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The killing fields of gangs

Following the trails of the activities of men in blankets is treacherous. The killing of Lipolelo Thabane, the killings at Mdlalose Tavern and the killings in Fobane speak volumes to this effect. It is however important to revisit these cases to understand the complexity and intricacy of activities involving men in blankets as well as learning lessons from what can be gleaned from them.

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Lipolelo Thabane, 58, was gunned down in Ha-Mantšebo while travelling with a friend on June 14, 2017. The friend was also injured.

Five men, all in the leadership of the Terene gang, were accused of the murder. Prosecutors suggested this was a contract killing in which the hitmen had been promised some M3 million.

They also suggested that only around M400 000 was paid, much to the displeasure of the Terene leadership who had been promised M3 million and government jobs.

The case collapsed in dramatic style after some of the suspects were killed and another died of natural causes.

The case however seems to have had serious repercussions on Terene as an organisation.

This first became apparent when two Terene leaders clashed at an All Basotho Convention (ABC) rally in Ha-Makhoroana in August 2018.

At that rally one Terene faction led by Ntei Tšehlana accused another faction led by Sarele Sello, popularly known as Lehlanya, of blocking their access to the leader of the ABC as well as instigating the placing of Rethabile Mokete (Mosotho Chakela) on the police wanted list for the Lipolelo murder.

In December 2018, Terene split into two factions: Terene ea Mokata and Terene ea Chakela.

Terene ea Mokata, which was led by Molefi Matima Mokata, was registered as a burial society.

Terene ea Chakela subsequently registered its own burial society in January 2019.
A bitter war broke out between the two factions.

In March 2020, Chakela and five other Terene members were charged with the murder of Lipolelo.

Since all the suspects were in South Africa, they were put on a wanted list by the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS).

That Lehlanya became a state witness in the case underscored the state of affairs inside Terene as it was Terene ea Mokata testifying against Terene ea Chakela.

In June 2020, Chakela declared that Terene had shifted its allegiance from the ABC to the DC.

He said his allegiance to the ABC had borne no fruits and instead he was now on a police’s wanted list and could no longer visit Lesotho.

In August 2020, Mokata, the leader of Terene ea Mokata who was one of the five suspects in the Lipolelo murder, was shot and killed at a funeral of a Terene member in Gauteng.

It was alleged that he was shot by Kefuoe Letsatsi, also a member of Terene, who fled the scene.

In January 2021 Chakela died of Covid-19 at a Bloemfontein hospital.

In August 2021 Nako Motseko, who had defected with Chakela from the ABC to the DC, was shot and killed. In May 2022, Terene member, Kefuoe Letsatsi, 37, who was also known as Kholeata or Lelimo, was gunned down in Gauteng. Ntei Tšehlana was gunned down in Mokhotlong in April 2022 at a concert organised by the Democratic Congress (DC) ahead of its rally which was to be held the following day.

In July 2022, the Lipolelo murder case collapsed.

The lead prosecutor in the case, Gareth Lappan, told the court that key witnesses in the case could no longer be found.

Setšabi Setšabi

On July 10, 2022, five men stormed Mdlalose Tavern in Soweto and started shooting indiscriminately. They killed 15 people.
The SowetanLive later reported that five men were captured on CCTV. Four were armed with pistols and one with an AK-47 rifle. They were identifiable because their faces were not covered.
Most of the victims were South Africans, but among them was one Mosotho, Thabo Koepe, 34.
A few hours earlier the same group of men had killed Lerotha Hlabanyane, 44, a Mosotho man, in Klipspurit. Koepe and Hlabanyane were Terene members.
Koepe belonged to Terene ea Mokata while Hlabanyane’s faction was unclear.
A total of 137 spent cartridges fired from an AK-47 rifle were collected from the scene at Mdlalose Tavern. Six men were arrested and charged with the shootings.
Four of them were described as Lesotho nationals while two were South Africans, one of whom was a former Hawks branch commander.
The six were charged with 19 counts of murder, multiple counts of attempted murder, robbery with aggravating circumstances and defeating the ends of justice.
Magistrate Anthony le Roux who ruled that the media should not release the identities of the suspects as an identity parade had not yet been conducted.
In early August 2022 ,the leadership of Terene, including Sarele ‘Lehlanya’ Sello, met with the South African Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, at the InterContinental Hotel at the OR Tambo International Airport to discuss the Mdlalose Tavern shooting and other incidents involving Basotho illegal miners.
The meeting was organised by a Daily Sun journalist.
Cele attended with his spokesperson, Lirandzu Themba, while Lehlanya was accompanied by Tšepo Moshoeshoe and a former Hawks Branch Commander who had joined Terene.
The engagement was reported to have been brief due to language barriers.
A second meeting was arranged for August 8 in Parktown.
Lehlanya and other leaders of Terene did not attend. Cele also did not attend.
However, the South African Police Service SAPS turned up with a list of 10 Terene members whom they wanted in connection with the Mdlalose Tavern killings.
None of the wanted 10 was in attendance.
The SAPS then roughed up the Terene members who had attended the meeting and demanded that they help them capture the 10 suspects.
The police then drove them to the Lesotho border where they were expected to deliver the wanted persons.
When that did not happen the police released the Terene members.
On September 5, 2022, SAPS released a list of five men, all members of Terene ea Mokata, who were wanted in connection with the Mdlalose Tavern shootings.
Almost three weeks later, the first suspect in the Mdlalose Tavern shootings was arrested.
This was quickly followed by the arrest of three others, two of whom were also wanted in connection with three other murders reported earlier.
The fifth suspect was the former Hawks branch commander who was initially charged with obstructing the ends of justice.
The first hearing of the first five was held at the Johannesburg Magistrates’ Court on September 26, 2022.
The sixth suspect made his first court appearance in January 2023.
The murder counts had increased from 16 to 19 due to three additional murders that had occurred in Klipspruit.
In February 2023, the Hawks branch commander was granted bail.
The bail hearing had some startling revelations.
Firstly, the affidavit presented by his lawyer indicated that he had resigned from Hawks, joined Terene ea Chakela and became the gang’s secretary.
The affidavit also indicated that he regularly provided transport to the gang through his taxis.
Secondly, it revealed that the shooting at the Mdlalose Tavern was a revenge killing conducted by Terene ea Mokata against Terene ea Chakela.
Apparently, members of Terene ea Chakela had been there earlier.
When members of Terene ea Mokata arrived they did not check whether they were still there.
Instead they indiscriminately fired into the crowd and killed innocent people.
Thirdly, the affidavit suggested three motives for the killing: struggle for control of illegal mining sites, cable theft turfs and retaliation for the killing of a member of Terene ea Mokata in Kliptown a week earlier.
On March 12, 2023, Detective Sergeant Gavin Banele Ndlovu, 49, the lead investigator in the Madlalose Tavern shooting, was shot in the driveway of a neighbour’s house in Soweto.
He was dropping off his neighbour when a white VW Polo pulled up next to his car and several shots were fired, killing Ndlovu and injuring his daughter and the neighbour.
The Polo disappeared into the darkness.
In June 2023, the case against all six suspects in the Mdlalose Tavern shootings collapsed. Three of the five who had remained in custody after the release of the Hawks’ official were also released.
The National Prosecution Authority withdrew the case noting that it would be difficult for them to have a successful prosecution because witnesses were either fearing for their lives or dying.
It was however indicated that two of the five accused, Lepolesa Moshoeshoe and Thembinkosi Kiviet, would still be prosecuted for the murders unrelated to the tavern killings.

Between February 4 and April 28 this year 17 people from the villages of Fobane, Ha-Bose, Liphookoaneng, Ha-Phiri, Sebalabala and Ha-’Makhoroana were shot and killed by unknown gunmen.
Liphookoaneng, Ha-Phiri and Sebalabala are close together in the Fobane cluster while Ha-Bose Ha-’Makhoroana are slightly further.
A striking feature of these killings is that the majority of the victims come from the Ntoi and Rapapa families which are related.
The story of the violence that has rocked the villages is said to go back to around 2014 when one man from Fobane left Lesotho to join illegal mining operations in South Africa.
He quickly became successful and started recruiting others from Fobane and nearby villages. It is alleged that in 2014 he was approached to join Terene but refused.
On February 4, 2024, one Thuso Motaung from Sebalabala organised a horse race in Mapoteng. On that evening two people, one of whom was from the Rapapa family, were shot and killed at Ha-Bose.
This was then followed by a cataclysmic chain of killings that included the disappearance of a girl from the Rapapa family whose body was later found mutilated.
On February 15 Thuso Motaung was shot 19 times in Klerksdorp while driving his Toyota GD6.
Three brothers of the Rapapa family; Tumisang Rapapa, Letuka Rapapa and Isaac Rapapa were killed between February 4 and the April 28, 2024.
The killing of Isaac in Ha-’Makhoroana was particularly gruesome as it is alleged that he was shot 15 times.
Inside the morass of carnage in the area was the killing of one Retselisitsoe Pitso, 58, of Fobane on March 2. Pitso was allegedly shot by a policeman who had joined the gangs of men in blankets.
The policeman, who was stationed in Maputsoe, accused Pitso of being a member of a Seakhi splinter group known as Liala-mabatha.
On the night of April 26 Fobane villagers were startled by the sound of gunfire which they described as coming from large guns.
The sound continued until it was right inside Fobane where the target seemed to be the house of Madan (Matene) Nalane.
The assailants were travelling in three Toyota vehicles. They attempted to break into the house through the front door but failed because of the metal screen. They then broke the back door. Once inside, they shot Nalane’s wife, his two children and two employees. Nalane’s wife is from the Ntoi family.
One of Nalane’s children survived after a herdboy hid him in a cupboard in the house. The herdboy survived by hiding in a maize sack. Another herdboy hid inside a haystack.
The third herdboy hid among large rocks in the mountain behind Nalane’s house.
While there he noticed that there were also several armed men hiding.
The men did not harm him but he realised that they were not men from the village as they departed soon after the assault on Nalane’s house.
Some witnesses allege that explosives were used to torch Nalane’s cars.
The assailants sped off while still shooting in the air. There are several explanations of the killings.
One popular explanation is that the killings at Fobane are intimidation killings related to turf wars in South Africa, particularly between Terene ea Mokata and Liala-mabatha. They could also be revenge killings.
Apart from the policeman who shot a person in Fobane, there have not been any arrests in all other recent cases of killings in the area.

The killing of Lipolelo Thabane suggested that the men in blankets could be hired to kill. Similar evidence emerged from the Mdlalose killings where the former Hawks branch commander, who had joined Terene, noted that the assailants at the tavern were hitmen.
The case of Lipolelo Thabane also suggested money laundering in that M3 million was allegedly promised and only M400 000 was alleged to have been paid.
The Mdlalose tavern killings were the result of revenge, turf wars over abandoned mines and cable theft.
The involvement of the gangs of men in blankets in cable theft raises grave concerns that it is a phenomenon that is likely to spill over into Lesotho in a big way. In fact, it has already begun.
At least one AK-47 rifle was used In the Mdlalose incident. The use of automatic rifles in murders is rare in Lesotho.
The majority of shootings by men in blankets occur at very close range and pistols are the weapons of choice. The victim is very likely to be shot several times.
This is done to reduce the probability of survival of the victim and to intimidate anyone who may think of reprisal — it is a means of communication.
The use of ‘large guns’ as well as explosives in the case of Fobane therefore becomes a trend to seriously watch out for as a national security concern.
The alleged involvement of policemen in the case of the Mdlalose Tavern and the killings at Fobane is an alarming development.
This needs to be looked at from a broader perspective of the disappearance of guns within the security sectors of both Lesotho and South Africa.
It also calls for the close monitoring of the guns in the hands of private security companies.
The Lipolelo and Mdlalose Tavern killings cases also bring out the dynamic of the relations between gangs and politicians.
In the case of the Lipolelo murder, the men in blankets were so heavily involved in the intricacies of the ABC that the case became a major contributing factor in the split of their gang.
In the case of the Mdlalose shooting the leader of Terene ea Mokata got an audience with the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, and offered to help get the suspects arrested.
He too was on the wanted list and it just boggles the mind why Cele waited for him to get away then release his name as a suspect.
The key lesson here is that gangs penetrate the establishment to pursue their own ends.
The shootings and killings at the house of Nalane in Fobane could suggest that wars are being fought on several fronts.
On the one hand, there is an internal war within the two major factions of Terene (Terene ea Mokata and Terene ea Chakela). The war has the hallmarks of revenge, contract killings and turf wars.
The same elements could be underlying the fighting between Terene and Seakhi which includes its various fragments such as Liala-mabatha.
The collapse of cases involving men in blankets on both sides of the Lesotho-South Africa border has numerous similarities, the most consistent is the killing of witnesses and the fear of coming forward as witnesses. It is systematic and not coincidental.
This requires very serious and critical thought going into strategies for witness protection as well and the protection of whistle-blowers.
In conclusion, the issues involving the men in blankets should be handled in a very holistic manner.
The collapse of cases, the potential involvement of security agencies, the silence in the investigations of cases are all issues of critical public and policy concern.

Setšabi is a senior lecturer in Development Studies at the National University of Lesotho

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