On the night of Friday 10 May at around 20h00 heavy gunfire was heard coming from the area near eMpembeni Primary School.  The Esikhawini SAPS were called and attended the scene, as did other policing units.  Three people, including a young child, had been shot at the Ncube home, and their bodies burnt when the homestead was set on fire. At the Mjadu home about a kilometre away a Grade 12 learner was shot dead.  Khaya Mncube, who was killed in September 2018, was a member of the family massacred on Friday.

A climate of terror gripped the community in 2018 and early 2019 as one killing after another took place.  There were no arrests despite a wide range of residents claiming that the Ngwane family was behind the killings.  They were alleged to benefit from corrupt tenders, and were known to be visited by a distinctive vehicle identical to one seen in the vicinity of political killings elsewhere.  This vehicle, and other strange vehicles, changed number plates.  It was also alleged that police members were seen visiting the Ngwane home.

Following complaints to the National Commissioner, SAPS, a task team reporting to the Cluster Commander, King Cetshwayo region (Empangeni) was established, and they were given back up in their work by Public Order policing members who also patrolled eMpembeni, providing residents with a sense of security.  Two members of the Ngwane family, Justice and Meshack, were arrested for three separate killings, and spent weeks in prison.  There were no further killings in the area until Friday.

Last month Meshack and Justice were given bail in the Esikhaleni court, despite the investigating officer opposing it, and the local community presenting a petition with hundreds of signatures opposing it.  Residents attending the bail hearing alleged that a senior local police member who is not involved in investigations was seen in court talking to the accused.  Justice remained in prison, pending two other bail applications.  Conditions were attached to Meshack’s bail, including that he stayed away from eMpembeni.  Independent reports confirm that he has been seen in the area.

ON 2 May, Justice Ngwane was given bail at Ngwelezane court where he faces charges of the murdering Wiseman Hadebe, who was in hiding in the area when he was tracked down and killed. The investigating officer opposed bail but the prosecutor did not, allegedly arguing that the accused had already been given bail for another murder. The magistrate reportedly did not set any bail conditions.  The Control prosecutor has failed to answer questions about why bail was not opposed, and this matter is being pursued at a more senior level.  A crucial third bail application for Justice is to be heard in Esikhaleni court this week and community residents are terrified that he, too, will be released on bail.  The safety of witnesses is already being jeopardised.

For weeks there have been ongoing petitions to SAPS management for the redeployment of POP patrols in the eMPembeni area; they have largely fallen on deaf ears. While there were complaints on election day about there being insufficient police in the area, there was evidence that there were some patrols.  However, according to residents, there are no ongoing POP patrols in the area and whoever was responsible for the killings on Friday night obviously took advantage of that.  POP patrols are needed both as backup to investigators who are doing good work in difficult and dangerous conditions, and to protect residents.  It is unacceptable that they have not maintained a visible presence in the area, and it is essential that they be redeployed.

What is happening in eMpembeni is a consequence of a legacy of extremely poor provincial police management in detective services and crime intelligence.  It required intervention from the national office to ensure that a proper task team was established, but that team still lacks adequate resources. However, CoGTA and the Ingonyama Trust also bear responsibility for the climate of fear in eMpembeni. There are extremely serious, and widespread, allegations of gross corruption in the Traditional Authority (as well as mining tender corruption). It is known that there are plans to move people for some oil or gas related activities which would involve more tenders. Since surveying of the area has taken place, the Ingonyama Trust must have given a lease but it acts as a virtual parallel government and does not answer questions.  However, CoGTA is a government department and, despite repeated appeals, right up to the level of the National Minister’s office, the department refuses to provide any information about what is planned for the area, and to respond to calls for a forensic audit of the traditional authority structures.

The buck stops with the government with these killings. If President Ramaphosa wants to show the country that he means business about people’s safety he needs to give his full support to the National Commissioner SAPS in his efforts to rid the service of rot and instil a culture of professionalism, and to turn his attention to the way in which rural residents are treated by CoGTA and, in this province, the Ingonyama Trust.  The new National Director of Public Prosecutions will also need to look closely at prosecuting services in KZN.

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