Durban - Fifteen people arrested for burning down a church have been released in the hopes that it will ease tension in a northern KwaZulu-Natal village and prevent further destruction of property.
The release was ordered after angry residents of Ncotshane near Pongola, demanding the suspects be freed, set fire to the Simandlela Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday.
However, while the 15 have now been freed, 10 others were arrested on Thursday for allegedly torching the church. They were to appear in the Pongola Magistrate’s Court today.
The magistrate would decide on their immediate fate separately from the 15 suspects, said Kwanele Ncalane, spokesman for the KZN Department of Community Safety and Liaison.
The village upheaval followed the gruesome discovery at the weekend of the dismembered body parts of 4-year-old Lungisani Ntuli in a rondavel on the church grounds.
The priest has since been arrested.
The villagers burnt down the rondavel, before returning on Monday to torch the church, accusing the priest of being involved in the murder.
The 51-year-old priest had denied being involved when contacted by the Daily News before his arrest on Tuesday.
A home and tuck shop belonging to a local woman whom villagers accused of witchcraft, and being involved in the murder were also burnt down on Tuesday.
A backbone and skull allegedly found at the woman’s home by police have been taken for forensic examination after she too was arrested on Tuesday.
Police reinforcements have been sent to Ncotshane after the widespread destruction of property.
No one had been arrested for the burning of the court building, said police.
Acting Community Safety and Liaison MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo visited the area on Thursday and on Wednesday in a bid to ease tension.
He made a special request to the local magistrate to release the 15 suspects on Thursday and not today, as was planned.
Police spokesman Captain Thulani Zwane confirmed the suspects had been released on warning.
Ncalane said: “There are conditions in place for them. They must not engage themselves in the ongoing protest, they must report at the police station every Friday and must not leave Pongola.”
Their case has been adjourned until July 28.
Ncalane said Dhlomo had warned the villagers to stop destroying property.
“The view of the community is that they are against the murder. They are voicing their anger and they are caught in a situation of violating the law. The arrest of these community members was the cause of this (latest) unrest,” he said.
“With the deployment of the police, we are satisfied that things are going back to normal,” Ncalane added.
National police commissioner General Riah Phiyega said on Thursday that the provincial police had kept her updated on the situation.
“We fully understand the community’s anger regarding the death of the… boy, but taking the law into one’s own hands, and committing crimes in the process, is not helpful at all,” she said.
Phiyega said she had asked the KZN police commissioner, Lieutenant-General Mmamonye Ngobeni, to continue speaking to the community and religious leaders.
“Additional efforts must be made to get to the bottom of this brutal murder.
“As the SAPS, we are angered by the violent killing of this little, innocent child,” said Phiyega.
She said police had arrested a total of 25 people for malicious damage to property and public violence.
“Most of the suspects were found in possession of property belonging to the church.”
Ncalane said there was progress in the murder case itself after the arrest of the priest and the woman who were still in police custody.
The ANC provincial treasurer, Peggy Nkonyeni, said: “Our disappointment is that the violence occurred after the leader of the church had already been arrested in connection with the horrific discovery of the child’s body parts at his church premises.
“Therefore the police acted accordingly when they arrested those who burnt down the church and we call on the law-enforcement agencies to arrest those who torched the Pongola Magistrate’s Court last night (Wednesday),” said Nkonyeni.