Midlands rivals get their gloves out

The air is thick with accusations of death threats and gun running.

Since January a Durban security firm, Excalibur Executive Protection Services, has been at the centre of an increasingly acrimonious political row. The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) alleges that the firm is involved in gun-running and assassination plots directed against it. In his address on the opening of the KwaZulu-Natal legislature on February 23, the new premier, Lionel Mtshali, warned that private security companies could be used to disrupt the run-up to the election.

Allegations about the involvement of private security firms in fanning violence in KwaZulu-Natal are nothing new but usually emanate from the left of the political spectrum, where they are often linked to a sinister but always shadowy coalition of right-wing “third force” elements. IFP concerns about Excalibur originate with the defection to the African National Congress (ANC) in December of the IFP leader in the Bulwer area, Dumisani Khuzwayo. The IFP considered him one of their best organisers and his defection represented a notable shift in the balance of power in the midlands, which is keenly contested between the IFP’s David Ntombela and the ANC’s Zweli Mkhize.

In January this defection took on an explosive new dimension when the IFP leadership revealed that some of its supporters in the Bulwer area had laid serious allegations before the province’s MEC for safety and security, Nyanga Ngubane. They claimed that Mkhize and Khuzwayo were using all manner of underhand methods to expand ANC influence in the area. These included attempting to seduce some IFP activists into changing sides with promises of weapons or, in the case of some gaol inmates, with promises of amnesty. They had even gone so far, the IFP members alleged, of presenting known criminals with the ultimatum to face prosecution or join the ANC — the implication being that if they joined the “right” side they could escape justice. The gravity of the allegations lay not just in the charges themselves but in the alleged involvement of Mkhize who is the MEC for health, the ANC’s deputy chairman for the province and the number two figure on its election list.

According to the IFP, Ngubane investigated the matter as a result of which seven people came forward to testify that Khuzwayo had persuaded them to join the ANC in return for firearms. The seven claimed they had been taken to a Durban shooting range for training, where they were told to imagine that the targets were IFP members. They had, they said, been issued with laminated identity cards, had filled out applications for registration with the Security Officers Board (SOB) and had then been given weapons. The men were trained at Andre Van der Byl’s Sentinel Firearms Bureau and were put on the books of his firm Excalibur in order to provide protection for Khuzwayo. Registration with the SOB is necessary for anyone who wants to work for a security company such as Excalibur. The SOB is the private security industry’s national professional body to which all such firms and their personnel have to be affiliated.

The story then became both murkier and even more explosive. On receiving this testimony from the seven activists the IFP pursued the matter further and two of the activists made extremely grave statements at the Durban office of the Serious Violent Crimes unit. One allegedly swore in an affidavit that — in the presence of Khuzwayo — Mkhize had given him a sub-machine gun, told him to use it to kill David Ntombela and claim that the murder was in self-defence.

According to the IFP, while these two men were giving their statements, Mkhize and Khuzwayo tried to get the other five to promise that they would not give statements to the police. The following day, however, four of the five apparently did give statements to the police. While doing so, they allegedly left the firearms they had been allocated in Bulwer and — the IFP says — Khuzwayo and Excalibur retrieved the weapons (thus removing some of the evidence necessary to prove the allegations).

By this stage it was apparent that the seven complainants at the centre of the row were under strong pressure from both sides. On January 15, the IFP produced its two star witnesses, Mandla Shezi and Sifiso Khuboni, who had made the allegations of the Ntombela death plot. The two, attired in IFP T-shirts, were paraded before the media while Ntombela declared that here was the proof of the plot to assassinate him. However, just three days later the same two men appeared at an ANC press conference where they claimed that they had been intimidated by Ntombela and the police into making false statements. Shezi told the Natal Witness (January 20) that he had been trained by Excalibur to serve as a security guard for Khuzwayo at meetings. He had, he said, only appeared at the IFP press conference and worn the party’s T-shirt because he was afraid of Ntombela. It was not clear that these comments to the press necessarily invalidated the sworn affidavits deposed earlier and, basing himself on these, Ntombela opened a criminal charge against Mkhize and Khuzwayo of conspiring to murder him.

On February 10 the IFP President, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, told a press conference in Cape Town that he had briefed Deputy President Thabo Mbeki about allegations that a security company owned by “a Mr McBride” had been supplying arms to the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal in order to attack IFP leaders. Chief Buthelezi was clearly being legally careful by referring only to “a Mr McBride” but all eyes naturally turned to Robert McBride, the former MK soldier and foreign affairs official recently incarcerated in Mozambique on charges of gun-running. Deputy President Mbeki responded to Chief Buthelezi’s briefing by setting up a two-man inquiry into the matter consisting of the IFP’s Rev Celani Mthethwa and the ANC’s Jacob Zuma. Premier Mtshali also asked advocate Klaus von Lieres und Wilkau, who defended General Magnus Malan in 1996, to head an inquiry though Mkhize is challenging its validity in the High Court. The matter also remains in the hands of the police. 

Previous experience suggests that we are unlikely to get to the bottom of this affair but it has served to highlight the fact that whatever the amity between the IFP and ANC at national level the struggle between the parties on the ground in KwaZulu-Natal is still often a no-holds barred affair. The finger of accusation has been particularly levelled at Zweli Mkhize but it should not be forgotten that investigations are still under way in connection with death threats made against Mkhize, who travels with two trained bodyguards at all times. His three children were followed regularly last year, he says, and individuals were reported to have parked in sight of the children and displayed firearms. He dismisses the present row as an attempt by hardline elements within the IFP to drive a wedge between the IFP and ANC.