Just before 9pm last Saturday, Lerotha Hlabanyane, a prominent member of Lesotho gang Terene ea Chakela (Chakela’s train), got a phone call luring him outside his home in Klipspruit, Soweto.
“It was about 8.45pm when he got the call. The person said he had a six-pack of alcohol and wanted to share it. My husband jumped out of bed, got dressed and left. A few moments later I heard gunshots. I ran outside and found my husband in a pool of blood. His cellphone was taken, so we do not know who called him,” his widow, Madineo Nkete, told the Sunday Times.
Hlabanyane’s killing was but the beginning. By dawn, another 16 people had been massacred at Mdlalose’s tavern, 2km away, a shooting believed to have been caused by a feud between two illegal mining groups.
A raging feud, characterised by initiation and revenge killings between two rival illegal mining gangs from Lesotho, is believed to be at the centre of last weekend’s horrific shooting at Mdlalose’s tavern in Soweto that claimed 16 lives.
The two groups, one of which is a splinter from the other, have been locked in a cycle of revenge killings in Gauteng, the Free State and North West from last year. While the rivalry goes back many years, a leadership vacuum caused by a Covid-19 death has weakened the biggest gang, opening it up for a takeover.
The Sunday Times has established that one of the 16 victims was a Lesotho national allegedly targeted by rival gunmen who opened fire indiscriminately at patrons. The dead man, Thabo Kwepe, was a member of Terene ea Chakela (Chakela’s train) gang and was hunted down to Mdlalose’s tavern on the night of the shooting.
Kwepe, one of two tavern shooting victims who had not been identified until now, was believed to have been the sole target, while the 15 others were bystanders in the wrong place at the wrong time. A total of 137 spent cartridges were found on the scene.
Three hours before the deadly attack, another Terene ea Chakela member was lured out of his house and shot dead in cold blood in Klipspruit, 2km from Mdlalose’s tavern.
Terrene ea Chakela and its splinter group, Terene ea Mokata, were at loggerheads before the death of its leader Rethabile Mokete, known as Khosi Mosotho Chakela, who died of Covid-19 in Bloemfontein in January last year.
According to reports in Lesotho, Chakela was a key suspect in the murder of Lipolelo Thabane, the estranged wife of Lesotho’s former prime minister Tom Thabane.
One of Chakela’s lieutenants, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Sunday Times that the attack was carried out with the intention of exterminating their group.
“That attack was meant for our group members. One of our members was shot dead in the attack. We know that this group was hunting down our members that night and we can confirm that the attack was intended for us.”
He said the rift between the groups was a result of a falling out between Chakela and another lieutenant, Sarele Sello, who broke away from Chakela’s Terene in 2018 to form his own gang, Terene ea Mokata.
“The fighting is not only about turf, it’s about building a bigger group that is able to carry out activities such as illegal mining and any other lucrative illegal activities,” he said.
“The war has been raging from before Chakela’s death but it’s been worse [since he died] because we don’t have an out-and-out leader.”
Sello has denied involvement in the tavern shooting.
But another Chakela leader who is based in Gauteng said the gunmen had spent Saturday evening driving to taverns in Pimville, Klipspruit and Orlando searching for his members.
“It appears it was an initiation exercise of one of our members who defected to Mokata’s group. He gave away the locations of our members to our rivals to be accepted into their group,” he said.
A member affiliated to Chakela, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he fears for his life, said he could have been killed on Saturday night. He said he had received a WhatsApp from an acquaintance who asked to meet him at a nearby park.
“He asked me to step outside because he wanted to show me some tools. I refused because I was already in bed and I found it odd,” said the member.
He suspects that members of Chakela living in Klipspruit, Orlando and Pimville were being targeted.
“It’s clear that we are being attacked and those people who died in the tavern were killed for no reason,” said the member.
He said his suspicions were confirmed by the murder of another Chakela member, Lerotha Hlabanyane, who was gunned down in Klipspruit about three hours before the tavern shooting. The two townships are divided by a stream.
Hlabanyane’s widow, Madineo Nkete, told the Sunday Times that her husband had got a call from someone he knew, asking him to meet him outside his house. Then he was gunned down.
“It was about 8.45pm when he got the call. The person said he had a six-pack of alcohol and wanted to share it. My husband got dressed and left. A few moments later I heard gunshots. I ran outside and found my husband in a pool of blood. His cellphone was taken, so we do not know who called him,” said Nkete.
Gauteng police spokesperson Lt-Col Mavela Masondo confirmed Hlabanyane’s murder but declined to say if it was related to the tavern massacre. He said further investigation was needed.
Another Terene member was killed at a Chakela meeting place in Klipspruit in October last year. Tsekiso Makate was murdered while playing pool. His death has been linked to the gang rivalry.
Police said no arrests had been made and investigations were continuing.
Denying his group’s involvement in the tavern massacre, Sello, Terene ea Mokata’s leader, said: “We have been fighting each other but we had nothing to do with those murders.”
Terene and many other Lesotho groups have their origins rooted in SA’s migrant labour system; thousands of Lesotho nationals came to SA in the 1940s in search of greener pastures in this country’s growing mining sector.
The purpose of the groups was to provide protection and brotherhood to their members and to provide funeral services for Lesotho migrant workers.
The groups are known to carry out vicious attacks on each other. Their gripes are rooted in disagreements originating from Lesotho. They fight for control of illegal mining activities, urban recycling and theft of copper cables.
A Soweto-based artisanal miner said the fighting was becoming worse.
“It’s total war. These Terene and ‘Marashiya’ [another gang] are unstoppable. There are new groups as well, the Nkhi and Bakatla. The fights were mostly underground but now they are happening at the taverns they go to, at the houses they live in and where they hide out.
“Innocent people are dying because of these fights. In June 150 gang members were arrested in Ficksburg. They were stopped by the police and the army. There was a big shootout, many were injured.
“We knew they were coming. They were coming to this side because of a fight over gold shafts … Many of us left the areas around the mine because we knew there was going to be big problems.
“The different groups have been fighting more and more. They have been attacking each others’ hideouts, and places where they meet and drink.”
Last month, police reported that they had arrested 153 undocumented Lesotho immigrants as they travelled in 16 minibus taxis in Wepener.
Free State police spokesperson Brig Motantsi Makhele said at the time that the arrests had been made after the suspects opened fire on members of the police and defence force who conducted a roadblock near an unguarded section of the border.
Photographs of the arrests showed the suspects wearing Terene’s trademark yellow and black Basotho blankets.
Another artisanal miner said those arrested were alleged to be part of an armed group heading to Johannesburg to sort out the turf wars.
“That group didn’t make it, but others have and look what is happening now. Across Gauteng innocent people are dying because of this turf war between these groups.
“There are parts of Joburg’s mining areas that are completely off limits. Only these gang members can go in and out. For us to go there as artisanal miners means death.”