“We need to know who is behind this, who gave the instructions, who bought the killers,” Lucky Mani, 60, says. He titters as he speaks, seeming to need to cover up his pain. “If I could wake up one day and receive information that the masterminds are behind bars, at least that can bring some closure.”
Mani has just come out of the sixth provincial gathering of the Congress of South African Trade Unions in Polokwane. He and other bereaved family members were invited by the federation to receive artworks commemorating the four unionists who were assassinated for exposing corruption in Limpopo’s municipalities.
Mani’s younger brother, Ronald Mani, 50, who was a shop steward in the Vhembe District Municipality and provincial deputy secretary of the South African Municipal Workers’ Union, and another union leader, Timson Tshimangadzo Musetsho, 50, were murdered six days apart in January 2019.
Mani believes the pair were killed for criticising senior officials and politicians in the Vhembe District Municipality who unlawfully invested in the VBS Mutual Bank. These investments eventually led to police arresting executives, politicians, municipality officials and managers for allegedly looting the bank of about R2.3 billion.
Mani’s brother had “strong morals and was very much anti-corruption” and Mani is not surprised he was killed for condemning the graft. The pair’s murder has created fear for those who would dare to call out officials who misappropriate resources meant for the impoverished. “This means that every person who would try to fight for service delivery wouldn’t do it, knowing that they’d be killed,” he says.
Seeking the masterminds
Limpopo provincial police spokesperson Brigadier Motlafela Mojapelo says three people have been arrested and charged. The cases have been postponed several times after bail applications were heard and denied. Another bail application is being heard on 22 February as new facts come to light about one of the accused, who has been charged with other cases of murder and robbery committed in Vhembe and Mopani.
Mani says that while he appreciates the work done by the police, he wants the people who hired the killers to be arrested. A week before he was murdered, Mani’s brother “made a public comment on a radio station that, ‘I am aware that I am being followed and I am just appealing to my organisation, the ANC, to beef up the security around me.’” He was gunned down at a bottle store six days after Musetsho was killed while parking his car at home.
The police spokesperson says the investigation “cannot rule out [assassination] as the … team is aware that the murder emanated as a results of whistle-blowing on the VBS corruption in the municipality of Vhembe/Thohoyandou and [there is the] possibility of further people being arrested”.
Mani says his brother and Musetsho were fighting for the resources and service delivery meant for impoverished communities in the four municipalities overseen by the Vhembe District Municipality. “As we speak now, the shortage of water is massive although there are resources. The infrastructure is almost non-existent. People have to walk long distances to get water from a river,” Mani says.
The VBS looting has led to the complete deterioration of basic services. Just about a month ago, Mani says, in one of the villages under the district municipality, a woman disappeared while washing laundry in a river. A community search “discovered blood leading down to the stream where her remains were found – she was eaten by a crocodile”.
Murders in Mokopane
Mani and Musetsho are not the only unionists or activists murdered for exposing corrupt officials in the province. A couple of months after the two were killed, another pair – Valtyn Kekana, 52, and Ralph Kanyane, 32 – were assassinated in a car in broad daylight near a taxi rank in Mokopane on 22 July 2019.
Kekana was the chairperson of the Municipality Public Accounts Committee in the Mogalakwena Local Municipality and Kanyane was a sub-regional secretary of the ANC in what is widely known as the Mogalakwena branch. The day the pair were assassinated they were expected to hand over a report that outed senior managers and politicians who either stole or were suspected to have mismanaged resources at the local municipality.
Kekana, the driver, was shot in the left ear. The bullet pierced his skull. Kanyane tried to get out of the car but was shot three times, in the neck, the chest and spine. Florence Maroga, 53, says her brother Kanyane was murdered on her birthday.
The brutal killing has deeply affected her and her brother’s two children, aged five and 10. “They do not understand that their father is gone. They think that one day they will see their father. But the firstborn understands that her father was killed and when she sees people wearing ANC T-shirts she starts crying and says, ‘These are the people who killed my father.’”
A missing report
Maroga says her brother’s phone, believed to contain the damning report, was never recovered. “I think the people who took the phone are corrupt police officers. They took the phone because it had information,” she says. Kekana’s uncle, Thupana Solomon Kekana, 70, shares this view.
“I remember when I was at the scene, a relative told me that I must get the information from Valtyn’s car. The police chased me away and when I asked them later, they said they do not know about that information,” Kekana’s uncle says. “There was nothing in his car because the police had taken everything.”
On the allegation that gadgets were taken from the car, police spokesperson Mojapelo says the deputy provincial commissioner responsible for crime detection, Major-General Samuel Manala, “is not aware of that nor [is] the investigating team”.
The police have not made any arrests in connection with the murders of Kekana and Kanyane, but when asked, Mojapelo said arrests were imminent.
Kekana’s uncle and Maroga both complain that the police do not update them about the progress of the case. “Up to now, I am just swimming in the pool of confusion,” says Kekana’s uncle. Mojapelo refutes this, saying that both families were updated last month at their homes and “both families were satisfied with the feedback”.