Dangerous falsehoods in City Press

The notorious "unsolved" 1999 murder of Ventersdorp Mayor, Kabelo Mashi, examined

JOHANNESBURG - The week after the brutal killing of AWB leader, Eugene Terre'Blanche, City Press published an article by Andile Mngxitama, policy advisor to the European Union's Foundation for Human Rights in Johannesburg. Headed "Blacks in Bondage" it stated that due to the "criminal neglect" of black people by the ANC Terre'Blanche "and his gun-toting men" had been allowed to spread terror in Ventersdorp, right up until his death. In support of this contention Mngxitama related the following horrific story:

"In 1997, a young black mayor of Ventersdorp, Kabelo Oupakie Mashi, a staunch member of the SACP, stood up against the bullies of Ventersdorp. He transformed budgets, cajoled the local criminal justice system to take racist violence seriously, and attempted to bring freedom to Ventersdorp. Mashi was abducted and murdered, his body left in the veld. Witnesses were openly intimidated and the murder remains unsolved. If a mayor can be killed for challenging white power and the perpetrators can get away with it, what chance do ordinary mortals have? Terre'Blanche had carte blanche to terrorise black people."

In such a context, Mngxitama argued, Terre'Blanche's killers were not murderers but "mere children" who had heroically acted to defend themselves and their community. Since Ventersdorp was, according to Mngxitama, but a "microcosm of South Africa" presumably this logic would apply to other farm murders in South Africa. These killings too would be a case of young black youth "pushed into a corner" fighting back against their white oppressors.

This article seems to have impressed a number of commentators. The credulous BBC correspondent, Andrew Harding, said on his blog that Mngxitama's piece summed up well the "anger I've heard from black colleagues." In The Times meanwhile Richard Pithouse, of Rhodes University, described the AWB as "like the Ku Klux Klan in some dismal Mississippi town, partisans of a brutal regime of white terror that, as Andile Mngxitama argues, has never released Ventersdorp from its grip."

It is curious that no one seems to have bothered to query the accuracy of the central factual claim in Mngxitama's piece: That AWB members had killed Mashi, that they had been able to cover it up, that the crime remains unsolved to this day, and that (as a result) blacks in Ventersdorp have lived in terror ever since.

Something does not smell quite right about this account. Would the ANC really have allowed one of their own to be murdered by the AWB and then done nothing about it? Even if they had, why didn't the media take up the story?

In truth, the story of the murder of the ANC mayor Ventersdorp, Philip Kabelo Mashi (sometimes spelt "Mashe"), is somewhat different to the version presented by Mngxitama.

According to contemporaneous press reports Mashi went missing on Saturday March 20 1999. He had told family members that he was going to pick up an associate, Johannes Bota Monatle, to take him to a farm in Lichtenburg. He did not return. On Sunday the police launched a search for him and Monatle after a farmer in the Elandskuil area reported seeing his car abandoned in a mielie field.

There was concern expressed in the immediate aftermath of the disappearance that there may have been a political motive behind it. Shortly before Mashi went missing the ANC caucus on the Ventersdorp council had acted to terminate the services of a security company with links to AWB leader, Eugene Terre'Blanche after a series of robberies (The Star, March 25 1999).

The North West police were clearly under pressure to solve the case. They offered a R20,000 reward for information. And by Wednesday, March 24 1999, 80 police officers - on horseback, motorcycles and in helicopters - had been deployed to search for the two missing men.

On Thursday, March 25, police detectives tracked down Monatle to a farm in the Lichtenburg vicinity. He was found with R1,020 in his possession which police suspected came from the R4,000 that Mashi had withdrawn from the bank shortly before his disappearance. Following his arrest Monatle led detectives to the location of Mashi's body, in a sunflower field about 2km from where the car had been abandoned. The police found the murder weapon, a knife, in the vicinity. A subsequent post mortem found Mashi had died after being stabbed in the heart and lungs.

At 5pm the same day Monatle appeared in the Ventersdorp Magistrate's Court on a charge of murder. The Sunday Independent (March 28 1999) reported that following the announcement of the arrest 300 protestors marched to the Tsing police station to demand that Monatle be handed over to them. One elderly resident of the township told the newspaper "This thug who killed our mayor should pay."

In November 2000 the case came before the Pretoria High Court's circuit court in Potchefstroom. Monatle pleaded guilty before Judge van Oosten to one charge of murder and one of robbery. According to the account presented by Monatle to the court Mashi had owed him R2,000 in connection with a transaction involving some rough diamonds, but had refused to pay him the money. This dispute had reached boiling point on the day of the murder, when the two men were sitting together in Mashi's vehicle.

Mashi had climbed out of the car, opened the door on Monatle's side, pulled him out and thrown him to the ground. Monatle had then pulled out his knife and stabbed Mashi in the chest, killing him. Monatle took the deceased's ID book, which contained R2,000, as well as his cellphone. He made his escape in Monatle's car which he abandoned in the mielie field. He threw away the car keys in bushes in Ventersdorp somewhere.

On November 27 2000 Judge van Oosten sentenced Monatle to twenty years in prison for murder and five years for robbery.

To sum up it had taken five days for the police to solve the murder of Philip Kabelo Mashi and a year and eight months to secure a conviction. This story was extensively reported on in most of the Johannesburg newspapers. The Star, Beeld, Citizen, Sunday World and Sunday Independent all ran reports about the disappearance of Mashi and the arrest of Monatle. However, his eventual conviction and sentencing seems to have gone unreported.

In a context where two farmers a week are being murdered in South Africa, the claims of Mngxitama about the murder of Kabelo Mashi are not only false, but dangerous. It is difficult to see why City Press chose to give them credence. On Sunday March 28 1999 the newspaper itself had reported: "After an intensive four day manhunt by police Monatle was found and, according to police, pointed out Mashi's maggot-infested body, the spot where he threw away Mashi's cellphone and the knife suspected to be the murder weapon."

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