A smeared handprint visible in a splash of dried blood on a bright pink door is the only sign of the horrific crime that started behind this door on 6 April and ended in death a few metres down the road.
But outside the pink door, which leads to a yard with a handful of tiny corrugated iron shacks, life is carrying on as normal. Two women sit outside talking, while another dumps used laundry water into a stream of sewage. Children play in rubbish and broken glass alongside dead rats, while the narrow unpaved path is busy with people coming and going.
Inside the yard behind the pink door, a woman sits on the floor in the corner of one of the shacks. The shack is clean except for blood stains on a microwave and on a white curtain dividing the bed from the rest of the shack.
Wrapped in a blue blanket, the woman looks tired and grief-stricken, her voice barely audible. After living in the shack for more than three years with her husband, she must now wrap her head around a life without him. She will also have to take care of their four children living in Zimbabwe.
The last time the woman, Nomsa Tshuma, 38, saw her husband, Mbodazwe Banajo “Elvis” Nyathi, 43, alive, he was bloodied and unable to speak, surrounded by an angry mob of about 30 people demanding R300 from her.
Tshuma handed over the family’s last R50. Unsatisfied with that, the mob dragged Nyathi away. Fearing for her life, Tshuma remained in the shack and started phoning Nyathi’s relatives. Moments later, someone came rushing back to Tshuma, telling her that her husband had been set alight in the street outside, metres away from their home.
Tshuma has since left Diepsloot, fearing for her safety and that the mob might come back for her. She returns to the shack during the day, sitting and waiting in the same corner under the same blanket should any visitors come to pay their respects to Nyathi.
Beaten, then set alight
Residents of Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg, called for a total shutdown of the area in early April after rumours started circulating about the deaths of seven people the previous week. They were all allegedly shot and killed by an “illegal immigrant”. The police have since dismissed that rumour. Colonel Athlenda Mathe said the police were aware of only five cases in the week in question, between 30 March and 3 April.
The shutdown came amid an increase of xenophobic rhetoric nationally and the rise of vigilante groups purporting to “clean up” their neighbourhoods. Vigilante groups such as Operation Dudula blame migrants for the high rates of unemployment, crime and other social ills facing South Africans.
Although Operation Dudula’s leader, Nhlanhla “Lux” Dlamini, who is currently facing a number of charges related to the group’s vigilantism, arrived on the day, Diepsloot residents dismissed him. They said they did not need him or Dudula to fight their battles.
Part of the demands of the shutdown in Diepsloot was that police minister Bheki Cele address residents on the progress of promises he made to the community in February 2020 after protests over the high rate of crime in the area.
Following the shutdown, Cele deployed more police, including members of the tactical response team, while the Department of Home Affairs sent a number of immigration officials into the area. Since the night of 6 April, when at least 27 people were arrested, more than 100 arrests have been made, most of them undocumented people. No arrests have been made in Nyathi’s murder.
Visiting the area, Cele and new police commissioner General Fannie Masemola cautioned residents about taking matters into their own hands. But only hours later, a group of about 30 people started going door to door in extension one in Diepsloot demanding people show passports or identity documents.
When the group forced their way in through the bright pink door just after 10pm, Nyathi and his wife, who were watching TV in their shack at the time, were alerted for the first time to what had been happening in the streets outside that evening.
“We heard them next door asking ‘ID, passport, ID, passport’. My husband didn’t have any documents, so he tried to hide. But they found him,” says Tshuma softly. Two relatives sit next to her.
The mob found Nyathi, dragged him away and beat him outside the pink door in the street. Moments later, they dragged his limp body back to his shack. Bloodied and unable to speak, Nyathi was only able to point out Tshuma to the mob, which then demanded money.
Tshuma handed over R50. One family member says Nyathi might still be alive if they were able to pay the R300 the mob demanded. But Tshuma says she does not know what would have happened.
Nyathi was dragged back out into the street where the beatings continued until the mob set him alight. They then scattered between the shacks and left Nyathi’s body on the street.
‘It is so painful’
Nyathi’s younger brother, Mizikayifani Nyathi, 34, who works as an Uber driver, received a panicked call from one of their other siblings that night, telling him about the mob that had arrived at their brother’s house.
“My older brother just said the Dudula people got my brother, and they were beating him. I drove straight to the police station and asked them to come with me,” he says. “They told me at the police station my brother was burned but he is still alive. But when I got there, he was already dead. It is so heartbreaking and traumatising. I don’t really know what to say.”
Mizikayifani, who had been in South Africa for much longer than Nyathi, moved out of Diepsloot about a month ago for safety reasons and encouraged his brother to do the same. “I kept telling him they must leave. They were going to move out of there at month-end.”
“My brother was humble and peaceful. He didn’t have any problems with anyone, and his neighbours liked him. My sister warned him that day to watch out for the Dudula people but he said, ‘Don’t worry, they are looking for criminals.’”
“We [as a family] were also so calm because we knew he wasn’t doing anything wrong. For him to be found dead, out of all the people in Diepsloot, it is so disturbing. It is so painful. I actually don’t know,” he says.
Nyathi, who worked as a gardener twice a week in Fourways where he was making R200 a day, and his wife, who is unemployed, were barely scraping by each month. He was desperate to earn money to build a house for their four children who live with a relative of Tshuma’s in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second biggest city.
Mizikayifani says the news of Nyathi’s death was traumatic and difficult to take for everyone in the family. But it was Nyathi’s oldest son, Melusi, 20, who took the news hardest. “He just kept saying: ‘No, I want to see my father. My father is not dead. He is still alive. I really need to see my father. It can’t be.’”
“I think they still won’t believe he’s dead until we go there with the body,” says Mizikayifani.
A memorial service will be held for Nyathi at the Hillbrow Theatre on 14 April, before his body is transported back to Zimbabwe where he will be buried in Bulawayo over the Easter Weekend.
By: Jan Bornman
- Photographer: Ihsaan Haffejee
This article was first published by New Frame.