Four Grahamstown (Makhanda) men were handed life sentences for what the Judge described as “one of the worst murders one can imagine” in the high court in Grahamstown this week. Thembani Onceya and his cousins Akhona and Simamkele Onceya, along with Mzwanele Maki, appeared before Judge Thembekile Malusi for sentencing on Wednesday 18 July.
The Judge said Thembani had played a leadership role in directing his three co-accused in the brutal torture and murder of Thembelani Qwakanisa, suspected of stealing Thembani’s laptop. The 30-year-old’s severely mutilated body was found floating in Zion Dam in Extension 6, wrapped in a blanket and a carpet. The four were on Monday found guilty of murder acting in common purpose. They have been in custody since 10 October 2016.
Judgment was handed down on Monday 16 July, in which Judge Malusi recounted the details of the case, including the cruel torture Qwakanisa endured before his death. During the trial Senior State Advocate Heinz Obermeyer called seven witnesses including forensic pathologist Dr Stuart Dwyer, whose detailed and shocking evidence featured significantly.
Dwyer found extensive and varied injuries, most inflicted by blunt force, including “multiple contusions, abrasions, fractures, lacerations and burns” on various parts of his body. Various objects including a pickaxe handle, a hammer, a stick and a blunt panga had been used. Qwakanisa’s teeth were pulled out with pliers, he was forced to drink boiling water and a stapler was used on his private parts, among other acts.
The events occurred during the weekend of 1 and 2 October 2016 at the Onceya family home in Ncede Street. The four men suspected that Qwakanisa had stolen Thembani’s laptop, along with a pair of shoes. A search for him ensued and he was brought to Thembani’s room.
Questioning of Qwakanisa led to assault, which escalated to torture. As shocking as the acts themselves was evidence that friends, family members and girlfriends of the men had been aware to varied extents of what was happening. A parent had tried to intervene, as had some others, but the men persisted with the torture over several hours. The four took turns to assault Qwakanisa, taking breaks to smoke mandrax, drink liquor and spend time with their girlfriends among other things, as various people came and went.
Thembani’s blood-soaked carpet was used to wrap Qwakanisa’s body and take it to the Extension 6 dam, where it was dumped.
The Judge rejected Thembani’s alibis – that he’d been robbed of his laptop by four men who broke into his room (“so far-fetched it belongs in the realm of fairy tales”), and that he’d been on the Rhodes campus when Qwakanisa was killed. He also noted that during the trial, Thembani had gone to great lengths to minimise the importance of the laptop to him.
However, the Judge said, “The laptop was the main issue and in all probability the only reason the deceased was assaulted.” He said it was highly improbably the others would have gone to the lengths they did in assaulting Qwakanisa if Thembani hadn’t told them how important the laptop was to him.
The Judge said while Thembani had was not physically involved in the assault, he had played a leading role in directing the others.
He was scathing about Maki, who during the trial fully contradicted his own plea explanation, saying, “I have no hesitation in rejecting his version as a pack of lies concocted during the course of the trial.”
Those present in court during sentencing included members of the Qwakanisa and Onceya families, two of Thembani’s former fellow activists and officers from Joza Detectives. The four convicted men looked strained and tense in the dock.
Judge Malusi said sentencing in general was an intense and demanding process. But he said in this case, it had been the most difficult decision to come to – “more than the ordinary”. The judgment was detailed and complex, with the Judge acknowledging the impoverished background of the four men and what the laptop had represented to the cousins.
He took care to elicit how Thembani, a third-year Anthropology student at Rhodes University, had hoped to become a professor.
“It was not just a laptop, but an embodiment of the dreams and hopes his family had that [Thembani] would lift them out of their poverty,” the Judge said. Thembani’s university assignments, as well as the manuscript for a book of poetry by Grahamstown poets, had been on the laptop.
Thembani, who told the court he’d funded his own studies through poetry performances, also said he was supporting his grandmother and two younger sisters, aged 7 and 13. He was represented by attorney Henry Charles of Legal Aid SA.
Akhona Onceya, represented by Viwe Mqeke from Mqeke Attorneys, is 30 and got up to Grade 11 at school. He cut grass for Joza residents for an income.
Simamkele Onceya, represented by advocate Charles Stamper, is 24 and has a three-year-old child. He was living “in the same poor circumstances at home as his cousins” the Judge noted. He owned a donkey cart that he used to earn a living of R2000 a month.
Mzwanele Maki, represented by Jock McConnachie, is 26. He was employed as a farm labourer for the three years preceding his arrest, earning R1400 a month. He has a three- year-old child who’s been cared for by his brother since his arrest. The child’s mother is at school in Grade 9 and can’t support the child.
All four have been in custody since 10 October 2016.
Explaining the sentencing, the Judge said, the murder had been exceptionally callous and cruel, with Qwakanisa subjected to sustained torture over an extended period of time.
“All manner of excruciating torment was visited on him,” said Judge Malusi.
His teeth had been extracted with pliers, he was scalded with (and forced to drink) boiling water and burnt with melted plastic. His arms were skinned while he was still alive. In addition, his skull was crushed by blows to his head and his neck was broken.
“Each of the accused had ample opportunity to reflect and refrain from torturing the deceased at various times,” the Judge said.
The laptop was of very limited monetary value and it had appeared from the evidence that its value was that it was a means for Thembani to obtain his degree.
“The Onceya family harboured the hope that [Thembani] would take them out of poverty,” Judge Malusi said. “As forlorn and misguided a hope, it at least gives an indication as to the actions of the accused.”
However, he emphasised, “Such an understanding must not be confused with sympathy for the accused. The conduct of the accused is beyond the comprehension of a normal human being.”
Qwakanisa’s murder had devastated his relatives, Judge Malusi said. “His torture was especially shocking to the family.”
He’d been a pillar of strength to them.
“It is only proper that the humanity of the deceased be recognised,” the Judge said.
Qwakanisa had been more than just a victim of the wave of criminality that threatened to engulf the country. The 30-year-old had been in a serious relationship and had worked for several years at a nearby private game reserve.
Maki, a farmworker aged 26, pleaded guilty of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm.
In September Judge John Smith accepted the guilty plea of a fifth accused, Siviwe Gqotholo, and sentenced him to 18 years imprisonment for his part in the murder.
The trial of his four co-accused was separated and began in December 2017. All pleaded not guilty to murder.
All four applied for leave to appeal their sentences and this was granted. Maki additionally appealed his conviction, which appeal was turned down.
Speaking to Grocott’s Mail after court, Qwakanisa’s aunt Linda Gagayi said she was relieved at the sentence.
“It’s better than nothing. But Tembelani is not coming back.”
Ayanda Kota, of the Unemployed People’s Movement, in which Thembani had been active, said, “Our society lacks love and compassion. These have been replaced with violence, despair and greed.
“Our townships are concentration camps,” Kota said. “We are slaughtering each other. Our struggle must be to bestow on our society the greatest possible gift – a more human, humanity. We need to infuse humanity and self black love in our society.”