Warriors for justice - AfriForum’s Private Prosecution Unit takes up the fight for victims’ families
Johannesburg - Somehow the two men found the house that lay tucked behind high walls just off Botha Avenue in Centurion.
Like so many other walk-ins, they had come that morning out of frustration and they had travelled far.
To get there had taken a 900km journey, by overnight bus from Mtontsasa in the Eastern Cape to Johannesburg. Then a taxi ride to Centurion. Finally, at the gate, they were able to talk the security guard into letting them in.
The two men had a story to tell, of a double murder and of the known killers who, years later, were still walking free.
The converted suburban house they had ended up at, is the offices of AfriForum’s Private Prosecution Unit.
The property is difficult to find but it hasn’t stopped the countless walk-ins, people who arrive unannounced, desperate and, at times, penniless.
“We have had people come here who have sold their cars, their houses and have now got nothing more,” says one of the investigators, Andrew Leask.
“We get people who sit here and don't even have money to go back home. We had to take them to the garage and give them half a tank of fuel.”
For many, the money had disappeared into attorneys or private investigators, in the hope that a case can finally be solved and the perpetrators brought to justice.
The existence of the private prosecution unit became more widely known only when it was announced that the unit would be assisting the family of murdered Bafana Bafana football captain Senzo Meyiwa. Since then, the small group of investigators have been inundated with requests from people who have lost faith in the police and the government.
The unit handles more than 300 cases some months.
Leask believes that they could be the only such private prosecutions unit in the world.
They don’t take cold cases. They hold municipalities to account and fight corruption. There are times when they head to court and take the State on with a private prosecution.
And they do it free of charge.
Two-thirds of the requests, says Leask, are from black South Africans who are not members of the civil rights organisation.
The two walk-ins from Mtontsasa arrived in November 2019. They had heard of the unit because of its involvement in the Meyiwa case. With the help of a translator, they got down to telling their story.
The older man was a village elder, while the younger man’s father was the murder victim.
Their village had decided to send them to find the Private Prosecution Unit because they felt the police were not doing enough to solve the two murders.
They explained how, on September 24, 2018, Zweli Bonile Nganga was shot in his home. The young man’s sister was shot several times when she struggled with the shooter. Their younger brother, aged between four and five, was shot in the hand.
“The youngest boy identified the suspect, but the police did nothing,” says investigator Elias (Slang) Maangwale.
The shooting appeared to be linked to a chieftaincy dispute. Following the shooting, the two said there were threats against the family. A year later the mother, Victoria Nganga, was gunned down.
The killers were known to the community but the police, they claimed, did not act.
After being told that the unit would look into the case, the two men immediately left to begin their journey back to the Eastern Cape.
The unit soon made progress.
"We lodged a complaint with the provincial police and asked them to change the investigators. Now they have made arrests and the cases are before court," Leask says.
Working the cases is a small multidisciplinary team made up of lawyers and ex-policemen. The police investigators are former members of the Scorpions, each with decades of experience during which they tackled high-profile cases.
As with the Eastern Cape double murder, many of their cases involve investigating the their former colleagues’ work which has left people with unanswered questions and trauma. Some of it is real head-shaking stuff.
A recent case involved a professor’s nephew who ran away from a drug rehabilitation centre and then disappeared.
The man had been missing for six months before the private prosecution team was approached. It didn’t take long before they were able to piece together what happened.
They discovered that he had crossed a road near De Deur and was struck by a car. He was taken to hospital but later died.
“The family reported the son missing and the accident happened the same night of him running away. So, the same police station is investigating a culpable homicide and a missing person’s case. The police don't put two and two together. We find the body six months later in the Sebokeng mortuary," says Leask.
Sometimes it is not just the police’s actions that get people to approach the unit for help. A case the investigators got involved in concerned a questionable verdict that was given by a magistrate in a rape conviction.
The crime occurred in September 2018, and the victim laid a charge of rape shortly afterwards.
The victim’s family approached AfriForum, saying there were attempts to bribe them to drop the case.
After getting involved, the prosecuting unit put pressure on the police to properly investigate the case, which led to Kebabaletsoe Motseko’s arrest.
Motseko plead guilty to the rape charge in the Ga-Rankuwa Magistrate’s Court. He was given the option of eight years’ imprisonment or a R10 000 fine.
"The curious thing is that on the day he pleaded guilty, he was given a R10 000 fine in a rape case, which is unheard of," says lawyer Wico Swanepoel, who is a member of the unit and had a watching brief in the court case.
"The mother of the accused took the exact amount of money from her bra, went and paid the money and he was gone."
The unit wrote a letter to the head of the Nation Prosecuting Authority, Shamila Batohi.
The North West division of the NPA announced that it would be appealing the sentence of a fine for the convicted rapist.
The spokesperson for the NPA’s North West branch, Henry Mamothame, said the process to appeal the sentence was ongoing.
“Leave to appeal the sentence was granted and, in the meantime, we are arranging for a date for the hearing of the main appeal,” he says.
The problem with successes like this is that news gets out and there will be more knocks on the gate, emails in in-boxes or letters written. Each with a sad story and burning with frustration.
“They come to us and say we can’t any more," says Leask.