SA's xenophobia shame: 'burning man' case shut

15 February 2015 - 02:00 By BEAUREGARD TROMP
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Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave was beaten, stabbed and set alight in Ramaphosa informal settlement almost seven years ago.

Yet nobody has been arrested for his gruesome murder and, thousands of kilometres away in Mozambique, his wife still awaits justice.

Nhamuave, who was 35 years old, became known as the "burning man" and photographs of his agonising death brought the horror of South Africa's xenophobic violence to the world.

In all, 62 people were killed in little more than two weeks.

Police closed the case on October 27 2010 after concluding that there were no witnesses and no suspects. A single sheet of paper summarises detective Sipho Ndybane's progress. "Suspects still unknown and no witnesses," he wrote.

Yet when the Sunday Times visited Ramaphosa three weeks ago, we tracked down an eyewitness who pointed out two of the main suspects in the crime.

The woman sees the killers at least once a week. Her recounting of details surrounding Nhamuave's death has remained consistent for nearly seven years, when she first revealed details of the murder.

At the time she was willing to speak to police. "But the police never came here. Now, I don't trust the police here," she said.

This week, we followed Sipho*, one of the men pointed out by the witness, as he sauntered about Ramaphosa, dressed in a black T-shirt, drinking casually from a water bottle. Twice he passed the spot where Nhamuave was killed, never breaking his stride.

On May 18 2008, Sipho was part of a mob intent on chasing foreigners out of the settlement. That afternoon the crowd caught two men carrying blankets and clothing with them.

"He's the one who stabbed him. He stood over him when he was down and stabbed him, like this," said the witness, motioning downward with a two-handed grip.

The mob then wrapped their victim in his own blankets and tried to set him alight. They failed.


Bheki*, another attacker, walked to the traffic circle, where a fire was burning, and returned with a flaming piece of wood, which was placed under the man.

"Then it worked. He was on fire," the witness said.

A doctor at Tambo Memorial Hospital said at the time that Nhamuave would have died as fire scorched his lungs.

'South Africans burnt him alive'

The spot where Nhamuave was killed is now a bustling taxi rank with new paving. Across the road, less than 10m away, Bheki sells knick-knacks to the locals.

"I see them almost every day and I remember what they did to that man. Nobody wants to say anything, but I can never forget," said the witness.

When Nhamuave's three children ask about their father, their mother replies: "South Africans burnt him alive."

The inquest into the Mozambican's death reveal that statements were taken from policemen who only responded months and sometimes years later. The police docket on Nhamuave consists largely of testimony by officers who first noticed a raging fire.

"While we were patrolling the Ramaphosa informal settlement we noticed a man who was burning," wrote Captain Ntombengle Kunene on March 20 2010, nearly two years after the incident.

The postmortem, done on May 27 2008 at the Medico-Legal Laboratory in Germiston, does not reveal a cause of death. Forensic anthropologist Dr Patrick Randolph-Quinney labelled it "pathetic".

"It's a very thin, cursory postmortem," he said.

The University of the Witwatersrand lecturer and researcher has more than 20 years of experience in the recovery, identification and analysis of human skeletal remains and specialises in trauma analysis.

He said the obvious things had been pointed out, such as lacerations to the head, but there had been no proper examination of the rest of the body, which may have revealed a fuller picture of the kind of trauma Nhamuave suffered.

More than 1000km away in Mozambique, Nhamuave's wife, Hortencia Masangwa (below), heard for the first time on Monday that the case had been closed.


"I am hurt because my children don't have a father and I would have liked to see someone take responsibility for orphaning my children," she said.

Her youngest, nine-year-old Viriginia, constantly asks for details about the father she never knew.

Hortencia shows her the only three pictures she has of Nhamuave.

Since her husband's death, the family have stumbled from one crisis to the next.

With her small crop she hardly manages to feed the children.

Late last year, looting rebels complicated matters, forcing the family from their home in the central part of the country. Crops withered and the family went hungry, trying to eke out a living by selling firewood by the side of the road.

"Sometimes I go two weeks without selling the wood and I have no money for something as basic as sugar to make tea. Then I have to tell my children: 'Mama doesn't have money for food.'"

Her children walk 10km to school barefoot and have been given until April to buy exercise books or stay at home.

Hortencia is especially proud of her eldest, Alfabeto, who is now in Grade 12.

"He looks a lot like his father. When I look at him I think of his father, Ernesto. The only memory I have of him are my children."

Henk Strydom, senior prosecutor at Boksburg Magistrate's Court, confirmed that the investigation was closed. Police spokesman Solomon Makgale said the docket was still open.


'Burning man' timeline:

May 18 2008: Ernesto Nhamuave (above) is burnt alive by a mob in Ramaphosa, east of Johannesburg.

May 27 2008: Nhamuave's cousin tracks down his body to the Germiston mortuary. He is identified by a defect on his toe.

May 27 2008: Autopsy performed at Germiston Medico-Legal Laboratory cannot determine cause of death.

June 3 2008: Nhamuave's body arrives home in Mozambique. He is buried the same day.

September 17 2008: Investigating officer Sipho Ndybane files his first and only report on the murder. He writes there are no suspects and no witnesses.

March 20 2010: Final statement is gathered from a police captain who helped to extinguish the fire engulfing Nhamuave.

October 27 2010: The investigation into the murder is officially closed.


*Not their real names

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