend that the warlord had simply driven behind Block 49 to arm them, and then deployed them to ambush him and Siyephu.

One of the men allegedly shouted: “What are you doing here?”

Before they could reply, some of the thugs opened fire. As he fled upstairs, Ndovela reported he could hear Siyephu running behind him. But by the time Ndovela got to the third floor and hid in the kitchen, his friend was no longer with him. The shooting continued unabated for about 5 minutes.

Only when Ndovela ventured to look out of the window – and saw that Umlazi SAPS officers had arrived – did he realize he had been shot in the leg. As he hobbled downstairs he came across Siyephu’s body in the passage. He had not made it far. Ndovela said he could not guess how many times his friend had been shot – there was so much blood coming from his dead friend’s head. He did not know that he would soon meet the same fate – his brains also blown out at the entrance to the Umlazi Magistrate’s Court.

Ndovela – who recognized six of the gunmen – gave a detailed statement to the police, including the warlord’s alleged role. The investigating officer, another of the warlord’s alleged associates, reportedly instructed Ndovela to omit mention of the warlord’s role in the murder of Siyephu. He reportedly told Ndovela it “was not relevant because [the warlord] had not been involved in the actual shooting.” Although disturbed by this, Ndovela complied as he was ignorant of police procedure and did not want further conflict with police aligned with the warlord.

Ndovela later said he suspected Siyephu had fallen foul of the infamous Durban Central SAPS detective, at the time a resident at Block T. An argument had apparently ensued when Siyephu had gone to visit a Block T relative. After Siyephu insisted he had a right to go where he liked, the rogue cop lost his temper, and allegedly shouted: “Do you know what I am famous for? Go to the old blocks and ask them. I have seen you now.”

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A month earlier, Phumlani Ndlovu had been gunned down at Block 40 – one of the old blocks.

The old blocks also regularly echoed with the sound of the cop’s ‘big gun’ – the R4 rifle Moerane Commission witnesses testified he had allegedly bought in 2014 for R9,000 and which he reportedly regularly fired in the air to keep the community compliant. The same weapon was believed to have been used during an August 2014 attack on Block R residents during which the Ubunye bamaHostela leader, Bongani Mthembu, was shot in the leg. Mthembu was killed on 11 November 2015.

Since the former KZN Premier, Senzo Mchunu’s mass community meeting at Glebelands in September 2014 – during which he disbanded the hostel’s block committees on the grounds they were “selling beds” and “behind the violence” – the gun had been silent. But the cop had recently been seen in the company of his warlord buddy a few days before Ndlovu’s murder. In addition to their alleged relationship with the ward councilor and Glebelands ANC branch executive members, residents claimed they often attended ANC meetings together.

Meanwhile, four suspects had been arrested for Siyephu’s murder and appeared in the Umlazi Magistrate’s Court on 5 March 2015 after which they were remanded into custody. Ndovela later positively identified all four in a police identity parade.

Ndovela began receiving death threats and it became too dangerous for him to continue working at the nearby taxi rank. Without an income, Ndovela, who was even before this, a very poor man, was forced to rely on handouts from his friends. His rural family suffered tremendously.

Late on the night of 11 April 2015, gunmen believed to be linked to the rogue cop, visited Ndovela’s rural home in Lusikisiki. Although Ndovela had not been present, the incident was described by his brother who said gunmen surrounded the house and called through the windows for Ndovela to come out. One man had a cocked gun hidden behind his back. They melted into the darkness when Ndovela’s brother confronted them.

A week later, Ndovela’s friends tipped him off that the warlord’s thugs were publicly claiming, “He will not see court.”

Ndovela’s wife also received an anonymous late night call during which she was told the same.

Continued threats to Ndovela’s life were reported to the former Provincial Commissioner, Lieutenant General Mammonye Ngobeni, Umlazi Cluster Commander, Major General Chiliza, and Provincial Head of Detectives, Brigadier Marion – repeatedly, via email and text message on 21, 23 and 25 April by myself and KZN Violence Monitor, Mary de Haas. Our requests for police to ensure his safety left no doubt of its urgency. Ndovela had also communicated his fears to his investigating officer and other police members, thought to be members of the Umlazi Crime Intelligence Division. Further communications regarding the threats to Ndovela’s life and other residents were submitted to the same on 9 May 2015. Contrary to statements made by the SAPS Provincial Spokesperson, General Jay Naicker, Ndovela was NOT at any stage, offered witness protection.

The omission Ndovela had been ordered to make regarding the warlord’s role in his friend’s murder, continued to bother him. It appeared to be a clear case of interference in the course of justice. Via de Haas, we sought legal advice and Ndovela was subsequently counseled that he could provide a supplementary statement regarding the warlord’s involvement.

This statement would naturally have implicated the investigating officer and friend of the warlord and therefore substantially increased the danger to his life. But for the sake of justice for his friend, Ndovela bravely insisted he wanted to proceed. The problem was then who could be trusted to take Ndovela’s statement?

In the absence of viable alternatives, De Haas arranged for the Head of Umlazi SAPS’s detective division, Col Singh, to personally take Ndovela’s statement. I met Ndovela on 9 May to explain procedure and arrange logistics. He requested I accompany him as he was by now as distrustful of the police as he was fearful of the warlord and his killers. Only two community leaders were aware of Ndovela’s intention to provide the supplementary statement and had sworn secrecy. The only other person aware of proceedings was Col Singh. The imperative to keep this information from other Umlazi SAPS officers, especially the investigating officer for whom Singh was the commanding officer, was impressed on Singh repeatedly.

Singh claimed he would not be available on the initially proposed date and suggested I bring Ndovela to see him the following Monday, 18 May, the day Ndovela’s 2014 attempted murder case went to trial.

Given the threats “he will not see court”, and the persistent absence of witness protection, police were requested to escort Ndovela to and from court. To everyone’s concern, the deeply dodgy investigating officer and his equally distrusted sidekick arrived to ‘escort’ Ndovela to court. A large contingent from the community also attended.

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Shockingly, once at court, his protectors handed him over to court security and left.

I had arranged to collect Ndovela directly after his case was concluded and accompany him to make the supplementary statement in the Siyephu matter. At about 11h20 I received a call from a member of the community who told me Ndovela had just been assassinated at the entrance to court. I was told that after Ndovela was acquitted, he had called his ‘security detail’ to fetch him. Subsequent claims have surfaced that Ndovela’s investigating officer allegedly told him at the time he was “at Isipingo” and that Ndovela should “go wait at the gate” over 100m from the court entrance  – an extremely exposed position for a key witness under threat of imminent assassination.

Community members also alleged that when the shooting started, court SAPS officers fled back inside the building.

I immediately notified de Haas and arrived at the scene ten minutes later. Even in death, Ndovela was a big man. He had dressed in his best for his day in court – immaculate white trousers and a purple shirt. A bullet had entered the back of his head. The exit wound left an awful gaping hole in his forehead. I was again struck by the amount of blood contained in the human body. He lay on his back, arms outstretched as if crucified, the purple shirt covering his barrel chest slowly turning black with the blood from two shots aimed at his heart.

I found Singh near Ndovela’s body.

“You are responsible for this!” I shouted at Singh. “You knew!”

De Haas had asked me to photograph the scene as a cautionary measure to prevent further tampering with what was clearly, from start to finish, a collaborative effort of police and hitmen to finish Ndovela.

Singh, who was visibly flustered, demanded I delete photographs I had just taken and threatened to arrest me if I took more. I told him he was acting beyond the law and proceeded to record the scene although I was shaking so much from shock and rage by that time, most later proved unusable. It was only when I handed Singh my phone and de Haas informed him that legal action would surely follow my arrest, that he grudgingly allowed me to proceed, albeit with the threat that if any of my pictures found their way to reporters, who were by then, arriving in their droves and photographing the crime scene from all angles, I would be arrested.

On examining the photographs later, I noticed Ndovela’s investigating officer and partner had put in belated appearances.

Community sources alleged the warlord held a party that night at Block 52. They claimed the investigating officer was guest of honour and seen “eating meat and dancing” with Ndovela’s killers.

The case against the four suspects implicated in the murder of Fikile Siyephu was remanded to 25 May 2015. Despite the fact Ndovela had named the suspects in his initial statement to the police and positively identified four of them in a police line-up, as well as statements I had offered regarding information Ndovela had provided to me, the state declined to proceednafter the death of the key witness. Siyephu’s assassins were acquitted and released from custody. The case will not be reopened unless new evidence comes to light.

Several of Siyephu’s killers subsequently went on to murder many others including a Lamontville taxi boss in June 2015 and two Harding ANC councilors in June and December 2016. One suspect was rearrested in 2017 but most remain at large.

On 20 May 2015, over a year after the incident, the complainant in the other case for which Ndovela had been a key witness, was placed in witness protection.

During court proceedings the next day, made tense by reports that the warlord had dispatched hitmen and illegal firearms to court to silence the complainant, the magistrate recused herself on the grounds she had acquitted Ndovela of previous charges against him for the same incident, minutes before he was killed at court. The case was remanded to 7 July 2015 when the warlord – who had remarkably been afforded the services of a private lawyer (his co-accused had to rely on Legal Aid) – was acquitted.

The complainant languished in witness protection until his attackers were also acquitted on a technicality in late 2015. Within days of returning to work, the threats resumed and hitmen paid his employer a visit. Eventually forced to give up work, his family now struggles to survive and he suffers permanent health disabilities from his attack.

There were no arrests for the murder of Phumlani Ndlovu and seemingly little investigation. The case is believed to have been closed – undetected.

Mxoleleni Bhani was positively identified in a police identity parade on 13 August 2015. It took more than two years to secure his conviction for the murder of Sipho Ndovela. Of investigation into the role of the police in this and other Glebelands murders, there is no sign.

A travesty of justice? Absolutely. Will it end here? Never.

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