Teachers in the crossfire

Police officers and members of the forensic team inspect the scene after a taxi owner was killed and three teachers left critically injured when unknown assailants opened fire at a minibus taxi transporting teachers from Pietermaritzburg to Swayimane yesterday morning.PHOTO: Moeketsi Mamane
Police officers and members of the forensic team inspect the scene after a taxi owner was killed and three teachers left critically injured when unknown assailants opened fire at a minibus taxi transporting teachers from Pietermaritzburg to Swayimane yesterday morning.PHOTO: Moeketsi Mamane

“All I heard were bangs and I saw a car speeding past the taxi and trying to push it off the road. There were more bangs and the car was swerving on the road. Everyone ducked for cover when the shooting began.”

These were the words of a traumatised teacher who miraculously survived the fatal ambush of a taxi boss, in which three of her colleagues were critically wounded, at Bruyns Hill along the R614 near Wartburg on Tuesday morning. “We all started praying. [Tuesday] was my worst nightmare. Taxi violence has been rife in the area over the past months and I never thought I would be caught in the middle. In that moment, I thought about my children … I’m grateful to be alive,” said the teacher, who did not want to be identified. She said she could not explain how the taxi came to a halt after the driver had been hit by numerous bullets. “It was God’s doing,” she said.

“We all thought the taxi was going to overturn. The driver was badly wounded.”

She said once the taxi came to a halt, all the teachers remained inside fearing that the assailants may return to “finish them off”.

“After a few minutes when we realised that they were gone, we opened the sliding door and jumped out of the taxi and began screaming for help. There was blood all over. To see my colleagues in that state when they were going to work to fend for their families was heartbreaking,” the teacher said.

Well-placed sources told The Witness that the shooting is suspected to be linked to an ongoing deadly taxi feud in Swayimane which has claimed more than 20 lives.

In January, The Witness reported that four people from Swayimane were killed when a minibus taxi from the area was ambushed by unknown gunmen in Cato Ridge.

On Tuesday, taxi boss Mzwandile Mbeje (35) was transporting 15 teachers to Masijabule High School, Mbhava and Ntintisa Primary Schools at around 7 am when his taxi was ambushed.

Sources said the driver of an unknown vehicle, with three occupants, came alongside the taxi and began spraying bullets through the taxi driver’s side window using high calibre firearms. It is believed Mbeje died instantly after suffering multiple gunshot wounds to his body.

Three Grade 12 teachers from Masijabule High School who were caught in the crossfire are in a critical condition in hospital.

A store owner at Bruyns Hill said he heard screeching tyres and then gunshots followed by loud screams and cries. “It all happened so fast. I had just opened my shop when I heard four gunshots. When I came out to see what was happening, the assailant’s vehicle was already gone.

“This left us shaking because it happened right in front of our shop,” the store owner said.

The minibus taxi came to a halt partially on the grass verge, bullet holes visible in the driver’s door. Mbeje’s bullet-riddled and lifeless body lay slumped over the driver’s seat.

A relative of Mbeje’s, who asked to remain unnamed, said the taxi boss had left home at about 5 am yesterday as he did every day. “I just felt sick in my stomach when I got a call that he had been injured. It’s painful to see your brother in that state. I cried like a child when I saw him,” he said.

The relative said although there is ongoing taxi violence in the area, he did not know who was behind Mbeje’s murder. Mzomusha Ngubane, chairperson of the School Governing Body at Masijabule High School said the incident had left both teachers and pupils traumatised.

“We’re very disturbed by this incident. It will have a ripple effect on teaching and learning at the school.

“We hope that the police arrest the perpetrators soon.

Bheki Ntuli, KZN Transport MEC, expressed outrage over the incident. Ntuli said he has deployed a police task team to investigate incidents of taxi-related violence in the province.

“Those responsible for this heinous crime will not go unpunished. A police task team has now taken over the investigation of this case and I am confident that they will make a breakthrough soon. Many innocent people have been seriously injured and killed, including several taxi operators, as a result of taxi violence. This has caused major disruption to public transport services.

“We will do all that is possible to achieve stability in the taxi industry and ensure our communities no longer live in fear,” Ntuli said.

The KZN Education department said it will be sending psychologists to the school to counsel both pupils and teachers.

KZN provincial police spokesperson, Colonel Thembeka Mbele, said a case of murder and attempted murder were opened at the Wartburg SAPS.

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