Piet Retief farm case unearths old killings
Survivor tells of lucky escape months before Coka brothers died
They started beating us. They also gave us electric shocks with cattle prods. They pepper-sprayed us and there was a substance they poured down our nostrils which made it seem like it was drawing the breath out of your lungs
● Sthembiso Thwala stayed completely still, pretending to be dead, next to the bodies of his brother and a friend after they were attacked on an Mpumalanga farm. He hoped he wouldn’t meet the same fate.
His ordeal took place in August last year, but apparently slipped through the cracks in the justice system. It was only late last month — during the bail hearing for the five men arrested and charged with the murders of Zenzele and Mgcini Coka — that the double murder came to light.
Through investigating officer Vukile Nhlapho it would emerge that Thwala’s brother, Sfiso Thwala, and another man, Musa Nene, were killed on the same farm, Pampoenskraal, where the Coka brothers died on April 9.
Thwala this week described the harrowing incident. The three men had been accused of trespassing and stealing goats, an allegation Thwala vehemently denies.
He said the Toyota Tazz they were travelling in that night gave them trouble as they drove home on a public road that runs next to the farm of a prominent local family. Thwala said they were stopped on the road by farmworkers and a member of the family.
“They started beating us. They also gave us electric shocks with cattle prods. They pepper-sprayed us and there was a substance they poured down our nostrils which made it seem like it was drawing the breath out of your lungs,” Thwala said.
They were then “hosed down” at the farm, and taken back to their car. “That is where my brother and friend died. I realised they were dead when they were no longer making a sound [from the pain]. They [the attackers] left us in the car until the next morning. We were not in a state to drive.
“I was lying motionless like the other two, although I could hear everything happening around me. The next morning ... someone came and checked on us. I heard him tell another person that he thinks we are dead. A while later the police arrived, and that is when I made movement,” Thwala said.
In the Coka brothers case, four farmers and a farm manager were arrested. During their bail hearing in the Piet Retief magistrate’s court, investigating officer Nhlapho cited the Thwala and Nene murders, declaring: “I want the court to know that there’s blood on that farm and it needs justice.”
The accused, Daniel Malan, 38, Cornelius Greyling, 26, Othard Clingberg, 58, Michael Sternberg, 31, and Zenzele Patrick Yende, 48, were granted bail on April 30.
The Thwala case was opened at the Piet Retief police station on August 10 2020, but no arrests were made.
“A few days after the incident I was told that I would need to identify my attackers,” Thwala said. “I went to the [identity] parade and instead of my attackers being behind glass, they were put in front of me and I had to point them out right there.”
Even though his alleged attackers had seen him point them out, Thwala was comforted by the thought they would soon be arrested. But this never happened.
National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) Mpumalanga spokesperson Monica Nyuswa said the case had fallen through the cracks.
“The office of the director of public prosecutions was not alerted to the case. They only became aware of the case during the bail application in April,” Nyuswa said, referring to Nhlapho’s testimony.
The police, however, gave a conflicting version. Brig Leonard Hlathi said there were never any delays, but that investigations were under way during this time. He said the police and the office of the director of public prosecutions were aware of the docket but were conducting further investigations to ensure they had an airtight case.
A source close to the investigation told the Sunday Times there was hesitation at the time to apprehend those involved because Thwala was a “single witness” in the matter.
The source also revealed, however, that the suspects had made statements in August through their lawyer that they were acting in self-defence and were protecting property.
Thwala, 33, says his life is in limbo. “I cannot live at home any more. I am scared. I don’t know what [my attackers] are planning,” he said.
Speaking on behalf of both the Thwala and Nene families, Thandi Thwala, Sthembiso’s older sister, said the ordeal was traumatic. Sthembiso, she said, had never been offered any police protection, and his family had taken him into hiding.
She said the family had little comfort in the police investigation, and that last year, after constant questioning about the status of the case, they were told it had been assigned to police officer Bongani Gininda, who had investigated prominent cases such as those
of Czech fugitive Radovan Krejcir and the murder of footballer Senzo Meyiwa.
“He handed his files over to [the NPA] and said he had done his job, but there is nothing that has ever come of it,” said Thandi.
Hlathi would not comment on Gininda’s involvement in the investigation but said the provincial office had been appointed to lead the investigation.
Thwala said he was disturbed to learn of the deaths of the Coka brothers at the same place where his brother and friend had died.
Life at Pampoenskraal has not returned to normal. The farm is being guarded by police, who also patrol the area, and farm workers have not returned to work. “We have seen the police patrolling here but we don’t understand how they protect these people when we are the ones who need protection from them,” said one farm worker.
“The things that happened at the farm should hopefully open the eyes of the public to the kind of things that we are subjected to,” said another.