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Mthatha - To the people he lived among, his nickname was Dlayedwa - the lonely man. He toiled alone, didn’t mingle in the shebeens and never made an appearance at the cultural ceremonies so common in his village.
But Dlayedwa held a secret and when the horror of it emerged, his community was forced to give him another name.
He became the Monster of Tholeni - the self-confessed serial murderer who killed 20 people, mostly women and young girls.
But before Bulelani Mabhayi became a monster, he was an enigma to the people of Tholeni.
“Even with his family ceremonies, he didn’t go. He didn’t even eat meat,” said Monwabisi Tini, Mabhayi’s cousin.
What the residents did know was that Mabhayi was a skilled builder. His expertise, it seemed, endeared him to his community.
“People liked him because his work was good and his charges (pricing) were reasonable,” Tini said.
Yet there was something odd about the way Mabhayi went about his business. He always worked alone, unfazed by any challenge.
“See, he plastered these two big houses all by himself. Just one man,” said Nocwaka Xaso, who gave Mabhayi shelter while he was fixing his shack.
But even when he stayed with Xaso, Mabhayi remained a closed book. He was almost always withdrawn and gave little away about what was going on in his head.
Xaso perhaps got a closer look at the killer than most when he lived in her house. In the evening, Mabhayi would often join her and the children in the lounge to watch TV.
“He would knock so softly on the door that we wouldn’t hear him.
“One night, I confronted him, asking him why he didn’t knock or talk a bit louder. I asked him if he had any problem and that he should tell me so I can help him. He just looked down and said nothing,” Xaso recalled.
“He would just sit there and keep quiet, not reacting to anything on TV,” Xaso said. She added, though, that he liked watching the news.
There was good in him, Xaso maintains. “He was quiet, humble and respectful.”
But beneath the reserved, cool demeanour, a monster lurked.
For more than five years he wreaked terror. He’d strike, then retreat, lying low for up to two months.
Over time, the frequency of his killings increased markedly. At his most prolific, he killed eight people in the space of three months.
But where did Mabhayi’s monster come from?
Hints of a scarred childhood emerged during mitigation and aggravation of sentence in court.
The court heard how Mabhayi’s mother died when he was 12 years old and his father the following year.
He served a three-year jail term in Pollsmoor Prison after being caught dealing in dagga.
His late brother was sentenced to life in prison for killing someone.
Both Xaso and Tini now believe they could have stopped Mabhayi, if only they had trusted their instincts.
“I didn’t see anything (suspicious) but he gave me the creeps. His face was scary.”
And there was that unusual midnight incident.
A tree branch fell on the roof of his rondavel but he said he had not heard it.
”It means he could have gone out to kill,” she said.
This week Mabhayi started his life sentence, but Xaso is still haunted by her own guilt, feeling as if she had betrayed her community.
When Mabhayi asked Xaso if he could stay with her for a while, she showed him into a rondavel next to her family’s home.
After all, Mabhayi had done a sterling job plastering the walls on her houses for a good price, so she thought that giving him shelter was the best she could do as a token of appreciation.
This happened around February last year. For six months she watched Mabhayi endear himself to the family by doing odd jobs for them, like fixing cracked walls.
Xaso had no idea she was harbouring the serial killer who would later be found to be responsible for murders in the village of Tholeni near Butterworth in the Eastern Cape.
“He said he was still fixing his shack, so I helped him. He was a humble, quiet and respectful person and I didn’t notice anything (suspicious) about him,” she said.
But at night he would steal from the rondavel and break into other residents’ houses, raping and killing women and children and whoever stood in his way.
When Mabhayi first moved into Xaso’s home, his victims numbered 16. Though they did not know his true identity, people began calling the killer the “Monster of Tholeni”.
About six months after he moved in, on May 28, Mabhayi launched his first attack from Xaso’s house.
He broke into Nomandla Mxhunyelwa’s home, raping her and her 13-year-old daughter Liyema, before hacking them to death.
Mxhunyelwa’s 15-month-old grandson Lukhanyo Mxhunyelwa was also killed.
As with the previous murders, Xaso joined fellow villagers as they converged at the Mxhunyelwa house to protest against the latest murders and comfort the bereaved family.
Xaso still had no inkling the killer was living with her.
It was only on August 11 that she discovered the truth in the most shocking manner imaginable. It happened when an elderly woman was found murdered in her house, about 100m from where Xaso lived.
A shoe belonging to Mabhayi was found at the crime scene. It was the piece of evidence that led police to their breakthrough.
“The police found him lying in his bed. He was just napping. I was so shocked because I didn’t suspect he was the rapist and murderer the police were looking for all along,” said Xaso.
In court it was revealed that Mabhayi’s modus operandi was to look for soft targets - children and elderly women in homes where there were no strong men to protect them.
Mxhunyelwa fitted the profile and was killed. She left behind her first-born daughter Noxolo, 22, who is also Lukhanyo’s mother, and her son, now aged 12.
Recounting the family tragedy, Noxolo Mxhunyelwa said she was getting ready to leave for college when she received a frantic call from a relative.
“I was bathing when I got the call from my aunt. She said ‘Noxolo, come back home quickly because something bad has happened’,” she recalled.
“I said I can’t come because I just left home the previous day and didn’t have money (for transport).”
Noxolo put down the phone and it rang again a few minutes later - another call from her aunt.
“She said there has been an incident at home and all my family died last night. I dropped the phone.”
Fighting back tears, Noxolo remembered how she called another aunt to confirm the deaths.
“She said I must come back home. When I arrived, there were many people outside.I entered the house. There was a lot of blood on the floor and couch. And brains. I cried.”
More than a year after the murders, Noxolo is still struggling to deal with her loss.
“I try to be strong and move on because crying won’t bring them back, but it’s difficult.
“I cry every time I remember them, especially at night. My mom, my sister and my son,” she wept.
She, like other families and relatives of Mabhayi, had hoped for a lengthy sentence. It was a wish that was finally granted.