Book extract: The assassination of Dr Asvat


Truth, Lies and Alibis: A Winnie Mandela Story 

by Fred Bridgland


312 pages


‘Assassination is the extreme form of censorship’ – George Bernard Shaw

Many days passed after Moeketsi “Stompie” Seipei’s murder on New Year’s Eve 1988 before the first thin and cautious reports surfaced in the South African media of a mysterious raid on Paul Verryn’s Soweto manse and the kidnap from there of four boys.

The crisis committee visited Mrs Mandela on at least three occasions only to be told that Stompie had “escaped”, although he was actually lying dead, frozen solid and undiscovered in a morgue.

After one visit, on January 13 1989, the committee left Mrs Mandela’s house fully realising that the Winnie “problem” had now become a grave crisis for the ANC.

Stompie Seipei

The committee members said nothing publicly, but drew up a report of more than 1 000 words on developments in the saga and sent a lawyer to Zambia to give it to Oliver Tambo, the ANC’s exiled president. The report said the members feared Stompie was dead and that, before he died, he had been so brutally assaulted that “he could not even walk”.

They also told Tambo that Thabiso Mono and Pelo Mekgwe had fresh scars on their bodies and that the youths said they had been beaten by Mrs Mandela.

“She seems to think she is above the community,” the report said.

“She shows utter contempt for the crisis committee and the community.” Tambo was asked to advise what the committee must do next “to help us map out the way forward”.

The ailing Tambo is said to have covered his face with his hands after he had been briefed by the lawyer and groaned: “What must I do? We can’t control her.

"The ANC can’t control her. We tried to control her, that’s why we formed the crisis committee. You must tell the crisis committee they must do more.”

Tambo noted in his personal diary: “Image [of Winnie] in tatter[s] w[ith] top level. [Nelson] Mandela should act to save himself and ANC.”


Just before dawn on Saturday January 7 1989, Kenny Kgase walked towards the back corner of the yard behind Winnie Mandela’s house and noticed that, unusually, there was no Mandela United Football Club guard in sight.

He decided to make an escape.

He removed his shoes, leaped over a wall and ran. He hitched a lift into central Johannesburg and, at about 6.30 in the morning, knocked on the door of the Methodist Church regional headquarters.

He was let in by a minister, who telephoned Paul Verryn.

Verryn arrived about three hours later to find Kgase covered in bruises and scars. Kgase, hyperalert and deeply agitated with fear, told Verryn he was convinced Stompie must be dead.

He described to Verryn the terrible state in which he had last seen Stompie and how he had disappeared from Mrs Mandela’s house.

Verryn took Kgase to see a doctor, Martin Connell, in the white suburb of Melville.

Connell examined Kgase. His face, hip, left shoulder, chest, right arm and back were covered in scars and heavy bruises.

Kgase’s skin was broken in five places and his face was so heavily bruised that it was lopsided.

Connell sheltered Kgase for several weeks.

The youth’s emotional state reminded the doctor of South African soldiers he had counselled who had come under heavy mortar fire in warfare in Angola and Namibia.

As news of Kgase’s escape leaked into the local media, the Winnie “problem” escalated into a public rather than private ANC dilemma for the Mandela Crisis Committee.

On Saturday January 14, Nelson Mandela’s personal lawyer, Ismail Ayob, flew from Johannesburg to the Cape to hold an emergency meeting with Mandela in Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, near Cape Town.

Mandela sent instructions ordering Winnie to release the kidnapped boys. She at first refused, but, under increasing pressure, released the heavily beaten Thabiso Mono and Pelo Mekgwe on February 16 1989, the day after Patricia Klepp had identified Stompie’s remains.


Beforehand, Mrs Mandela had tried to deal with her growing difficulties by telling Katiza Cebekhulu to go to Orlando Police Station to make a sworn statement accusing Paul Verryn of having raped him.

Cebekhulu at first refused because he grasped that events were getting out of control: if the police were to arrest Verryn, the fire would spread and Cebekhulu feared that he too would be embroiled in deep trouble.

Mrs Mandela summoned her new lawyer, Krish Naidoo, and ordered Cebekhulu in no uncertain terms to go with him to the police station on January 25 1989 to make the statement.

She assured Cebekhulu that he would be protected by Naidoo.

The duty desk policemen, in fact, treated Naidoo and Cebekhulu’s complaint as a joke.

They laughed, but finally they opened a docket. One officer asked the pair to bring a letter from Cebekhulu’s doctor confirming the rape.

Only then would it be possible to arrest the rapist, he said.

That policeman had innocently ensured that Dr Asvat would die.

Dr. Abu Baker Asvat

Ebrahim Asvat said Mrs Mandela took Katiza Cebekhulu the next day, January 26 1989, to Abu-Baker Asvat’s surgery once again to secure from him the medical certificate that she had demanded four weeks earlier and which she now desperately needed to be able to lay charges against Verryn.

Cebekhulu recalled sitting in the waiting room.

“When Winnie was called into Dr Asvat’s consultation room, we heard raised voices,” said Cebekhulu.

“I made out Winnie shouting: ‘If you don’t cooperate, I’ll deal with you!’ We could not hear everything, but Winnie was obviously threatening the doctor. Winnie left with me in tow and without the medical certificate for the police. Winnie was fizzing with anger.”

Dr Asvat had refused to perjure himself.

Testifying years later at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Cebekhulu described how Mrs Mandela then introduced to him two unemployed youths, Zakhele Cyril Mbatha and Thulani Nicholas Dlamini, who had arrived in Johannesburg in search of work from their rural homes near Nongoma in northern Zululand.

Cebekhulu said Mrs Mandela ordered him to show the youths the location of Dr Asvat’s surgery.

Cebekhulu did so and returned to Mrs Mandela’s house after pointing at the small building.

Mbatha told the TRC under oath that Mrs Mandela promised him and Dlamini R20 000 and gave them a revolver with which to “remove” Asvat, because he “was disturbing her in her political work”.

Dlamini said the revolver was not “good enough”, so Mrs Mandela went into her house and returned with a 9mm pistol wrapped in cloth.


On the evening of that same day, January 26, Abu-Baker Asvat drove to a meeting of his cricket club, Crescents, in Lenasia.

His car sustained a puncture as he returned home and he had to pull off the road to mend it. When he finally arrived home, he told his wife, Zhora, about the puncture and how he had been too terrified to stop.

He had thought the damage to his tyre was an element in an ambush and that “they” had come to get him. He did not explain to Zhora who or what it was that was frightening him so intensely, or who “they” were.

But his wife had already become concerned earlier in the month when she sensed something was troubling Abu-Baker.

Although he did not confide in her, he did something highly unusual. He handed her a wad of cash – in case “something” happened to him, he told Zhora.

She said she did not need the money. “Just keep it anyway,” he replied, “in case you do.”

In the middle of Friday, January 27 1989, Abu-Baker Asvat visited Winnie Mandela at her Diepkloof Extension home, according to Asvat family members.

What transpired there that day is unknown, but by the time he arrived late for the family’s weekly Friday prayers, he was so troubled and preoccupied that he failed to follow the set rituals.

At 2.30pm, he left for Soweto to conduct an afternoon surgery.

By the end of the afternoon, he lay dead on his surgery floor in a pool of his blood, no longer able to give evidence about Stompie’s injuries or to confirm that Winnie Mandela had in fact been in Soweto when later she would claim she had been “somewhere else”.


Mbatha, then aged 21, and Dlamini (20), entered the surgery that same afternoon just after 4pm and killed the doctor.

It is possible, I suppose, that if Dr Asvat had provided the signed medical certificate sought by Winnie, he might have lived and Paul Verryn might have gone to prison, so capricious and haphazard sometimes is the nature of justice and its pursuit.

When Mbatha and Dlamini were admitted by Asvat to the consulting room, Ma Albertina Sisulu heard the security door between it and reception click.

Next, she heard a gunshot, followed by a scream from Dr Asvat. She shouted to him through the hatch connecting the rooms, but there was no response.

Overcome by fear, she screamed and ran into the street to seek help. As she did so, she saw Mbatha and Dlamini running from the surgery.

She turned back to the surgery, unlocked the security door to the doctor’s room from the outside and found Abu-Baker Asvat lying gravely wounded in a pool of blood.

She was joined by Thandi Tshabalala, who had heard the shots from her house across the road.

Dr Asvat was still alive when Miss Tshabalala reached him. “I tried to talk to him,” she said.

“His lips were moving and he was showing me with his hands that the telephone was on the wall.”

But Abu-Baker died before the police arrived, taking with him his knowledge about the final days of Stompie’s life.

Buried with him would also be his reasons for declining to issue a certificate verifying the rape of Katiza Cebekhulu.


Ma Sisulu telephoned Ebrahim Asvat, who drove fast from his practice in the nearby gold mining town of Carletonville to the surgery.

“When I arrived, my brother’s body was still lying there on the floor of the consulting room,” Ebrahim told me. “Ma Sisulu burst into tears.”

Ebrahim picked up his brother’s medical cards and the logbook, vital evidence about who had visited the surgery and when. The logbook was part of a strict double-entry system maintained by Ma Sisulu.

Details from individual medical cards were duplicated in the comprehensive daily logbook.

Ebrahim checked the date of Winnie’s visit with Cebekhulu to his brother on the medical card against the logbook entry: the dates were the same. Mrs Mandela would later claim when she went on trial that she was in Brandfort on that day.

Around this time, Winnie Mandela gave only one lengthy media interview – to Robin Lloyd of the National Broadcasting Company. Lloyd met her four days after Asvat was murdered.

In the interview, she pursued her vendetta against Paul Verryn, telling the US audience: “I don’t understand how a man of his standing continues to sodomise black children.

"There is clear evidence that he has fallen victim to a medical problem which should be addressed quietly with his doctors. He brutalises these youths who are with him because one youth [Katiza] would not give in to his sexual advances. This is how it arose.”

She went on: “The youths in my premises did not abduct any children. It came about when a woman [Xoliswa Falati] who was staying with Paul Verryn told me about this child [Katiza] and he was later fetched. There is a gigantic cover-up by the church.

"Xoliswa brought the boys – especially the traumatised child – because she panicked when he [Katiza] said the only way to deal with the white man is to kill him.

“The focus should have been on Paul Verryn and the SACC [South African Council of Churches].

"The SACC are worried about their image because when people discover that Paul Verryn is not very well, their overseas funding may be affected … We thought we were assisting the church in a problem and their only interest is in covering their image.”

Albertina Sisulu became so concerned for Paul Verryn’s safety that she warned him to stay out of Soweto because his life now was “definitely in danger”.

Verryn dismissed Albertina’s advice and, while he was returning to his manse one evening after a church service elsewhere, a young man toting a gun ordered him out of his car and to surrender his keys.

Verryn, who was wearing a cassock, refused and recalled the man saying: “Give me your keys or I’ll kill you.” Verryn said he replied:

“Then kill me and it will be on your conscience with God.”

The gunman fired three shots.

All appeared to miss Verryn.

Then the gun jammed.

Verryn ran into his manse and the gunman fled. When Verryn removed his cassock later, a bullet fell out of the cloth. The gunman was never traced.


The killings of Abu-Baker Asvat and Stompie Seipei resulted in several arrests and three major trials.

Cyril Mbatha and Thulani Dlamini were quickly detained and charged with the murder of Dr Asvat.

They both gave statements to the police. Dlamini said they had been “bought” by Winnie Mandela and they were to collect the R20 000 fee from her after the assassination.

They were detained before they had a chance to pick up the money, which they intended to use to buy corrugated iron sheets to build shack homes. Dlamini said he had been told by Mrs Mandela that, by killing Dr Asvat, he would be advancing the cause of freedom and the black liberation struggle.

Extraordinarily, and for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, Dlamini’s statement implicating Winnie was not produced in court when he and Mbatha went on trial in October 1989.

Nor were Winnie Mandela, Katiza Cebekhulu or other members of the Mandela United Football Club questioned or required to make statements before the trial or to give evidence during it.

Dlamini and Mbatha were both found guilty and sentenced to death in November 1989.

Dlamini’s sentence was reduced on appeal to life imprisonment because he had not fired the fatal shot.

Mbatha, who fired the 9mm pistol, was saved from hanging by a 1992 presidential moratorium, issued by FW de Klerk, suspending state executions.

Both reiterated their accusations that the murder weapon was given to them by Winnie Mandela.

Ebrahim Asvat, questioned by TRC investigators about the killing of his brother, recalled how he and Ma Sisulu cleared up Abu-Baker’s surgery three days after the doctor’s death.

As they worked together, Ebrahim said he broke down and asked Ma Sisulu who could have done such a thing.

He said she simply responded: “It was Winnie.”

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