On the trail of 15 killers…

Lieutenant Colonel Bambelela Ngxaki

Ace detective Lieutenant Colonel Bambelela Ngxaki, who helped to close the Uyinene Mrwetyana murder case, speaks to SOYISO MALITI about how the 15 Joostenbergvlakte massacre killers were brought to justice.

It was a scorcher of a morning on Thursday December 6 2014 when Lieutenant Colonel Bambelela Ngxaki led a team of policemen, a pathologist and forensic investigators to a dump site on Joostenbergvlakte farmland where a grisly sight waited for them.

The six young men had – in the words of the judge who would later try their killers – been “slaughtered like animals.”

Translucent tape across their mouths had trapped their screams, as they had been stabbed and bludgeoned to death with rocks. Their skulls were fractured. Brain matter was on the rocks. The oldest victim was 30, the youngest 19.

The Kraaifontein detective didn’t know it at the time, but his hunt for the killers would lead him on a trail to the rural parts of the Eastern Cape. There, in the small town of Ngcobo, where his career as a policeman had started almost 30 years earlier, his search would end.

Six men were found murdered on Joostenbergvlakte farmland in December 2014. Their mouths had been taped shut and they had been stabbed and bludgeoned to death with rocks.

The six victims – Zola Gayiya, Lizo Barnes, Sandile “Fatty” Ngxabela, Sakhele “Nonkie” Ngxabela, Lulama Dunga and Mhlanganisi Mlanjeni – had, it would later emerge, been rounded up by vigilantes who believed they were responsible for the murder of a security guard, Sabelo Dambisa, who had been gunned down by unknown killers that year.

The 15 killers are all originally from Ngcobo, as was the security guard whose death they wanted to avenge. In the days that followed what became known as the Joostenbergvlakte massacre, several of the killers would flee to their hometown more than 1000km from the place where they had given themselves over to a frenzy of killing.

But distance wasn’t enough to keep them from the reach of a determined policeman.

Lieutenant Colonel Ngxaki – who is one of the policemen who helped to bring post office clerk Luyanda Botha to justice for the rape and murder of 19-year-old UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana at the Clareinch post office in 2019 – says less than two weeks after his visit to the crime scene at the farm, he received a lead from a man who had been approached to sell the killers a gun.

“Initially they wanted to shoot the six men,” says the 51-year-old detective.

In an apparent attempt to tie up loose ends, he says, the killers also started looking for the unnamed man from whom they had tried unsuccessfully to solicit the gun.

Meanwhile the investigating team was analysing the suspects’ cellphone records.

The Hawks assisted with “chart analysis”, which investigators use to determine links between suspects and a criminal act, while the Local Criminal Record Centre studied the DNA analysis.

The noose was starting to tighten around the killers and the centre of that noose was Ngcobo – the town was the common thread linking all the suspects.

Fresh out of police training college, Lieutenant Colonel Ngxaki had joined the Ngcobo police station in late 1993. He left there in 1997, joined the police’s organised crime division – a unit later absorbed into the Hawks – and settled in Cape Town’s northern suburbs.

Now, in December of 2014, he returned to Ngcobo to make arrests. Earlier that month, he had, with a team of police officers, arrested eight suspects in Wallacedene, including Bangikhaya Koni, the vigilante group’s ringleader. During his week in Ngcobo he would arrest four more men.

“Because it’s a rural area setting, we had to leave the car at a distance and had to walk to be able to catch them,” he says.

“When we made those arrests in Ngcobo, four of them heard about that and ran back to Cape Town,” he says with a chuckle.

Those four didn’t have long to wait for the law to catch up with them: they were picked up in Wallacedene the following month.

While in Ngcobo, Lieutenant Colonel Ngxaki also recovered the 1997 white Toyota Hilux a witness had identified as the vehicle the killers had used to ferry their victims to the killing place. Blood splatter matching one of the dead men was found in the bakkie.

The bakkie had been spotted at Koni’s Kraaifontein home on December 9 2014.

“A witness pointed police to one of the suspects, Litha Mqagqolo, who was hosing down the vehicle,” Lieutenant Colonel Ngxaki says.

But it was gone by the time police picked up Koni and seven of his accomplices eight days later.

Koni was sentenced to six life terms and 30 years for the murders and kidnappings. Having pleaded guilty earlier in the trial, he is serving his time at the Helderstroom prison in Caledon.

His 14 accomplices – Thseopo Alfred Mathabela, Mncedisi Ndithi, Ayanda Gwarubani, Montile Tyokwe, Ayanda Koni, Khaya Booi, Luvo Litha Maqolo, Khanyile Paul, Thandisiwe Manise, Lindani Cetywayo, Sibongile Paul, Lunga Zilwa, Sipho Zilwa and Fumanekela Paul – all appeared in the Western Cape High Court on Wednesday April 14, where they were each convicted of six counts of conspiracy to murder, six counts of kidnapping and six counts of murder.

Sentencing is scheduled for Monday June 14.

In a grey suit, Lieutenant Colonel Ngxaki cut a confident figure at the court on the day his work culminated in 14 further convictions.

“It was not an easy journey,” he says. “But now the court believes our evidence. I feel great. As much as it was task-team work during the arrests, I was left alone to do the rest of the work and continue with the investigation.

“I’m happy that those six boys can now rest in peace because justice has been served. The mother of two of the boys who were killed was emotionally at pain about her kids, and she has since died.”

While the Joostenbergvlakte Massacre is not his biggest case – the Mrwetyana case holds that distinction – he says it is the one with the most suspects.

“Police investigations are a calling for me,” he says. “The evidence stood up to the scrutiny of eight lawyers of the defence, prosecutors and the judge.”

∙ In November 2019, the Western Cape High Court sentenced Luyanda Botha to three life sentences for the rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana and five years for defeating the ends of justice.

On August 24 2019, Botha raped Ms Mrwetyana at the Clareinch post office, then bludgeoned her with a scale and left her body inside the post office safe. He went drinking at a nearby liquor store, drove to Khayelitsha and returned to the post office in the early hours of August 25. He cleaned the blood inside the post office, bundled Ms Mrwetyana’s body into a post office bag and put it into the boot of his car. He then drove to Lingelethu-West where he bought petrol and burnt the body.

The murder sparked a nationwide outcry against the country’s high levels of femicide.

Botha was arrested on August 29 after police investigated a tip-off that the post office might have been the scene of a crime as blood was found on a mop. He confessed to police and told officers where he had dumped her body in Khayelitsha.

Lieutenant Colonel Ngxaki and two other senior officers took down Botha’s confession. Last year, Police Minister Bheki Cele conferred the Minister’s Award on him and the two other senior officers for successfully closing the case.