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Mpumalanga ANC's senior researcher among suspects in Hillary Gardee's murder

EFF calls for trio arrested for murder, kidnapping and rape to be given an 'uncomfortable time' behind bars

09 May 2022 - 16:18 By Isaac Mahlangu and Belinda Pheto
Sipho Mkhatshwa, Philemon Lukhele and Albert Gama appear in the Nelspruit magistrate's court in connection with the death of Hillary Gardee. They are charged with conspiracy to commit murder, kidnapping, rape, murder, hijacking and defeating the ends of justice.
Sipho Mkhatshwa, Philemon Lukhele and Albert Gama appear in the Nelspruit magistrate's court in connection with the death of Hillary Gardee. They are charged with conspiracy to commit murder, kidnapping, rape, murder, hijacking and defeating the ends of justice.
Image: Thapelo Morebudi

One of the three men arrested in connection with Hillary Gardee's murder is a senior manager in the office of the ANC chief whip in the Mpumalanga legislature.

Philemon Lukhele, commonly known as Mhlabunzima, who owns a guest house in Mbombela, is a senior manager responsible for communications and research in the office of chief whip Fidel Mlombo.

Lukhele, 47, appeared in the Nelspruit magistrate's court alongside Albert Mduduzi Gama, 52, and Sipho Lawrence Mkhatshwa, 39, on charges of conspiracy to commit murder, kidnapping, rape, murder, hijacking and defeating the ends of justice on Monday.

Mlombo told TimesLIVE it was disappointing that one of the senior managers in his office would be arrested for such a crime.

“I was disappointed that someone in my office who occupies a senior position is among the suspects,” Mlombo said.

He said the ANC's chief whip's office has always condemned gender-based violence and considered it a very serious crime.

“Internal disciplinary processes will proceed once he gets bail ... We condemn any act of violence against women, children and people living with disabilities,” Mlombo said.

Lukhele and his co-accused, however, opted not to apply for bail when they made their first appearance. 

Instead, Lukhele, through his lawyer, conveyed his condolences to the Gardee family.

Mlombo praised Mpumalanga police who worked around the clock to ensure that suspects were arrested without delay.

“We are happy with the speed that police attended to this case and we would like to thank them for such a swift move of arresting suspects within 72 hours.”

He said Lukhele had been with the office “for probably more than 15 years”, working mainly as a senior researcher.

We call upon everyone insid [in prison] to do your thing with those three. Don't be shaken. If you touch one of us, we'll touch you 10 times
Veronica Mente, EFF national chairperson

“I joined the chief whip's office in 2019, and he had been there long before me, probably more than 15 years,” Mlombo said.

Scores of EFF members arrived at court for the appearance of the alleged killers and in support of the Gardee family. They said they were dissatisfied at how the proceedings were conducted.

EFF national chairperson Veronica Mente said the justice system puts perpetrators above victims.

“Today we came to court and nothing was said in court about Hillary. All we heard is about the medical attention the perpetrators need. Justice focuses on the perpetrators. Why doesn't it start with the victim? Our constitution must be changed. Our laws must be repealed,” Mente said.

Earlier, magistrate Tule-Tu Tonjeni ordered that the three suspects be given medical attention. This after their legal representatives told the court that the three were in immense pain and needed medical care. Tonjeni alleged the trio had been tortured by police.

Mente said she had expected to hear in court why and where Gardee was killed.

“The lodge where everything happened is next to her father and uncle's house. They were that evil and now have the nerve to come to court and ask for medical care,” she said.

She encouraged members to be courageous and not cowards if they see something dodgy.

“Be vigilant. Know places that are illegal and doing wrong things. Someone saw something and kept quiet. Your silence kills people. Let's not be cowards and stop being scared,” she said.

Mente called on other prisoners to "not give the three peace inside prison".

“We call upon everyone inside [in prison] to do your thing with those three. Don't be shaken. If you touch one of us, we'll touch you 10 times,” she said.

Gardee, 28, was laid to rest at the weekend. The daughter of former EFF secretary-general Godrich Gardee went missing after going shopping with her daughter in Mbombela on April 29. She was found dead four days later. 

She had been assaulted and shot in the back of her head. Her body was found by timber workers outside Mbombela.

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