Killing of whistleblowers ‘business as usual’ in KZN

The assassinations of councillors who blow the whistle on corruption or fall out of political favour are ‘business as usual’ in KZN. Paddy Harper investigates this trend of terror.

Shirley Bujram is shivering as the icy wind cuts through Dundee’s municipal cemetery. She is making her way to the grave of her husband, Grishen. The granite tombstone with an ANC emblem was erected by the governing party to honour Grishen Bujram’s contribution to the struggle for liberation.

Shirley Bujram is shaking not only because she’s cold, but because she’s angry at the state’s failure to secure the conviction of the woman she believes masterminded her husband’s murder eight years ago. She is also angry with the ANC for its seeming protection of the alleged killer.

Grishen (43) was a whistle-blower. The former ANC councillor in the Endumeni Local Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal was gunned down in Sibongile Township near Dundee on June 15 2007.

An underground ANC operative and United Democratic Front activist in the 1980s, he had been outraged by the alleged sale of 17 RDP houses by then ANC mayor Thandeka Nukani, who had also acquired one for herself.

He had forced several confrontations on the issue, which he had also reported to the council and to ANC structures.

The men who murdered him were caught and convicted. Killer Number 1, Bongani Shangase, was Thandeka Nukani’s boyfriend. Killer Number 2, Siyabonga Nukani, was her nephew.

The killing was carried out using the mayor’s car.

Shangase was jailed for life for his role in the murder, while Siyabonga Nukani turned state witness and got 20 years in jail.

Thandeka Nukani was subsequently charged with Bujram’s murder, based on statements by her nephew after she allegedly tried to have him poisoned in jail. She was also charged with conspiracy to murder her nephew with Shangase, her driver Peter Khumalo and two prison inmates.

But the charges to commit murder were withdrawn in 2011 because of insufficient evidence.

In August last year, Judge Isaac Nkosi withdrew the Bujram murder charges after a key state witness went on the run.

For the second time, the former mayor walked away a free woman.

Thandeka Nukani, whose R100 000 bail was paid by then ANC regional chairperson Philani Mavundla, lost her mayoral seat. She has been redeployed as the personal assistant to Umzinyathi District Municipality mayor and former ANC regional chairperson Reverend James Mthethwa.

She lives just two streets away from Bujram’s widow.

Shirley Bujram has unsuccessfully petitioned the Public Protector to intervene and has turned to former violence monitor Mary De Haas to help in trying to get the original housing corruption charges reopened.

Speaker Sduduzo Mdluli, a close friend of Grishen, understands the motivation of the Bujram family, saying “the [aborted] trial leaves them with a lot of unanswered questions”.

He says Grishen’s death was “catastrophic, a kind of disaster” that had come out of the blue.

“I didn’t expect this. There had been issues in the ANC and an argument in the office. There was a meeting … to resolve this and the comrades had all been given a chance to apologise to each other.”

Thandeka Nukani, who has repeatedly denied any involvement in the killing and poison plot in court and the media, ignored several attempts by City Press to get her side of the story.

However, Shirley Bujram is only too keen to talk.

“We don’t know what to do. There’s been a miscarriage of justice, but nobody in the system is willing to assist us,” she says.

She adds that no one seems to care about the corruption charges made by Grishen against Thandeka Nukani, or “the fact that he was killed
in this way”.

“It’s a very bitter thing for us to see somebody who gave everything for what he believed in, dying like this and nothing being done about it,” she says.
Grishen’s killing is not the only one to have rocked the ANC’s Inkosi Bhambatha region.

Less than a month ago, almost exactly eight years after Grishen’s murder, ANC Speaker Vusi Ntombela was gunned down while teaching in his classroom in nearby Nquthu, which also falls under the Umzinyathi District Municipality.

One pupil, 13-year-old Elizabeth Nhleko, died in the crossfire and another was injured.

This killing also had all the hallmarks of a political hit and, once again, a mayor’s bodyguard was among those arrested.

On the day Shirley Bujram was visiting her husband’s grave, Vusi Ntombela’s brother, Simphiwe, was at the family home 50km away in Nquthu preparing for his funeral.

The Ntombela family is battling to come to terms with the killing – allegedly by the bodyguard of the mayor of Nquthu, Emily Mokoena.

The razor wire-topped walls around the mourning home, less than 5km from the Luvisi Primary School where Ntombela was deputy principal, bear testimony to the political tensions and bloodshed that have gripped Nquthu for months. The house and its contents are humble. The barbed wire is about protecting lives, not possessions.

Ntombela, who had refused an instruction from the ANC subregion to resign in December, had told Simphiwe he would not stand for another term and that he’d had enough of politics.

Like Grishen, Vusi Ntombela had been an ANC member for most of his life.

Mokoena’s bodyguard, Sibongiseni Mdakane (32), has been arrested with Mbhekiseni Khambule (38) and Bhekizenzo Dlangamandla (32).

The town is awash with rumours that the mayor was behind the hit, although she denies it.

“I am living in fear myself,” she told City Press. “I pray that this man [her bodyguard] tells the truth in court.”

Simphiwe Ntombela does not believe the three men acted alone. “We are very pleased that people have been arrested quickly and we have to be hopeful that the entire story as to why they did this and who was behind it will come out.

“We will be interested to see who funds their lawyers when they make bail applications and stand trial – we are watching that very carefully.”

Meanwhile, the killing of councillors continues across the province. Councillors in Durban on the south coast and at the KwaMashu Hostel have been killed in the past few years.

The men arrested for Grishen’s murder were also charged with the 2008 murder of IFP Endumeni councillor Peter Nxele – an assassination they allegedly carried out between Grishen’s killing and their arrest in 2009.

Nxele was gunned down in May 2008 after raising questions about R50 000 that had gone missing from a council business grant.

Lennox Mabaso, spokesperson for KwaZulu-Natal’s Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs MEC, Nomusa Dube-Ncube, was one of the speakers at Ntombela’s funeral two Sundays ago.

He says he is “confident the criminal justice system will ensure that all individuals responsible” for Ntombela’s killing will be brought to justice.

But Mabaso is also a worried man.

He says that ongoing violence against public representatives is “very disturbing”.

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