DURBAN – It started with a frantic phone call for help. Less than two days later, two friends were dead and two others were badly injured.
Whether it's a bizarre case of mistaken identity, or something more sinister, is still in question.
In the early hours of 2 March, robbers blasted ATMs at KwaMashu's Bridge City Mall. Police responded quickly, and a gunfight between them and the suspects ensued.
At least one of the suspects was hit, but the gang managed to flee.
Around the same time, Sifundo Nxumalo was attacked – in an unrelated incident – at KwaMashu's hostel area. Bleeding from his wounds, he managed to call his friend Sabelo Ngema.
"He asked for help," Ngema told eNCA. "He'd been shot in Thembelihle (within the hostel) and he told me to get a car."
Ngema swiftly called a neighbour and they drove Nxumalo to the local clinic.
Two of their other friends – Xolani Biyela and Zamokwakhe Ndlovu – arrived as the driver left.
Still reeling from the attack on Nxumalo, the three friends were cornered by police at a clinic.
"They told us we've come from Bridge City, that we’d bombed an ATM, our friend was shot there and we are criminals," Ngema says.
Despite their confusion and denials, they were handcuffed and led outside. Nxumalo was placed under police guard.
"They opened the back of the van and asked the dog to bite me," Ngema says.
PICTURE: KwaMashu resident Sabelo Ngema claims he and his friends were tortured by police on March 2, 2016. The Independent Investigative Directorate is investigating the matter. Credit: eNCA / Dasen Thathiah
Pointing at his wounds, he added: "The dog bit me here, here and here... the policemen told me to speak the truth while they were beating me. I told them I was only trying to help my friend."
Bundled into the police van, they were taken to the KwaMashu station. Biyela and Ngema were handcuffed together, while Ndlovu's hands were restrained behind his back.
Ngema says the group were seated at a high wooden counter, deep inside the station.
"I heard a clicking sound, then a gun went off. At that moment, a policeman came to me and asked why I was trying to steal his gun.
“I asked, 'why would I want to take your gun'? He said, 'you were trying to grab my gun'. He was coming straight towards me, pointing the same gun that just went off."
Embroiled in a heated exchange with the officer, Ngema didn’t at first notice Ndlovu’s silence. He was dead, struck in the head by a bullet.
Ngema and Biyela were dragged into another room at gunpoint, where he claims their hands were dipped into “muthi” in an envelope behind their backs.
“The policeman was saying now there will be no way for me to deny I tried to steal his gun,” Ngema says.
They were then placed in a holding cell.
By the next day, Ndlovu’s brother, Nhlakanipho, was growing increasingly concerned about Zamokwakhe’s whereabouts. He found his car at the clinic, where he was told his brother was taken to the police station.
"I found out from the investigating officer. He said my brother died at Bridge City,” Ndlovu says.
But while at the police station, he overheard policemen talking about a suspect who’d been killed inside. It only took a few minutes before he made the connection.
Later that day, Ngema and Biyela were released – there was not enough evidence to link them to the crime.
But the Hawks say they did nothing wrong.
“If you meet someone who was injured – injured by a bullet – and there was a shoot-out you will possibly believe these are the suspects because he’s injured, he’s in the vicinity, almost at that time of the shoot-out,” says Hawks spokesperson, Major Robert Netshiunda.
“Yes, we don’t think there was anything malicious about taking these guys for questioning.”
He also denies police dogs were used to effect the arrests – despite the multiple wounds on Ngema and Biyela’s bodies.
PICTURE: Police deny their dogs were set on suspects in a robbery at KwaMashu's Bridge City Mall, but Sabelo Ngema's wounds suggest otherwise. CREDIT: eNCA/ Dasen Thathiah
“Unfortunately, those are just claims that police dogs were used. Yes, the K9 responded to the ATM bombing as well but the use of dogs? Dogs are not used to bite people,” says Netshiunda.
Ngema, Biyela and Ndlovu’s brother have sought the advice of Durban attorney Faizel Kara.
He believes the SAPS handled the case poorly.
"They did not have enough evidence or enough identification to arrest the three. Just because one was shot, they readily believed he was part of the Bridge City armed robbery and that does not give you sufficient grounds.
“The three persons who were arrested explained where the friend was shot: at the hostel."
Now, they’ll be suing the police.
"We will be liaising with the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid). We will be submitting the affidavits of the two other witnesses to the shooting, who were also victims of dog bites and assaults,” Kara says.
“We'll be liaising with Ipid in respect of the autopsy report (and) photo album in order for us to litigate against the South African police."
Ipid is already conducting its investigation into the circumstances around Ndlovu’s death.
The police watchdog says it’s awaiting a ballistics report, which should shed more light on the incident.
However, a well-placed police source claims Ndlovu was killed by the accidental discharge of an inexperienced constable’s gun.
While the Ndlovu family are anxiously awaiting some clarity on his death, they've lost their main breadwinner.
Nhlakanipho Ndlovu says his brother’s meagre earnings as a mechanic had helped their family in rural Eshowe.
It was one of the reasons they’d come to KwaMashu in 2013.
With limited options for accommodation, they – like Ngema and Biyela – settled in the volatile hostel area, which has been notoriously violent over the years, fuelled by crime and political unrest.
But Ngema says it's no excuse to paint all residents with the same brush – many of whom have come there looking for honest work.
"If it was someone from elsewhere, none of this would have happened, but (it did) because I'm from the hostel. We are all human beings.
“Yes, there are criminals here in the hostel – but that’s not all of us.”