902 A crime scene expert takes pictures of the scene on 7th street in Linden where 3 men tried to hijack a woman after a chase with the police that started in Robindale. 190208. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

Durban - The murders of three shop stewards, shot in the back and then in the head to make sure they were dead, have shocked the country’s biggest trade union and struck fear in two officials who had witnessed it.

All three victims were senior officials with the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).

They were gunned down soon after returning from a union meeting in Durban on Wednesday night.

Njabulo Ndebele, secretary of Numsa’s Isithebe branch, his deputy, Sibonelo Ntuli, and Ntobeko Maphumulo died at the scene outside a home in Mabhengwane Road, Isithebe.

A fourth man, also a Numsa member, was wounded in the shoot-out and taken to hospital in a critical condition.

Two other men who managed to escape through nearby bushes witnessed the killings and are living in fear.

Numsa, which recently ended a bruising three-week strike in the metal sector and is considering forming its own political party, called the attack a “well-calculated and dastardly killing”.

“We are extremely concerned by the killing of these three leaders,” the union’s KwaZulu-Natal regional secretary, Mbuso Ngubane, said on Thursday.

“Their untimely and senseless deaths rob the union of three of its best and promising workers and trade union leaders in our province. It also removes three breadwinners from three families.”

Added Ngubane: “As a union while asserting our right to defend our members. We call on our members in Isithebe to remain calm and allow the police to investigate the circumstances that led to the killing of these three leaders.

“Furthermore, we appeal to anyone that might have information around this barbaric deed to approach the police and provide the necessary information.”

The SA Communist Party has condemned this killing.

“The SACP is shocked and gravely disturbed by the shooting that claimed the lives of three trade union leaders and caused serious injuries to the fourth who is fighting for his life in hospital,” SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande said in a statement.

Nzimande called on workers and trade unionists not to turn against each other or use violence in any form.

“We are extremely worried about a trend towards the use of intimidation, violence, and killings by criminal elements to manufacture the consent of workers and union leaders. This must come to an end with immediate effect.”

The three men had led striking metal workers in the area.

Ngubane told the Daily News on Friday that the “assassinations” were not linked to the recent strike but was “political”.

“Until a police investigation tells us something different that is our thinking,” he said.

He said the murders could be linked to the plans by Numsa - the biggest union in South Africa - to form its own political party or the formation a rival union recently.

“This is not just a normal crime. The gun man came and asked for the those people by name and when they answered, shot them. There are those out there who have become paranoid by the posture that Numsa has taken in recent months and are scared and from what has now happened are willing to use what ever means to try stop us,” he said.

A trail of blood marks the spot where they were killed. A Daily News team found a bullet cartridge in the dust at the side of the road that police had not spotted when they were called to the crime scene.

Describing the horror that unfolded, witnesses said the assassin was an unknown young man, thin and dark in complexion, wearing a black jacket.

Although they did not realise it at the time, it is believed that a navy blue VW Golf, parked some distance away, might have been used in the triple murder, as it sped off after the killer had struck.

Maphumulo’s brother, who did not want to give his name as he feared for his safety, said it appeared that Ntobeko was the main target.

The killer had walked up to the group of men outside the house and asked for Ntobeko, he said, adding that after speaking to his brother briefly, the killer pulled out his gun.

“My brother apparently turned to run, but was shot in the back and fell. The killer then walked up to him again and shot him in the head.

“He then did the same to the others, first shooting them in the back and then the head to make sure they were dead.

“Witnesses said another man, the back-up, was watching everything from a distance. After the shooting, the Golf sped away.

“It happened so unexpectedly, so quickly. Everyone is shocked and scared. No one could have expected that three men would be shot like this, one after the other.”

He said he had heard the gunshots in rapid succession, and after being called to the scene he saw his brother lying in a pool of blood. The three shop stewards represented Numsa at Metso Minerals in Kwasthene. They were from different townships in Mandeni.

Police spokesman Colonel Jay Naicker said the motive for the killing was unknown at this stage... (and) no arrest has been made.

Daily News and Sapa