Life for laptop murder
Four Grahamstown (Makhanda) men were handed life sentences for what the Judge described as “one of the worst murders one can imagine” in the high court in Grahamstown this week. Thembani Onceya and his cousins Akhona and Simamkele Onceya, along with Mzwanele Maki, appeared before Judge Thembekile Malusi for sentencing on Wednesday 18 July.
The Judge said Thembani had played a leadership role in directing his three co-accused in the brutal torture and murder of Thembelani Qwakanisa, whom they accused of stealing Thembani’s laptop. The 30-year-old’s severely mutilated body was found floating in Zion Dam in Extension 6, wrapped in a carpet, on 5 October 2016. The four were on Monday found guilty of murder acting in common purpose. They have been in custody since 10 October 2016.
In handing down judgment on Monday 16 July, Judge Malusi recounted the details of the case, including the cruel torture Qwakanisa endured before his death. Among Senior State Advocate Heinz Obermeyer’s seven witnesses was forensic pathologist Dr Stuart Dwyer, whose detailed and shocking evidence featured significantly.
Dwyer found extensive and varied injuries including “multiple contusions, abrasions, fractures, lacerations and burns” on various parts of his body. Objects including a pickaxe handle, a hammer, a stick and a blunt panga had been used.
Qwakanisa’s teeth were extracted with pliers. His private parts were stapled and burnt with melted plastic. His arms were skinned while he was still alive. He was scalded with (and forced to drink) boiling water, his skull was crushed by blows to his head and his neck was broken.
The events occurred during the weekend of 1 and 2 October 2016 at the Onceya family home in Ncede Street. The four men suspected Qwakanisa had stolen Thembani’s laptop. A search for him ensued and he was brought to Thembani’s room. As shocking as the torture was evidence that friends, family members and girlfriends of the men had been aware of it to varied extents, coming and going as the four took turns to assault Qwakanisa, taking breaks to smoke mandrax, drink liquor, sleep and spend time with their girlfriends.
Thembani’s blood-soaked carpet was used to wrap Qwakanisa’s body and take it to the Extension 6 dam, where it was dumped.
The Judge rejected Thembani’s alibis – that he’d been robbed of his laptop by four men who broke into his room (“so far-fetched it belongs in the realm of fairy tales”), and that he’d been at the Rhodes campus when Qwakanisa was killed. He also noted that during the trial, Thembani had gone to great lengths to minimise the importance of the laptop to him.
However, the Judge said, “The laptop was the main issue and in all probability the only reason the deceased was assaulted.”
Judge Malusi said while Thembani had was not physically involved in the assault, he had played a leading role in directing the others.
Those present in court during sentencing included members of the Qwakanisa and Onceya families, two of Thembani’s former fellow activists and officers from Joza Detectives. The four convicted men looked strained and tense in the dock.
Judge Malusi said sentencing in general was demanding, but in this case, it had been difficult “more than the ordinary”. The judgment was detailed and complex, with the Judge acknowledging the impoverished background of the four men and what the laptop had represented to the cousins.
He took care to elicit how Thembani, a third-year Anthropology student at Rhodes University, had hoped to become a professor.
Thembani’s university assignments, as well as the manuscript for a book of poetry by Grahamstown poets, had been on the laptop.
“It was not just a laptop, but an embodiment of the dreams and hopes his family had that [Thembani] would lift them out of their poverty,” the Judge said. “As forlorn and misguided a hope, it at least gives an indication as to the actions of the accused.”
Thembani told the court he’d funded his own studies through poetry performances and said he was supporting his grandmother and two younger sisters. He was represented by Henry Charles of Legal Aid SA.
Akhona Onceya, 30, was represented by Viwe Mqeke from Mqeke Attorneys; Simamkele Onceya, 24, by advocate Charles Stamper and Mzwanele Maki, 26, by Jock Mcconnachie.
The Judge said the murder had been exceptionally callous and cruel. “All manner of excruciating torment was visited on [Qwakanisa],” said Judge Malusi. “The conduct of the accused is beyond the comprehension of a normal human being… His torture was especially shocking to the family.”
In September 2017, Judge John Smith accepted the guilty plea of a fifth accused, Siviwe Gqotholo, and sentenced him to 18 years imprisonment for his part in the murder.
The trial of his four coaccused was separated and began earlier this year. They pleaded not guilty to murder.
All four applied for leave to appeal their sentences and this was granted. Maki additionally appealed his conviction. This was turned down.
Speaking to Grocott’s Mail after court, Qwakanisa’s aunt Linda Gagayi said she was relieved at the sentence.
“It’s better than nothing. But Tembelani is not coming back.”
Ayanda Kota, of the Unemployed People’s Movement, in which Thembani had been active, said, “Our society lacks love and compassion. These have been replaced with violence, despair and greed.
“Our townships are concentration camps,” Kota said. “We are slaughtering each other. Our struggle must be to bestow on our society the greatest possible gift – a more human humanity. We need to infuse humanity and self black love in our society.”
Our society lacks love and compassion. These have been replaced with violence, despair and greed.
Thembani Onceya and his cousins Akhona and Simamkele Onceya, along with Mzwanele Maki, hide their faces from the photographer in the high court in Grahamstown on Wednesday 18 July, where they were all sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Thembelani Qwakanisa in October 2016.