Airlifted from Africa to a troubled life in Britain

As a key witness to the murder of Stompie Moeketsi, Katiza Cebekhulu fled his home to escape Winnie Mandela's wrath. Yesterday, Fred Bridgland found him in court again
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The Independent Online

Some 13 years ago I watched Winnie Mandela stand in the dock of a Soweto court with a young Zulu as both were charged with kidnapping and assaulting a 14-year-old boy.

Nelson Mandela, newly released from life imprisonment and then still her husband, was there in support. He sat on the public benches behind the dock throughout the committal hearing. As reporters and cameramen pursued him afterwards for a comment, he declined to speak about his wife's alleged crimes, but joked: "Let me past. I've already been in prison too long."

All our eyes were focused on the Mandelas. We paid little attention to the young Zulu or the other black township youths who were led into the dock.

I had no idea then that the Zulu would come to dominate my life for the next few years; or that he would tell me of many other alleged murders of children committed by Mrs Mandela and her bodyguards, known as the Mandela United Football Club; or that one day I would appear in a Hampshire court, as I did yesterday, to try to keep him out of an English prison.

The boy whom Mrs Mandela and the Zulu had been accused of kidnapping and beating was called Stompie Moeketsi. Stompie had achieved cult status for his leadership of an anti-apartheid army of about 1,500 child activists aged between eight and 14. Stompie's body had been found on waste ground near Mrs Mandela's home. The state pathologist said Stompie had died either from head injuries or deep stab wounds to his throat.

Although it is now well established - thanks to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) - that Mrs Mandela beat Stompie until he was brain-dead, it is a matter of contention whether she herself or her chief bodyguard, Jerry Richardson, delivered the final fatal blows and stabbings.

Katiza Cebekhulu (pronounced Cheb-eh-kulu), the Zulu who appeared with her in the Soweto court, has since described, before the TRC and in a book, how he helped Mrs Mandela beat Stompie to a pulp. He said he watched her stab Stompie to death next to the jacuzzi behind her home in the Soweto suburb of Orlando West.

Stompie's murder became a cause célèbre because of Mrs Mandela's involvement. She was at that time one of the most famous woman on the planet, as the wife of Nelson Mandela. She was revered at home and abroad as South Africa's "Mother of the Nation". She had been imprisoned by the apartheid government and treated with cruelty and had then been banished into internal exile. She was the heroine of a proposed Broadway musical, which was designed to present her as a woman of unlimited kindness and courage, and of at least three prospective Hollywood movies.

The relevance of Katiza Cebekhulu on that first day was unclear to most of us, except for The Independent's Africa correspondent of that time, John Carlin. Carlin was among the first reporters to uncover the deeds of the Football Club, which was terrorising the people of Soweto. As Carlin investigated, one senior African National Congress (ANC) official who gave him insight into Mrs Mandela's activities begged the reporter not to use his name. "I'll be dead meat if you do," he said. A lawyer who was well informed about the Football Club locked his door on Carlin after telling him: "She's mad, evil and very, very dangerous."

Carlin also wrote that the Zulu youth was "expected to deliver damning testimony against the Mother of the Nation". That slipped by me until Mrs Mandela's full trial in Johannesburg's High Court got underway and witnesses and her co-accused, including Cebekhulu, began disappearing on an almost daily basis.

I was undergoing a personal epiphany at that time. I had written a book on the Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi. I had been helped by Mr Savimbi's right-hand man, his foreign secretary Tito Chingunji, who became my closest African friend. Only after my book was published did Mr Chingunji reveal to me Mr Savimbi's evil side. Mr Chingunji predicted his own death at Mr Savimbi's hand and warned that I needed to be aware of what might befall him.

When Mr Chingunji "disappeared" I led an international campaign to try to save him. I failed. Mr Savimbi tortured and murdered Mr Chingunji, along with his wife, his one-year-old twin children, battered to death against a tree trunk, and his entire close and extended family.

I tried to piece together the story of my friend's death, but encountered nothing but lies from Mr Savimbi, his underlings and other official sources, including the White House. I received death threats, while other callers threatened to mutilate my partner, the science writer Sue Armstrong.

So when, at much the same time, Mrs Mandela went to trial and witnesses and co-accused began going missing in suspicious circumstances, I felt I was watching a near-mirror repeat of the Savimbi-Chingunji tragedy.

Mr Cebekhulu, I discovered, had been kidnapped by senior ANC officials to prevent him giving his "damning testimony" at the Stompie trial. The ANC kidnap team obtained the co-operation of the Zambian President, Kenneth Kaunda, who imprisoned Mr Cebekhulu without charge or trial in the Lusaka Central prison. There he was presumably meant to die and leave a convenient blank page in the turbulent history of South Africa.

I traced Mr Cebekhulu to Lusaka Central and, with essential help from Baroness Nicholson, then a Westminster MP, got him to Britain. Back home I recorded his account of life in the Mandela United Football Club.

He admitted his own participation in beatings and kidnappings on Mrs Mandela's orders. But I was stunned when he began telling me how he had helped Mrs Mandela beat Stompie and then watched her stab the boy to death.

I had the core of what would become a sensational book. But if I had known then of the tribulations that lay ahead I wonder if I would have pressed on.

I suspect that I would have done so because, apart from Cebekhulu's evidence, I had the testimonies of many other people in Soweto who had suffered at the hands of the Football Club. Some of the victims were even younger than Stompie Moeketsi.

Finkie Msomi, for example, was just 13 when she was burned to a cinder in a petrol bomb attack on her aunt's house. Neighbours told the aunt, a senior ANC official, that Mrs Mandela watched from a car as the house burned.

What was Finkie's sin? None. Her aunt's? Resisting Winnie Mandela's demand that her sons join the Football Club to help it spread mayhem.

Katiza Cebekhulu's journey to the Football Club was just one chapter in his troubled life. He had been born to a father he never knew in the Natal township of Mpumalanga, where the ANC and the rival Inkatha Freedom Party fought turf wars that took thousands of lives.

The violence transcended politics and became a habit, a lifestyle practised by bored, ill-educated, unemployed and often hungry township youths who rarely knew much about their leaders' policies. Against this background, he grew up, sleeping on a concrete floor beneath a scullery table. He was frequently whipped with a steel-reinforced sjambok by his stepfather, whom he watched rape his little sister.

Like many youngsters in the apartheid era, he escaped to the false promises of Johannesburg, known in Zulu as Egoli, the City of Gold, and was there recruited to the Football Club.

Despite his past, many of Mr Cebekhulu's friends have recognised in him some remarkable qualities. He is astute, intelligent and funny and, despite the lack of mentorship as he grew up, he has clear moral values. He is passionate and hot-headed, but he is also forthright about his misdeeds.

He desperately wants an education. It is painful for me, as his friend, to witness his regular crises when he falls foul of British society's rules, and has to struggle back, without ever having had recourse to counselling or professional support, from his sense of defeat.

He believed that once he was admitted to Britain his life would change for the better. Once I realised he had given me the core elements of a book and a BBC television documentary on Mrs Mandela and the Football Club, I insisted that all income and royalties be shared with him to enable him to begin his new life in Britain. His share of the money went to Lady Nicholson, who had become his legal guardian. She also exercised power of attorney on his behalf. She insisted, since she had played the vital part in getting him into Britain, on protecting him by taking copyright of my own book on his behalf.

I had trusted Lady Nicholson initially, but our relationship broke down. Mr Cebekhulu then appealed to me to help him sever relations with her and secure payment of his share of the book and the television royalties which she held in trust for him. With the help of the human rights law firm, Bindman and Partners, we ended Lady Nicholson's guardianship, and power of attorney. Mr Cebekhulu received some payment from Lady Nicholson, but she retained copyright of the book. Lady Nicholson has always denied having made any personal profit from the book and insisted there are no outstanding sums owed to Mr Cebekhulu.

This year Mr Cebekhulu fell into a deep depression, got drunk and stabbed a neighbour who had switched off his electricity supply in the hip. The victim spent only one night in hospital, but Mr Cebekhulu was charged with grievous bodily harm, an offence that carries a minimum of three years' imprisonment. He pleaded guilty.

Yesterday at Portsmouth Crown Court he prepared himself for jail. But his friends, who know him to be a kind man, had travelled from far and wide to give testimony for him. Julia Raven, his boss when he worked as a care assistant in Surrey, was there. Eric Vawser, a Yorkshire businessman who has been generous with time, money and advice since Mr Cebekhulu's life begin to slide, was also there. I flew in from Johannesburg to give testimony. The support list was long.

The judge, Claire Miskin, summing up before sentence, told Mr Cebekhulu he had committed a serious offence. She added: "Your life has been scarred by more horror than any of us can imagine. You emerge as a man of considerable courage who has achieved good things. I accept that on balance you are a gentle man.

"In the ordinary way I would have considered a prison sentence, but I accept that yours is an unusual case."

The judge said she would not send him to prison as it would not serve the ends of justice. She imposed a Community Rehabilitation and Punishment Order, involving 100 hours of unpaid community service and two years of probation. She also ordered that he submit to compulsory psychiatric treatment for his depression.

After all Katiza's troubles it was the best possible outcome. After a lifetime of neglect, the judge had interpreted the law so that at last he gets counselling to sort out his troubled life.

Afterwards he was asked by reporters about the crucial central question that has come to dominate his life. Did he still maintain that Mrs Mandela had killed Stompie Moeketsi? "It's still the same," he said. "I've always said that I was there. I am ashamed that I helped Mrs Mandela beat Stompie. So many people in South Africa did not want to believe me, but you have to ask: Why then did they abduct me from my own country and why am I here in England today?"