South African Police Service Colonel Frans Mathipa was shot in the head and killed by unknown assassins on Sunday, 6 August 2023. Were SANDF Special Forces soldiers the skilled shooters who murdered a seasoned investigator in the Hawks’ Crimes Against the State Unit? If they were, could this explain a court application by the SANDF days before his assassination intended to stymie Mathipa’s investigation into the SANDF’s role in two abductions and potentially other crimes? Open Secrets investigates.
The matryoshka — or nesting doll — is meant to surprise and delight children. These dolls have been part of the Russian toy-making tradition for more than a century. Open one doll and a smaller doll, often with different features, awaits. This investigation is not dissimilar, but instead of delight it reveals a disturbing image of abuse of power within the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), involving money and murder.
An important strand in this story is the involvement of elements of South Africa’s elite Special Forces (colloquially known as the Recces) and the question of who within the ranks of the military top brass and indeed the Ministry of Defence ordered this. Furthermore, if there has been a cover-up, who is involved and who stands to profit?
In the first part of this series, we published photographs of luxury German vehicles linked to the mysterious cargo of the Russian Lady R vessel. The vehicles are owned by Peters Communications Trust (PCT) — a front company for the SANDF’s 5 Special Forces Regiment based in Phalaborwa, Limpopo. The secret report commissioned by President Cyril Ramaphosa into the Lady R shipment may well reveal more information about this military front. However, it is being kept under lock and key by the Presidency despite it being produced with public funds and headed by retired Judge Phineas Mojapelo. A lesson from this is that judges cannot work for politicians in closed, secret processes; it is an affront to the separation of powers — crucial to a constitutional democracy — and sets a bad precedent.
Based on the number plates from high-resolution photos, we were able to trace one of the vehicles to the scene of a crime where Abdella Hussein Abadiga and his bodyguard, Kadir Jemal Abotese, were abducted from the Mall of Africa in Midrand, Gauteng, on 29 December 2022. In the next instalment we will discuss the alleged role of Abadiga in international terror networks and who may have had a motive to have him abducted.
In response to a court application by Abadiga’s brother in February 2023, Major General Frans Mashego, the former head of the 5 Special Forces Regiment, initially argued that Special Forces members were not present at the scene of the abductions, saying that the number plates had been cloned. Faced with hard evidence to the contrary, he conceded that Special Forces operatives were present at the mall when the abductions took place, but this was simply coincidental: The SANDF was at the mall that day for a “training exercise”. Mashego received a significant promotion months later and is no longer with the Special Forces.
Lieutenant Colonel Frans Mathipa, who investigated these matters between April and July 2023, was shot by a skilled marksman while driving his VW Polo on the N1 highway on the night of 6 August. He was due to meet unnamed people as part of his investigation into the SANDF.
Enter the decent cop: Frans Mathipa
Mathipa was tasked with investigating the abductions. A dedicated police officer with many years of experience, he was a member of the Hawks’ Crimes Against the State Unit. Despite numerous attempts by phone and email, it has proven difficult to talk to Mathipa’s family. They are, of course, best placed to tell the story of his life. According to one family member, they have been encouraged by the police not to speak to the media.
Snippets from Mathipa’s Facebook page provide some insight into aspects of his life. Mathipa, a father and husband, lived in Soshanguve in Tshwane and originally hailed from the village of Lebotloane in North West. This small, rural village is 70km north of the scene of his assassination on the N1 highway. Mathipa attended Thulare High School in Lebotloane before furthering his studies at Unisa. According to officials in the Hawks (who wish to remain unnamed), he was “decent”, “disciplined” and “dedicated” — a good cop committed to public service.
One Hawks official indicated that Mathipa had investigated cases of corruption in the past, including a high-profile matter related to large-scale electricity theft. Mathipa was also assigned to investigate prominent murder cases of anti-apartheid activists, including Ahmed Timol, Neil Aggett and Hoosen Haffejee. These were tough cases. ANC politicians and government officials as well as elements within the police and National Prosecuting Authority have bedevilled investigations and prosecutions into apartheid crimes. Investigative breakthroughs in such matters happened because families, activists and civil society organisations relentlessly pursued justice. Only a handful of public officials showed any commitment or vigour in these cases.
Frans Mathipa takes on the SANDF
Open Secrets previously reported that in late July 2023, Mathipa applied for court authorisation to access the communications records of the SANDF members present at the Mall of Africa on the day of the abductions. We visited the Randburg Magistrates’ Court recently to try to obtain the court file containing Mathipa’s subpoena application in terms of Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act. This provision deals with the issuing of subpoenas for the purpose of obtaining records that are not in the public domain, such as cellphone data.
We spoke with harried prosecutors surrounded by manila folders for whom time and politeness are in short supply. However, when Mathipa’s name was mentioned, the room, on more than one occasion, went silent. In one instance an unhelpful official nearly choked on a large muffin. “Oh, that case,” he said.
We learnt that although Mathipa submitted the section 205 application on 13 June, the SANDF never complied with the deadline of 23 July to respond to the application set by the Randburg Magistrates’ Court. This was because on or before that date, Mathipa and SANDF officials had agreed to halt the process while they negotiated access to the requested information. Whether Mathipa was ordered to do this by his bosses at the Hawks or he succumbed to the legal bullies at the SANDF, we do not know.
In the public interest, we are publishing the section 205 subpoena brought by Mathipa. It is evident that the SANDF and its Special Forces were the subject of his investigation into what transpired during the abductions at the Mall of Africa. The subpoena states that the head of legal affairs at the SANDF, Major General Eric Mnisi, was to appear before court on 27 July to furnish information on the following:
- The tracking company name and records of four vehicles: A grey Audi (HW39ZS GP), a white Mercedes-Benz (KH69TY GP), a white BMW (JZ60DH GP) and a silver Volkswagen Polo (JG85BB GP) for the period 29 December 2022 to 30 January 2023;
- A list of SANDF members — together with their personal particulars (ID and cellphone numbers) — who were conducting a training exercise on 29 December 2022 at the Mall of Africa under the command of Colonel Sunnyboy Pinny Wambi; and
- The operational plan of the exercise.
The subpoena states further that Mnisi was to be examined by a prosecutor on the date of his appearance (27 July) to testify about “all that [he] knows about the alleged offence [of] kidnapping suspected to have been committed by an unknown suspect”.
One of the vehicles listed in the subpoena — the white Mercedes-Benz Kombi (KH69TY GP) — is the same vehicle that we previously identified as part of the Special Forces contingent active around the loading and offloading of the Lady R at the Simon’s Town Naval Base.
SANDF fires back at Mathipa
The SANDF was not pleased with Mathipa’s insistence on accessing records — although records like this could aid a criminal investigation, they could also implicate members of the SANDF who may be complicit in a serious crime.
Mnisi came out guns blazing and launched an urgent application in the Gauteng Division of the High Court in Pretoria in July seeking to interdict the section 205 process. Today, we publish extracts of the court papers so that arguments by both Mathipa and Mnisi can be viewed in full (all the court papers are available on the Open Secrets website).
Mnisi’s founding affidavit leans heavily on the well-trodden defence used by securocrats that the documents sought are classified as “top secret”. Accordingly, their release will compromise national security. Mnisi goes on to argue that all that is needed is a bit of good intergovernmental relations — let the parties talk outside of court and resolve this.
However, this was not a disagreement between a national and provincial department over who has the responsibility to fix a road. Rather, it can be argued that based on circumstantial evidence the SANDF is the prime suspect in very serious crimes. Further, section 205 subpoenas are standard in many criminal investigations.
It is clear from the court papers that Mnisi is prone to legal acrobatics. In his submission to the court, he claims that he has no knowledge of what is being asked of him, yet goes on to argue that the information he has is classified/sensitive and risks SANDF special operations.
Mathipa points out this contradiction in his papers and goes further to show the court that he met with the SANDF on around 6 April. At that meeting, at which Mnisi was present, the SANDF committed to collating all the necessary information required by the Hawks, but the SANDF inexplicably took fright and was no longer willing to cooperate. We can assume that a subpoena was sought because Mnisi and top SANDF members had become an obstacle to the ongoing criminal investigations.
On 20 July, Justice Van der Westhuizen dismissed the SANDF’s attempt to interdict the subpoena with costs. This should have cleared the way for the SANDF to either comply with the subpoena or appear before a magistrate on 27 July and make an argument as to why they should be exempt from handing over the requested information.
Instead, things took a curious turn. According to the military’s version of events, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) stepped in and tried to mediate a process between the Hawks and the military. In response to questions from Open Secrets, the Department of Defence spokesperson, Siphiwe Dlamini, stated that a meeting took place on 27 July 2023 between Mnisi and a senior public prosecutor in the Randburg Magistrates’ Court, “to thrash out the issues surrounding the subpoena”. No mention was made as to whether the Hawks or Mathipa were present, and the Hawks declined to comment on the subpoena process.
The Department of Defence added, “In that meeting, the senior public prosecutor decided not to implement the subpoena and encouraged the investigating officers from the two entities to work together and meet both the senior public prosecutor and the military prosecutor at a later date. This follow-up meeting was held at the National Public Prosecutor’s Office [in] Gauteng on 4 August 2023.”
We put this to the spokesperson of the NPA in Gauteng, Phindi Mjonondwane, who responded, “Subsequent to the court ruling, the NPA, through an advocate at the office of the DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions], facilitated a meeting with both the DPCI [Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, or the Hawks] investigation team and the military investigating team to try and assist both parties in finding common ground in respect of information required to fast-track the investigation.”
She confirmed that the DPP was not present, but would not be drawn on who the advocate was as they wished not to be named, “given security concerns given the assassination of Lt. Col Mathipa”.
What is clear is that less than 72 hours before his assassination, Mathipa was in meetings battling to get the SANDF to comply with its legal obligation to release material central to his investigation. While the senior prosecutor’s attempt to mediate a process may have been well intended, it did absolutely nothing to aid the investigation.
The wisdom of the decision by the senior prosecutor to mediate — which Mnisi and the military likely favoured — deserves further attention from within the NPA. From what we now know, they should have backed Mathipa and not defaulted to concerns by the military who are implicated in these crimes.
Who is Eric Mnisi?
Mnisi is a Zuma-era appointment (2011) and is mired in controversy. There are many securocrats in the military as well as institutions such as the police and NPA who President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration should have removed long ago if it dared or cared to do so.
In 2010, Mnisi was awarded a PhD for his dissertation, The Crime of Obstructing the Course of Justice. Only six years later, Mnisi spearheaded a process to draft new State of Emergency regulations which, if approved by Parliament, would have driven South Africa right back to the bad old apartheid days of PW Botha.
In mid-December 2017, Daily Maverick, the Right2Know Campaign and Rapport revealed details of these plans developed by an interdepartmental team in the SANDF and presented to 30 officials, including six generals and top staff from Mnisi’s legal unit.
The draft regulations, conceived before the ANC elective conference at Nasrec, would have enabled the administration of Jacob Zuma or that of any other president to shut down the internet and arrest and detain journalists and activists for up to three years for “disruptive statements”. The drafters of these provisions are certainly no allies of democracy.
The context of that moment is too soon forgotten — a backdrop of countrywide popular protests against Zuma and his corrupt network in corporations and politics. A tide was rising against Zuma in all aspects of public life including the governing ANC. News of these proposed emergency regulations was quickly drowned out within a matter of days as Cyril Ramaphosa trumped Zuma’s chosen successor, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, at the ANC elective conference at Nasrec. Ramaphosa soon sprinkled the fairy dust of his promised “new dawn” across the republic following his election as President.
However, a report in City Press in July 2018 revealed that some soldiers, including generals, were readying to organise a mutiny in support of Zuma. South Africa was on the brink of a coup. While it was stymied by members of the military loyal to the Constitution, it is a reminder of the extent to which key public institutions, including the military, had been damaged during the Zuma years and how desperate the need for repair remains today.
Who ordered the Mathipa assassination?
Given what we know, the SANDF has, at the very least, serious questions to answer about the murder of Mathipa. It is evident that Mathipa was relentless in his investigation and focused his attention on elements within the elite Special Forces unit.
If Special Forces were involved in abductions and the subsequent murder of Mathipa to cover this up, who else in the military was aware of this criminal behaviour? In a deeply hierarchical organisation like the military, we should not be too quick to suggest that these are rogue units. This is precisely the argument the likes of FW de Klerk and Mangosuthu Buthelezi made when blaming murders orchestrated by the state on a “third force” when they and their functionaries were ultimately in control of state machinery.
Open Secrets put some of these hard questions to Defence Minister Thandi Modise in a letter dated 17 August, which she has not responded to or even acknowledged.
The murder of Mathipa and the abductions he was investigating must be urgently dealt with by Parliament, the minister of defence and the President as commander-in-chief. Not through a sham secret inquiry, but through an open process befitting a democracy such as ours. Right now they have chosen silence, possibly as a strategy to wish these matters away.
While investigating the Mathipa assassination we spoke to a top Hawks official who neither divulged anything of value concerning the case nor wished to be quoted. However, the official issued one warning: “Investigate this relentlessly and they will kill you.”
The men who killed Frans Mathipa clearly have more firepower than the country’s top police unit. If they are not arrested, their influence will grow, threatening a democratic order that people like Mathipa died trying to protect. DM
Note: The Hawks were sent detailed questions concerning the subpoena process as well as the next steps in the investigation. Brigadier Thandi Mbambo responded on behalf of the Hawks: “The matter in question is sub judice and discussion thereof in the public domain will jeopardise an ongoing investigation.”
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