Village of death: ‘People are killed like chickens here’

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The small village of Mcambalala in Mount Fletcher has been under attack by gangs. Several people have been murdered, but none of the killers has been jailed. Photo: Bongekile Macupe
The small village of Mcambalala in Mount Fletcher has been under attack by gangs. Several people have been murdered, but none of the killers has been jailed. Photo: Bongekile Macupe


The residents of Mcambalala are terrorised by gangs of youngsters and, after several murders, live in fear of being attacked.

In 1993, Mcambalala village in Mount Fletcher in the Eastern Cape was at war. The war was between two rival groups that accused each other of stock theft. Gun-wielding men riding on horses would enter the homes of their victims and shoot to kill.

The war only ended when members of the SA National Defence Force were deployed to the village. But the violence had already claimed four lives and left several people wounded.

Since then, the small village with a population of just over 260 people knew no violence. It was peaceful and no one feared for their life. But things took a turn for the worse in the late 2000s.

“Abantu abangahlali apha baye bathi uba uhlwelwe eMcambalala kungavukwa kusithiwa ufile [People who don’t reside here usually say, if night falls while you are still in Mcambalala, you are as good as dead],” one villager told City Press during a recent visit.

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At the centre of the murders are gangs, drugs, alcohol and the theft of cellphones.

Nine people have been murdered since 2016. In all the cases, there have been no convictions.

The latest murder happened in May this year, when Anele Masentile (24), who was allegedly part of a gang, was murdered by rival gang members over allegations that he had stolen a cellphone of one of its members.

“Abantu bafa okwenkukhu apha [People die like chickens here],” said another villager.

Nosakhele Masentile
Nosakhele Masentile holds a T-shirt bearing the photograph of her murdered son, Anele, who was also a member of a gang. Masentile is standing inside the rondavel where Anele was knifed to death. Photo: Bongekile Macupe

The gangs terrorising the village are made up of young boys, some aged only 15.

Things are so bad that all the villagers who spoke to City Press were so afraid that they would not even mention an alleged gang leader by name. He is so feared that the villagers use code names when speaking about him. “Yoh, uyingozi lamntana asoze umbize ngengama [That child is so dangerous you can never mention him by name],” an old woman said.

A family in mourning

When City Press visited Anele’s home, it had been a week since his funeral. The pain was still raw for his mother, Nosakhele Masentile, who broke down in tears regularly during the interview. At times she failed to finish a sentence, too overwhelmed by grief.

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“He died a very painful death,” Masentile said while tears streamed down her face.

Masentile said that, on the night her son died, she had been woken up by loud bangs. Someone was kicking on the door of the rondavel where Anele slept. What followed was Anele’s girlfriend’s screaming and knocking at her door in the main house, telling Masentile that her son had been stabbed.

Anele fled to the house next door, a few metres from their home, and his alleged attacker followed him there and continued to stab him until he died.

When Masentile arrived at the house where her son died, she found a yard full of people.

I thought I would find him sitting in a chair bleeding or lying on the floor, still alive. I did not expect what I found.

As if transported back to that horrible day, Masentile covers her eyes with her hands and starts crying.

“I found my son naked, [lying] face down. He had five stab wounds in the back and three on his chest. I became weak after seeing him like that, but I told myself that God was there when that happened.”

The alleged attacker fled on the day he appeared in court and is still at large.

Masentile said what hurt even more was that she had buried her husband last year, and this year she buried her last-born child.

‘Her daughter thinks she is in Cape Town’

Aphiwe Mateyisi (25) left home to go to a traditional ceremony in the village in 2017. The next time her mother, Nosekeni Mateyisi, would see her youngest child, she would be dead.

The morning after Aphiwe was murdered, Mateyisi told City Press, she had met a neighbour at the bus stop who had asked her to return to her home with her.

Nosekeni Mateyisi
Nosekeni Mateyisi treasures the only photo of her last-born daughter, Aphiwe, who was murdered in 2017. Her boyfriend was arrested for the murder and was later released. Photo: Bongekile Macupe

It was only when they arrived at Mateyisi’s home that the neighbour broke the news that Aphiwe had been found dead.

“Ndaphambana ndaligeza [I went mad],” she said.

Aphiwe had allegedly been killed the night before. She was last seen in the company of her boyfriend.

Her body was found dumped on the veranda of a house in the village, not far from where the traditional ceremony was held.

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She was discovered by the owner of the house the following morning. Mateyisi did not see Aphiwe’s corpse when she arrived at that house, but saw her body being loaded into the police forensic van.

But those who saw the body said she did not have any visible wounds and they did not see blood.

“We do not know what he [the boyfriend allegedly] used to kill her,” said Mateyisi.

Her death certificate showed that she died of unnatural causes. Mateyisi said she was deeply hurt by her daughter’s murder.

It hurts me [so badly] that I do not want anyone asking me about her. Her child likes asking me about her mom ... I always tell her she is in Cape Town.

Aphiwe’s daughter was only two years old when her mother died.

“She likes saying, ‘Aphiwe is coming back in December’, and that breaks my heart.”

She has resolved to take her grandchild to her mother’s grave so that she can stop asking about her.

After Aphiwe’s death, the police visited the family to tell them that her boyfriend had been arrested and would appear in court.

“That was the last time police ever came here.”

The alleged killer spent three months in jail and was then released.

“When I first saw him out of jail, I felt like crying. I was hurt to see that criminal out of jail. He killed my child, but he was having fun and not in jail,” said the distraught mother.

Mateyisi said she felt let down by the justice system because the person who allegedly murdered her child was free and had not faced the consequences of his actions.

‘He was full of jokes’

Buyiswa Twangu still vividly remembers the day she received the news that her brother had been killed.

“It was on February 4 2017, on a Saturday.”

In the last conversation she had with him, he had told her that he was going to watch a local football game. He never came back.

Nkosivumile Twangu (32), also affectionately known as Qhudu among people in the village, was stabbed to death at a tavern.

Twangu received a call from the tavern owner at about 11pm informing her that Qhudu had been stabbed. He said her younger brother had been rushed to Maclear Hospital by a taxi.

“Kwasa ndihleli [I could not sleep],” she said.

The next morning, she got up and started preparing to go and check on her brother at the hospital. But as she was about to leave, old women from the village knocked on her door. They came to tell her that her brother her died.

I became numb because I had hope that he would survive when they told me he was in hospital.

Twangu told City Press that it took a long time for her to accept that her baby brother had died.

Between sobs, she said: “I still get sad when people talk about Nkosivumile. What makes me even sadder is that the [alleged] killer has never paid for what he did to Qhudu.”

She went to court twice when the alleged killer was appearing on a murder charge.

On the third court date, the accused, who was out on bail, simply didn’t show up. The investigating officer told her that they would inform her once he was rearrested and back in court.

“That was in 2017; it is 2022 now and I am still waiting [for the police],” said Twangu.

She said what made it even harder to accept her brother’s death was that “he was killed for nothing”. Twangu was told that Nkosivumile was allegedly stabbed after switching off the music in a car after the owner asked him to turn it off.

“Ubulawele lonto qha [That’s what he was killed for],” the sister added.

He was stabbed nine times.

Nosakhele Masentile
Nosakhele Masentile holds a T-shirt bearing the photograph of her murdered son, Anele, who was also a member of a gang. Masentile is standing inside the rondavel where Anele was knifed to death. Photo: Bongekile Macupe

According to Twangu, Nkosivumile was a peaceful person who was never involved in any mischief in the village. She said he did not even have a girlfriend, and he was known for making jokes.

“But it feels like a dog died because justice has never been served for my brother’s death.”

Highest authority in the village attacked

The terror of the gangs in Mcambalala village knows no bounds. And the gang members do not respect anyone.

Tsekiso Macuphe, the village headman, found that out when he was attacked and robbed in his home early this year. His attackers made away with R850.

Macuphe told City Press that he had been woken up by the criminals, who had broken down his door, blinding him with the light of their torch. They had demanded money and a gun, all the while hitting him with sticks.

“They hit me from around 12am until around 1.30am,” said Macuphe.

The biggest headaches for the villagers, according to Macuphe, are drugs and housebreakings.

I don’t know how the crime can be fixed in this place; we have run out of options. This place is very dangerous.

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He said the community’s wish is to have a satellite police station because sometimes the officers from the Katkop Police Station in the area do not attend to crime scenes speedily.

The police station is 16.3km from Mcambalala Macuphe said the police usually say the community should apprehend the criminals while officers make their way to the village.

“How can we do that knowing how dangerous these children are?”

Macuphe showed City Press weapons allegedly used in the murder of Anele Masentile (24) in May. “How can you apprehend someone carrying such dangerous weapons?”

When City Press visited the headman, he said the community had just been dealing with a case of theft at Cambalala Senior Primary School.

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The gang members made away with laptops and food meant for the school nutrition programme. They had also defecated on the floor. Three laptops were later recovered.

Two of the gang members were being held in a juvenile prison following the theft at the school, while others were still at large.

Macuphe said the community was also being let down by the parents of the gang members who let their children be released on bail, even though they knew they were a nuisance in the area.

Ward councillor Mzekelo Masiso told City Press that the attack on Macuphe by known criminals defiled the dignity of his position and undermined his leadership. He bemoaned that the community, however, “just let the matter go and no action was taken” following the attack on Macuphe.

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Masiso said the people from Mcambalala did not cooperate with the police, as they failed to report crimes committed by those they knew.

But Macuphe told City Press this was because people feared for their lives. He said some villagers, including his older brother, had been threatened by a gang member who told them that if he was reported to the police, he would kill them.

“What must we do then?” he asked.

Masiso said crime in Mcambalala was alarming and he was in a process of engaging with the police to see what interventions could be implemented in the community. One of the interventions he was considering was reviving a culture of sports in ward 16 to keep young people occupied. On June 16, he hosted a soccer and netball tournament.

Masiso said he had also lobbied the Elundini Local Municipality to provide funding for more recreational activities in the community.

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