TEMBISA UNREST: ‘Police killed him because they thought he was taking a video’

Linda Tshabalala only had a cellphone in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, and was in the yard where he had rented out a back room in Endulwini Section in Tembisa, looking on as striking Tembisa residents descended on the Tembisa Customer Care Centre. Yet, he got shot allegedly by the police and died moments later. 

That is the version of Lerato Masalesa* (not her real name), who says she was there when it all happened. She has asked that her identity not be revealed, indicating, “I don’t know what might happen to me if I talk to you. Please do not show my face.” 

On the other side of the township welder, Pheta Molonyama had just completed a piece job in the area, wearing his welding work attire when an EMPD Nyala suddenly appeared among the Tembisa-must-shut-down protesters.

A warning shot was then fired by the police, according to Molonyama’s friend, Swazi Ngwenya. However, when everyone else ran for cover, the 42-year-old welder did not; when he finally did, he was allegedly shot dead. 

Are you the one who shot my son? 

Molonyama’s sister, Boitumelo Sekonyane, claims Molonyama, the family’s breadwinner, had just been called to do a piece job down the road before he met his death. 

“They had called him just down the road, close to where he got shot. Him coming back from there, he met a group of people. As he was passing, they say that they heard gunshots and things happened so quickly that a white Nyala came out of nowhere and started shooting and he got shot as they were trying to run away and the community says immediately after the shooting, the white metro police came out of the Nyala and went to the body,” she says. 

Ngwenya, a very close friend of Molonyama, says he has no idea why Molonyama did not run when everyone did. 

“I don’t know what happened that he didn’t move through the robot (when the warning shot was fired),” recollects Ngwenya. “When he tried to run, we saw a white officer point a gun at him. He aimed directly at him.” 

From inside the Nyala, Ngwenya says the EMPD officer, in the company of his colleagues, fired at Molonyama.   

“You could see that he wanted to take this person’s life,” says Ngwenya. 

It was at this point that Ngwenya, a very close friend of Molonyamas, ran to the family’s house about 200 metres from where Molonyama lay on the ground, to call the mother to the scene. 

“I woke her up (Molonyama’s mother). I ran to the house immediately after they shot him.”  

Sekonyane says the response from the officer shocked them. 

“She asked the white metro police officer, ‘Are you the one that shot my son?’ and he responded by saying, ‘Ek het hom geskiet’, it means that I shot him.”  

It is on a Friday afternoon as we arrive at Sekonyane’s family in Mashimong Section. Just outside the yard, about a dozen men are erecting. There is a lot of movement inside the yard with women going up and down clear busy with funeral preparations behind the house.  

We are told that Molonyama’s grieving mother is in the house with an officer from the Investigative Police Directorate. 

“But he is driving this car,” says one lady, pointing to a big van parked outside. “Once they are done, you can come in.” 

Not much information from the police

Moments later, a gentleman holding a file and a phone on his ear, emerges from the house.

We introduce ourselves, and he responds, “Yes, I am from IPID, but I will not tell you anything. You would need to communicate with the relevant people. I’m just gathering facts.”

But Magagula is not simply withholding information from journalists. According to Sekonyane, police have not provided information on how far the investigation has progressed or whether the officers charged have been suspended.

“…and those are the answers that we are seeking at the moment also, as a family and as the community at large. Nobody is willing to rest until this case has been solved. But the IPID has not come to us (with information) and the EMPD has not given us any further information on what is going on at the moment.” 

She has described Pheta as a darling of the community and a pillar of the family. Her face beams and she is full of life when she recalls how Molonyama was so welcoming – that he would spend the day with the four-year-old from next door. 

“He was a world of comfort, of reliability, of strength, he was a pillar to most people, a friend, he was a mentor to these kids. My next-door neighbour has a four-year-old who lives in Mokopane and when the four-year-old would come to visit, every morning he would wake up and he would come to our house and says ‘I want those cookies of yours.’ And they would make him coffee with cookies and he would eat and the whole day, and when they call him to come to bathe, he would say, ‘No, I am at work.’ And he would just sit there the whole day (with Molonyama). I don’t even know what they would talk about, but he was he (Molonyama) was just so welcoming and didn’t care about age.”  

However, her speech slows down and the beam fades out from her face as she recounts the moment she received the call about his passing, while she was in a different section of the township. 

Despite not letting much out, Magagula has confirmed that he is investigating two cases in Tembisa. 

“Four people died, but it is believed that two of them died as a result of police shootings, and we are investigating those two.” 

‘We need counseling’ 

Back in Endulwini, the Masalesas are unwilling to speak on camera, they say, for safety reasons. 

“We need counselling. They shot him in front of us and our children. Can you organise that for us?” holding a beer quart in her hand, one of the three ladies, Lethabo*, asks. 

Keeping an eye on two toddlers playing on the floor, the three ladies are sitting on crates, drinking alcohol, probably trying to drown the traumatic memories of the past couple of days. 

Eventually, Lerato agrees to speak, “But please hide my face.” 

She first goes into one of the rooms, comes out and says, “Linda’s partner is in there. She says I can talk to you but she can’t. She says she is tired of people that have been coming to comfort her and wants to rest.” 

According to Lerato, during the commotion outside their yard, they stood by the wall and looked on. Linda was smoking while he was busy on the phone, which, she says, one of the police officers could have mistaken for Tshabalala taking videos of what was going on between the police and the protester. 

“I think they thought he was taking a video because when people were taking videos they were saying ‘put that away, we don’t want videos. So, I think when the metro police officers shot, he thought he was taking a video,” she says. 

“You can see this wall is low, and we could see everything from inside. So, I think they shot him because they thought he was shooting a video because even on his phone there was a video that he took, but the strike was still starting before it became violent. He was standing this side. So, I think as he was busy with the phone, they thought he was taking a video and they shot at him.” 

EMPD Internal Affairs report

A spokesperson for the Tembisa Community Forum, Xolani Mnisi, says while he is not justifying the destruction of property, it was only after Tshabalala’s shooting that irate protesters burnt down the municipal building, cars, trucks, and tractors.  

Ekurhuleni Metro Police Department Spokesperson, Kelebogile Thepa, says while IPID is handling the investigations, Internal Affairs is also attending to both matters and is almost ready to give recommendations to the Head of Department in relation to disciplinary procedures. 

She would not confirm whether the police had used live ammunition. “Speculations made are noted, but we would be better placed to comment when a report is furnished to the department with various recommendations,” she says. 

“It is further noted that an allegation that the officer responsible for the second death is roaming the streets. Those who have information on the matter must get in contact with our internal affairs unit, situated at the EMPD Head Quarters, at the corner of Long and Margaret Street in Kempton Park. We are not ruling anything out, especially complainants who can adduce evidence that would warrant disciplinary processes to be instituted,” she adds.  

Thepa says only under exceptional circumstances can the use of force by police be justified. 

“The use of force is enshrined under Sec 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act, that force should be reasonable and proportional to the attack, the use of force forms part of the basic training for all officers, and in protecting life, the preservation of life is more important that property.” 

Lawyer, Advocate Mphafolane Koma, says the investigating team should organise counseling for the Masalesas who, together with their children, witnessed Tshabalala’s shooting.  

“They will have to inform the Branch Commander of the detectives that the incident happened in front of minor children who are still traumatised. On that basis, they will organise social workers to make sure they give those kids and parents the necessary counseling.” 

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