Uncovering the truth behind the Trust Feed massacre

Copy of nd TF team & JZ On the occasion of Wilson Magadhlas funeral last year, President Jacob Zuma (right) greets Frank Dutton (centre) and other detectives who worked on the Trust Feed case, (from left) Zeblon Sibisi, Sipho Dlamini and Thulani Hlongwa. Picture: Fred Kockott

Loaded speargun in hand, I hid behind a hydrangea bush under the verandah of a Foxhill homestead outside Pietermaritzburg, nearly 85km from the coast.

For five minutes I stood rooted to the spot, surveying the farm driveway.

No one came out of the darkness to kill me, but later that night I wrote an entry in my notebook: “My mind is spinning. Frank Dutton is dead, murdered, silenced… “

It is hard, 20 years on, to describe the fear I experienced that night. It all revolved around an investigation that Dutton, then a police captain, was conducting into the Trust Feed case.

On December 3, 1988, 11 people, mostly women and two children, had been gunned down in a Trust Feed home. The incident was portrayed on SABC TV as the work of “ANC terrorists”.

Trust Feed was, and still is, a tiny, black rural settlement situated amid sugar cane farms near New Hanover. Historically, the land belonged to 18 black landowners.

Under apartheid legislation of 1948, the area was declared a “black spot”. Residents had since lived under the threat of forced removal.

Then, in 1986, the Trust Feed Crisis Committee was formed. It successfully resisted government plans for forced removal and negotiated with the Natal Provincial Administration for the area to be developed.

By December 1988, a clinic was nearing completion, water supply had been improved, and roads had been upgraded.

In South Africa back then, it was a unique situation: residents not appointed by the government were recognised as the leaders of the community.

But those in power at the time had other plans. A government report leaked to the press revealed that the then KwaZulu homeland, headed by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, had been “attempting to have the South Africa government put Inkatha officials in control of Trust Feed in direct conflict with the wishes of the people of Trust Feed”.

And so an operation was planned at the highest level – the government’s Joint Management Committee headed by the security police. The first step was to set up, as opposition to the elected residents’ group, a “landowners’ committee” represented by local induna and Inkatha leader, Jerome Gabela.

Then came the covert security operation, early in December 1988.

I was working as a reporter at The Natal Witness, mostly covering political violence with seasoned journalist Bryan Pearson.

The government declared Trust Feed an “emergency area”: a police operational zone and a no-go area for journalists. Under trying circumstances, we documented what we could, also interviewing people fleeing Trust Feed.

Something horrific was about to happen, we were told. And then it.

On the evening of Friday, December 2, seven homes belonging to leaders of the crisis committee were razed to the ground.

After midnight, New Hanover police station commander, Lieutenant Brian Mitchell, picked up four special constables who had been ferreted into the community and housed at the home of Gabela and another Inkatha leader.

Torched

Mitchell and the special constables first torched a shop belonging to the chairman of the crisis committee.

They then set off for house TF83 – a simple wattle and daub dwelling – where a group of people were holding a candlelight vigil for an old man, Ze Sithole, who had died of natural causes.

Around 3am, the police hit-squad knocked on the door, and then opened fire through the open windows and doorway.

“The shooting continued until the children stopped screaming,” special constable David Khambule would later confess.

Two of the special constables and Mitchell then moved through the room turning bodies over with their feet, shining a torchlight on the writhing survivors.

“There’s one still moving, shoot!” Mitchell ordered. The only survivors, two women and a 12-year-old child, were saved by bodies having fallen on top of them.

The police shooting left 11 people dead. The youngest victim was a four-year-old boy and the oldest a 66-year-old woman.

SABC TV news screened footage, provided by the police, of the bodies being moved out of the house the next day.

Gabela, assisted by other senior KwaZulu government officials and police, took charge of the funeral arrangements, prohibiting media access.

As journalists, we did not have specific details of exactly what had happened that night, but we knew enough to suspect top-level police involvement.

Pearson and I wrote what we could, providing background to the massacre, and also publishing the leaked report about government authorities wanting to wrest control of Trust Feed from the elected residents’ committee.

The massacre had achieved this objective. Hundreds of residents fled, never to return. Trust Feed was left in the control of Inkatha officials reporting directly to the Joint Management System.

The Witness was subsequently threatened with 29 charges in terms of the emergency regulations, the Police Act and other security legislation governing the media.

Nearly all the charges related to our coverage of political violence in and around Pietermaritzburg. If pursued, the penalties included closure of the newspaper.

The Witness reined us in. For more than a year, no further reports on what had happened in Trust Feed were published. We had been silenced.

Then, 18 months later, an inquest magistrate pronounced that circumstantial evidence (affidavits from two police reservists who accompanied Mitchell into Trust Feed that fateful night) placed suspicion on two special constables (David Khambule and Thabo Sikhosana), and suggested the possible complicity of the station commander of New Hanover police (Mitchell) in the massacre.

I wrote a backgrounder, raising the question of whether the inquest findings would spark further investigation, or whether the unsolved killings would again fade from public scrutiny.

Soon afterwards, I received an ominous telephone call warning me to back off the Trust Feed case.

I lay low. No further stories on the Trust feed massacre were published.

Then, in late 1990, Captain Frank Kennan Dutton was alerted to the inquest magistrate’s findings in the Trust Feed case.

Dutton did not lie low. He and his right-hand man, Warrant Officer Wilson Magadhla, took over the Trust Feed case.

They subsequently came up against attempts from the highest echelons of the police establishment to quash and sabotage their investigations.

At the very start, Dutton and Magadhla knew the whereabouts of the two implicated special constables, Khambule and Sikhosana. This was why they had taken on the investigation.

The Attorney-General’s office had been told by senior police investigators, and the then head of the provincial Criminal Investigations Department, Brigadier Christo Marx, that the two suspects could not be traced. This was a blatant lie. The special constables were still in police service.

But by the time Dutton and Magadhla had obtained warrants of arrest, Khambule and Sikhosana had been sent into hiding. And so began a cat-andmouse game, the odds highly stacked against a police captain and a warrant officer taking on the very system they worked for.

Instructions

Tracking down and arresting the special constables was their first challenge.

Once arrested, Khambule and Sikhosana spilled the beans, saying they had carried out the massacre, but had been acting on instructions.

From there on, Dutton and Magadhla began piecing the crime together, including the chain of command and the roles played by senior police officers, including Mitchell and the late head of the Pietermaritzburg riot unit, Major Deon Terblanche.

This led to the monitoring of the detectives’ movements, the tapping of phones and death threats, which led the team to set up a secret investigation base on a disused Wartburg farm.

Then came that night I thought Frank had been killed.

It was nine months into the Trust Feed investigation; a week before Frank was due to testify. Just two days earlier I had sent a fax alerting a colleague to the time and place for a meeting with Frank.

On learning this, Frank had laughed and joked about how all communications around the Trust Feed case were being intercepted.

Now Frank had not pitched for the meeting. At the farm, Wilson told me Frank had left for the appointment hours earlier. No one at the base had heard from him since.

We stood in silence, haunted by our worst thoughts: that Frank had been taken out.

But, as it turned out, he was alive and well and ready for a feisty battle in court.

He testified, blowing the lid once and for all on police involvement in the Trust Feed massacre, the associated high-level cover up, and attempts to sabotage his investigations.

Mitchell and the four special constables were subsequently convicted, each receiving 11 death sentences (later commuted to life sentences).

Having interfered with and almost quashed the Trust Feed investigation, both the national head of the Criminal Investigation Department, General Ronnie van der Westhuizen, and his provincial head, Brigadier Marx, resigned in disgrace.

Typically, Dutton’s investigation team was disbanded by those in power at the time.

They had exposed too much for government’s liking. But, fortunately for Dutton, this was not the end of his career as a leading investigator, but rather the beginning.

In 1992, Justice Richard Goldstone appointed Dutton the chief investigator for the Goldstone Commission, looking into police involvement in political violence in KZN.

This led to further exposés into police hit-squads and ultimately the prosecution of security police Colonel Eugene de Kock.

Goldstone would later say of Dutton: “He is a man without strong political feelings, but with a deep belief in the need for complete integrity in police investigations, regardless of the consequences.”

After 1995, Dutton investigated and arrested former defence minister Magnus Malan and 10 former military officials in connection with the 1987 KwaMakhutha massacre in Durban. They were acquitted.

Dutton was later appointed as a senior investigator with the UN and was involved in the UN’s investigative missions in Sarajevo, Kosovo and Croatia.

In 1999, he returned to South frica to set up the Scorpions, serving as the unit’s founding chief executive officer from 2000 to 2004.

Since retirement, Dutton has remained an active investigator for different agencies of the UN.

To this day, however, it is the Trust Feed case that Dutton personally considers to have been the most significant. “It has the most special meaning to me. It not only exposed what was happening in South Africa to the outside world, but to me as well,” he said.

l Dutton and Magadhla (posthumous) are to receive Order of Baobab (gold) awards for their contributions and achievements in police work.



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