Chronicle of a death foretold

Political assassinations
(Part 2)

There are curious aspects to all the political assassinations recounted in the first part of this story in nose206, but none have as many peculiar features as the murder of Moss Phakoe, who was shot and killed in the driveway of his home in Rustenburg Noord in March 2009.

The general election campaign of that year was in progress and Phakoe  had spent much of the day putting up ANC posters. The afternoon was hot, as Rustenburg afternoons often are, and he would have been tired and sweaty. It seems likely that he did not notice the killers making their way down his driveway or, if he did, thought nothing of it. What is certain is that he had not moved from his seat behind the steering wheel by the time the first shot was fired. When his family found him, Moss’s body was leaning, lifeless, against the steering wheel. He had wounds in his head and chest.

“It all started with service-delivery protests,” recalls his lifelong friend and fellow unionist Solly Phetoe. During the election campaign almost every municipality in North West suffered service delivery protests. So serious were the disruptions that the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, the late Sicelo Shiceka, had established a task team to investigate the reasons. Many people were interviewed, among them, Phakoe, who was a councillor in Rustenburg municipality at the time.

“Moss had a premonition of approaching death,” says Phetoe. “He had compiled a dossier on the corruption in Rustenburg municipality which was affecting service delivery negatively. He presented it to the minister in person. ‘I’m giving you this report,’  he said. ‘It’s my last copy. This is my life. I may be killed for this’.”

It was not just talk. Phakoe had received a list of the names of party members, including his own, under an ANC letterhead. It was titled “hit list/anarchists”. He handed the minister his report on a Wednesday. Three days later, on Saturday, he was murdered.

Minister Shiceka spoke at the funeral and relayed Phakoe’s fears to the mourners. At about the same time, Premier Edna Molewa’s cars were fired on while she was travelling on the N4 to Rustenburg. In that incident, the would-be assassins aimed badly and no one was wounded.

Years of investigations and court appearances commenced. The first team appointed to investigate Moss’s murder told Phetoe at the funeral that they were 90% ready to make an arrest. That soon shrank to zero. The investigating team never located the list, never arrested anyone and, according to them, never got close to finding the killers.

Phetoe, Phakoe’s family, and other friends in the union suspected that the investigating team had been bribed or intimidated or both. “Moss could not have been killed by a ghost,” he says.

So they took to the streets, demanding a new investigation, and got it.  In the new team was investigating officer Lieutenant-Colonel Tsietsi Mano, who had achieved a degree of fame by arresting Eugène Terre’Blanche’s killers.

Before long the new team – like the original one – announced they were making a breakthrough. During the investigation Solly Phetoe took Mano to Moss’s mother. “But I am not going to arrest someone to satisfy you and the mother,” he said after the meeting.

Again – like the first time – no one was arrested. Then the case took a surreal turn when Mano himself was arrested and suspended for assaulting an unrelated suspect. Not long after that, he died. Minister Shiceka, too, was disgraced for breaching the ministerial ethics code and he, too, died in 2012.

Phetoe, supported by Cosatu and friends, demanded – and was granted – a third investigating team. This time the authorities seemed to be serious. The new team was made up of officers from North West, Free State, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape. Apparently, the thinking was that this team, drawn largely from other provinces, would not be so easily influenced by pressures emanating from corrupt leaders in the North West.

Soon, there was a break in the case. Mayor of Rustenburg Matthew Wolmarans, his bodyguard Enoch Matshaba, and two others were arrested. In due course, Wolmarans and Matshaba were found guilty in the high court and the others released. Wolmarans was sentenced to 20 years for instigating the murder, and Matshaba to life for executing it. They eventually took the case to the Supreme Court of Appeal where they were released on bail of R100,000.

“While all this was going on I was being treated like a traitor,” says Phetoe. “My family, too, was treated very badly. I heard that people were being sent to assassinate me. I was followed, my family was continually harassed, and my life threatened on the phone many times. Cosatu gave me two bodyguards who stayed with me for two years. Their presence may be the reason I am still alive today.”

Then the day came when Phetoe heard on the radio that Wolmarans and his bodyguard had been acquitted on the basis of serious weaknesses in the state’s case. “On that day the ANC branches in Rustenburg threw parties. Were they celebrating the killing of Moss Phakoe? I wondered. Since then, Wolmarans has been treated like a hero in the North West.”

Wolmarans and Matshaba had been found guilty largely because of the testimony of an inmate named Emmanuel Masoka who shared a cell with Wolmarans. Masoka claimed Wolmarans had confessed to him. At the appeal, he recanted his testimony, saying the police had bribed him with money and the promise of early parole. The judges found that his testimony at the original trial could not be corroborated and that the state witnesses were not credible.

Still not satisfied, in October 2013 Phetoe and other unionists led a march to the municipality demanding two reports: the one that Phakoe had compiled and the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) report on the case. The memorandum was accepted by former premier Thandi Modise and deputy minister of local government Yunis Carrim. A promise was made that these reports would be made available, but they never were.

Phetoe is angry and disappointed. “I don’t know who killed Moss, but I know he is still free. I don’t know if Wolmarans is guilty, but I know Moss believed his report implicated him and many of his friends in corruption. And I feel that the police and the National Prosecuting Authority have not done their jobs properly.”

Matshaba, the bodyguard, has since been given the job of guarding the Mayor of Rustenburg and Wolmarans is a Provincial Executive of the ANC.

“Justice has not been done,” says Phetoe. “Under apartheid there were police hit squads. They were very cruel, but now we are being killed by our comrades. I will not sleep until I find out who killed Moss. When my mother died in 2011, she said, ‘Solly, take care of yourself. These people are going to kill you too’.”

The Moss Phakoe case is unusually curious for a number of reasons:

♦ The first two investigating teams fell apart, seemingly either out of fear or because they were bribed.

♦ According to the findings of the Supreme Court of Appeal, evidence given to the third team must have been perjured, but no one has ever been charged with perjury. If a deal was made that, if he recanted he would not be charged with perjury, then the question of who was paying the dealmaker arises.

♦ The hit list was never part of the evidence, but Solly Phetoe will testify to having seen it, with Moss Phakoe’s name at the top and his (Phetoe’s) name next.

♦ The question has to be asked: why was it that those Phetoe considered to be comrades treated him and his family so badly, when all they were doing was trying to uncover the truth.

♦ As for Wolmarans, if he is truly guiltless, he has suffered terribly. But Moss Phakoe believed that his report provided evidence that Wolmarans had reason to want him silenced.

♦ Where is Moss Phakoe’s report today?

♦ Where is the Special Investigating Unit report that was promised by the deputy minister of local government?

♦ Does either report hold clues that may identify those responsible for Phakoe’s death?

So far, the killer and his principals are still free. Political killings are about having access to the public purse. And this makes rational sense to the killers, but only because of the high levels of corruption at local government level. Only because it is possible to manipulate the public purse to an extreme degree is it worthwhile to kill someone for access to it. Remove the corruption and the reason for the killings will disappear.

Political killings are not new to South Africa.

The current wave of assassinations continues a tradition that reached a peak in the 1980s when activists died in police detention, were killed while being arrested, and were abducted off the streets. Activists themselves killed members of opposing groups.   
The job faced by the Missing Persons Task Team, a division of the National Prosecuting Authority, is formidable. In the three years of their existence the remains of 102 people have been uncovered. Madeleine Fullard, head of the Task Team, estimates that they are searching for another 500, but knows that most will never be found. She hopes to find at least 100 more.

Fullard, by profession a historian, worked as a researcher for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission between 1996 and 1998. It was the TRC that, after hearing testimony relating to abductions and disappearances, decided the government should try to trace those who went missing during apartheid’s closing years. Their work commenced in early 2005 and by March that year the remains of the first ten people had been exhumed.

The trail is rarely easy to follow. It is a detective story with clues that are 30 years old. Even if a killer confessed at the TRC, finding the victim’s remains could be difficult. Burials that had taken place late at night so many years before – often when the perpetrators were drunk, and with the landscape and vegetation changing over the years – remains are not easy to find, even by those who buried the bodies.

Some bodies simply cannot be recovered. Some had  been burned, one was even blown up with dynamite. The ashes of three Eastern Cape activists had been thrown into the Fish River after their bodies were burned. In a number of cases, the killers themselves have since died.
A small group of activists from Piet Retief was given a pauper’s burial in wet soil where the flow of water had eroded their remains.

Families, parents especially, need closure. Awful though the truth may be, it is far better than not knowing at all. What seemed to be a good lead for a missing activist named Sizwe Kondile who disappeared from Maseru in 1981, turned out to be useless because fires had swept the area, radically altering  the landscape. Nothing was recovered, but his parents were relieved to find the site. They took home his spirit and held a memorial service.

Kondile was being mentored by Chris Hani and his comrades were Vusi Pikoli, Ngoako Ramatlhodi and Tito Mboweni. Yet, today, few know his name or remember his story.

“Our work is not always easy,” says Fullard, “but I can see that we are having an impact on the lives of people and I’m grateful for that.”

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