The story of ‘Glebelands 7’ (PART 2): One step closer to justice

Scene of Block 56 illegal eviction, 2014: in their defense, the accused have consistently blamed their ‘opposing faction’ for the violence at Glebelands. The so-called faction – more accurately, hostel block committees – were however, overwhelmingly targeted for violent eviction and assassination. (Picture courtesy of Glebelands resident)

Late last year, seven of Glebelands most notorious ‘hitmen’ – including the hostel’s rogue cop – were arrested and charged with 19 counts of murder, attempted murder, racketeering, extortion and possession of a prohibited firearm and ammunition. Elitsha has been tracking the ‘Glebelands 7’ progress through the criminal justice system. This is Part 2.

glebelands hostel, Umlazi V, Umlazi, South Africa

On Thursday 26 April, Courtroom X was stifling and packed to capacity. Some of KZN’s most violent had come to see if their friends – Sgt Bhekukwazi Mdweshu, Wonderboy Hlophe, Vukani Mcobothi, Matlala Ntshangase and Mahliphiza Mkhize – would get bail. Just five of the Glebelands 7 applied for bail because, of the co-accused, Talente Mthethwa had previously abandoned his bail application when charged with other Schedule 6 offences and Khayelihle Mbuthuma had recently received a life sentence for the 2017 murder of Glebelands grandmother, Sibongile Mtshali.

The gallery was a schizophrenic mix of contract killers, their brightly painted girlfriends and heavily armed National Intervention Unit (NIU) members. Security was supplemented with prison and private security guards in body armour, court orderlies, and the prosecutor, Adv Dorian Paver’s personal bodyguards. I counted twelve R5 rifles in the room; there were probably double that number of handguns – both visible and concealed – as well as pepper spray, batons and long knives strapped to NIU members’ belts.

The tension in the gallery was palpable as Glebelands 7 were led into the dock.

“There is a hit out on the prosecutor”

The show of force was justified. During the Easter weekend, police had been tipped-off that Mdweshu – allegedly using an illicit cellphone from within prison – had ordered the assassination of the prosecutor. Hitmen who had identified Paver’s vehicle, reportedly planned to kill him on his arrival at court for Mbuthuma’s sentencing in the Mtshali matter that had been set down for 3 April. There were also rumours that the police vehicle that was to transport Mbuthuma back to prison may be hijacked, although whether to spring him or kill him (in case he turned state witness) was not clear.

Further to the Mtshali matter, in his affidavit opposing bail, investigating officer, Provincial Organised Crime Unit detective, Lt Col Bhekumuzi Sikhakhane had revealed: “…Although the sixth applicant (Mkhize) was not implicated in the commission of this crime, he nonetheless telephoned the main state witness from prison… to intimidate the witness for the benefit of the first applicant (Mbuthuma).”

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In an email forwarded to the prosecution, MP and Police Parliamentary Portfolio Committee member, Phillip Mhlongo, had also confirmed threats to Paver’s life, stating: “Reliable sources from within SAPS briefed me some days ago.”

Gelebelands witness, Sipho Ndovela was assassinated at the Umlazi Magistrate’s Court in 2015 and at least 6 other witnesses have been killed since then.

Back at Courtroom X, Adv Paver requested a postponement while awaiting a directive from the national public prosecutions director regarding the racketeering indictment. He also informed the magistrate that although several murders had recently taken place at Glebelands, these did not appear to conform to the pattern of violence that had become associated with the accused.

Courtroom X became oppressive and the accused’s supporters shuffled and fanned themselves as Magistrate Hlophe weighed up the evidence. Their numbers had swelled considerably and both doorways were clogged with young men hanging on to the magistrate’s lengthy deliberation.

As a man seated a row ahead of me raised his arm to wipe sweat from his face, I glimpsed a thin leather belt buckled around his bicep – a popular traditional ‘protection’ talisman used by both hitmen and their targets. Although it seemed unlikely his fellow supporters presented a threat to him, included in the charge sheet were the names of former associates allegedly killed by those in the dock. Hired guns often become ‘collateral damage’ to their controllers’ shifting allegiances.

“Bail is refused”

During a short break, the accused turned and smiled at their supporters, exuding arrogance and relaxed confidence regarding their anticipated release. Their supporters seemed pretty confident too.

I began worrying about leaving court safely in the event they were indeed awarded bail. Perhaps I could enlist the help of an NIU member, but they had probably been ordered to escort the court officials.

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Thanks to misrepresentation by unwitting and/or complicit elements within the state and ruling party that the Glebelands carnage stemmed from equally matched ‘factions warring over the sale of beds’ (instead of the assassination of specific individuals opposed to corruption who had mobilised for better service delivery and the removal of the local ward councilor), my attempts to assist violence victims had placed me firmly in the so-called ‘opposing camp.’ So I was not too popular with those in the gallery or the dock.

Over the years, journalists who have not fallen for this false narrative had been intimidated and their publications threatened with legal action.

Eventually, emphasizing the threat to witnesses’ safety; that the seriousness of the charges may lead the accused to flee; the fact that, having been charged under the Prevention of Organised Crime Act (POCA) their release would likely present a danger to stability and public order that could threaten the functioning of the state; and that the accused had failed to establish ‘exceptional circumstances’ to justify their release; amid hissing and muttering from the supporters, Magistrate Hlophe ordered that: “bail is refused.”

I waited for the now angry supporters to disperse before leaving court. Outside, the sky was blue and the breeze cool. I took a deep breath before texting the good news.

“Thanks be to God!” declared a state witness who has been living in fear for over four years.

While many hitmen are still resident at Glebelands, and many corrupt officers remain embedded within a deeply compromised police service, at least the refusal of the accused’s bail application was a small step along the road to justice for Glebelands. The case will continue on 31 May.

On 29 March this message was received from a reliable source giving details of a hit planned on Glebelands 7 prosecutor, Advocate Dorian Paver.

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