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Villagers are being killed ‘like flies’ as gun-toting criminals steal their social grant money

Written by Bukelani Mboniswa

Brazen, heavily armed criminals roam the small village of Mqhekezweni on foot and on horseback, robbing and raping residents – and gunning down anyone who dares stand up to them, according to local members of the community. One villager said: “People are being killed like flies here.”

Meanwhile, those who are caught and arrested, who are generally other local people, are released back into the community within days, leading to calls for greater government intervention from villagers campaigning for the establishment of a local police station and the provision of gear that they can use to act and protect themselves.

Police arrive at a scene of gun violence and murder in rural village near Mthatha (Source: Daily Dispatch, 2nd February 2023)

Asakhele Qingane is one of many residents living in fear. She tells of how her husband was gunned down in front of their yard in 2008. She also tells of how a gang of criminals broke into her house, beat her so badly she was hospitalised, and tried to rape her granddaughter. The day before another local woman, her next-door neighbour, was beaten and robbed of her goats. The attacks have left Asakhele perpetually scared; and her son Phiko has now taken her granddaughter to stay with him in Cape Town because he felt that she was no longer safe in the village.

Meanwhile, there is little response to reported crimes from the police based in the nearby village of Bhityi. “The police do not respond quickly and if they do respond it is after a day or two,” said Asakhele. When she reported the attack on herself and her granddaughter, the police did not come to the crime scene. When there is police action and criminals are arrested, some of them for crimes of violence and even murder, they are soon released and may be seen a few days later walking the streets of the village, according to residents.

This poses a particular problem since such criminals can return to terrorise their victims once they are out and about again. Accordingly, Asakhele says that she has refused to identify perpetrators to the police for fear of reprisals, including in cases of livestock theft. Indeed, she believes one of the reasons she was beaten so badly by the robbers who came to her home was because she had cried aloud for help – and a neighbour came to her rescue, rock in hand. She describes how her granddaughter bravely told her attackers that they should take whatever they wanted and leave, and that, in response, one of the criminals took out his gun and asked her: “Do you want to die?” The granddaughter, according to Asakhele, replied that she would rather be killed that continue to hear the cries of her grandmother which were “slaughtering her soul”. At which point, the gunman and his accomplices fled the scene.

Police investigate multiple homicide in rural village near Mthatha (Source: Daily Dispatch, 2nd February 2023)

Asakhele says that the local robbers, many of whom are young and all of whom are residents of the village, target women for their social grant money. She says that, in one instance, a well-known local woman had tried to give them half her grant money, but that the robbers had argued, claiming she was trying to short-change them and telling her that they knew exactly how much she receives.

Asakhele says that the local villagers are too scared to come together against the criminals. One man who had offered to stand by her was later gunned down. She believes that only the police or the military can help fight the criminals who are heavily armed. In this way, a safe environment may be created for residents, in particular old people and children. She says the villagers only sleep peacefully when the area is being patrolled by police.

Another local resident, Fundile Sithole says that gunshots can be heard across the village every day and that livestock is continuously stolen. He says that, over time, all his livestock has been stolen. He says that the livestock thieves, who are armed, are now so brazen that they don’t even bother to climb the fence to enter people’s yards but walk in through the gate. He cites the case of a local man who was shot dead by rustlers. Fundile says that the guns carried by the thieves are no ordinary handguns but rather weapons of war.

Fundile says that residents live in fear, not knowing whether they will be the next to be killed: “People are being killed like flies here.” He says he wishes he could go and live somewhere else. Similarly, Noluntu Sithole says that many families in the village have closed their homes and left after girls and women in the households were raped.

Meanwhile, according to Fundile, “the police cannot do anything because they don’t have a proper plan of fighting crime”. Against this background, there have been attempts among members of the community to take the law into their own hands. A local forum was established, and few local men went out on patrol. But they were not properly armed and were attacked and beaten. Subsequently, community members were afraid that if they became involved in fighting crime their families would be targeted by the criminals.

Fundile remembers a time when the police pitched tents in the village and the local crime rate fell; and believes that the establishment of a police station in the village would have a similar impact. Noluntu Sithole said: “We need help from the government to deploy policemen and women to guard us. In the Chief’s place there is plenty of space where the police can have a place of their own, so that we can feel safe again.” Fundile also advocates for the implementation of strict gun controls, so that the criminals can be stripped of their weapons.

In addition, residents have called for proper gear to be distributed among community members who are seeking to protect themselves and others and planning to catch and extract confessions from suspected criminals.

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