JOHANNESBURG - As victims of the eNgcobo Police Station attack are buried, South Africans are beginning to digest the bizarre circumstances surrounding the tragedy.
What seemed at first sight to be a violent, gang-related attack on a police station, purportedly to steal arms and facilitate an attack on an ATM, soon unravelled into a story with links to a controversial church, the Seven Angels Ministries.
The search for the killers led police directly to the church, just three kilometres from the crime scene.
In an ensuing shootout, seven suspects were shot dead, while one policeman sustained injuries. Ten additional suspects were arrested and a number of guns taken from eNgcobo police station were recovered.
Neighbours flocked to the church, eager to find out what had occurred.
Although speculation was rife, most locals agreed on one thing - the Seven Angels church and its practices had been the subject of suspicion.
One resident said, “We already asked government to help us because we never wanted this church to be here. So we keep on wondering, were they waiting for this time, for these things to happen? We thank God this has already happened.”
Another resident, commenting on the church buildings, said, “The community want to burn this home. We don’t want to see them here. Even their bodies, they don’t have a place to be buried here.
“They have been doing funny things. Once, two years ago, we came here as a community and told them to stop because what they are doing is really very funny.”
It later emerged that three of the suspects killed by police were, in fact, church leaders - the Mancoba brothers Thandazile, Xolisa and Philile.
Along with four other brothers, the so-called Seven Angels had been running the church founded by their father, Siphiwo, who died in 2015.
Mancoba brothers of Seven Angels Church eNgcobo,SAPS must dig deeper. I’ve always wondered who drives a Prancing horse in that small town. pic.twitter.com/vDJ736unl0— Qhaf’Qhaf (@Mabheranaa) February 26, 2018
SAPS National Commissioner Khehla Sitole said police were convinced the church was a front for a crime syndicate.
“As we had promised that we would give a response, we will respond, and the task force has responded on the spot. Within thirty minutes, seven of them were lying down. But we did not intend to kill them. We only wanted to arrest them,” he said.
“You can’t have people who will be so brave to attack a police station unless there’s masterminds. I then said we must do our modus operandi analysis in such a manner that we look at the possibility of a syndicate and early indications are already showing to us that yes they are a syndicate because part of the evidence we found there shows that they are actually spread across the country.”
Former Police Minister Fikile Mbalula said, “Let me tell you what we discovered when police arrived there. There is no church there. There is satanism.”
In 2016, the church's unorthodox methods came under scrutiny by the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural‚ Religious‚ and Linguistic Communities, known as the CRL Rights Commission.
Based on its findings, the commission pushed for an amendment to legislation to ensure more regulation in the religious sector.
But, according to the CRL, Parliament didn’t act immediately.
CRL Rights Commission Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said, "What we discovered was that there was a problem; children not going to school. They (church leaders) were saying their (state schools) curriculum is satanic so children shouldn't go to school, and they were saying the Constitution was written by the devil, so they did not believe in the Constitution or any schooling."
Eighteen children were rescued from Seven Angels Church during the investigation.
The CLR was particularly concerned that members had to donate all their worldly possessions to the church.
"Our question was what happens when the money runs out. We've seen what happens to other cults in other countries where people commit mass suicide. What we didn't bargain for is what then happened, but we knew this was a ticking time bomb. We've said it many, many times that something horrible is going to happen there and people are going to die unless we find a mechanism where their own peers can hold them to account and they can be removed from the system," said Mkhwanazi-Xaluva.
After the shootout at the church on 24 February more children were found on site, and a number of them were taken to places of safety, while others were returned to their homes.
The conditions they had lived in at the church left much to be desired.
Congregants lived on the property in cramped quarters, donating all their worldly possessions to the church.
Defending the church, one of the surviving brothers, Banele, said their practices were misunderstood.
He said, "There's no word in our church that says go and steal. No, no, no, there's no such thing.
"Some (congregants) came with the idea the church will never collapse while they're still alive. Some of them bought us cars, some of them gave us money.
"...we didn't say to people... you must come... and give us your money, no."
But Banele could not defend his brother Thandazile, who he believes orchestrated the SAPS attack with a gang .
“No one will trust me and because of my brother and I also wish that people can understand in any family you cannot have all breadwinners. One will be a trouble maker, one will be a Christian, one will be that and that so I so wish that people can understand, more especially our black people, so it’s not all of us, we are the tsotsis or thugs,” he explained.
Banele said Thandazile was estranged from his family and only recently moved back home, against their wishes.
But he maintains not all those killed by police were suspects. Speaking of one of the casualties, Banele said “I think he’s about 15 years old and he’s not a boy that’s mischievous, no. But they shot him in the chest. That makes me worried a lot because he was very young.”
Banele believes his other brother, Philile, committed suicide during the gunfight.
“He said, God why do you do this to me and then he took the sword and he killed himself. He was not shot, only the police they shot him in his hand and he was fighting because he trained many styles of karate, kung-fu and stuff. But they didn’t kill him, he killed himself.”
At a memorial service for the slain police officers, newly-appointed police minister Bheki Cele said, “Anyone who is within the law must protect themselves and protect those who are close to them or nearby. Use all the force he has. Go read Section 49 of the criminal procedure act. I’m not the one saying that. It says use all the force you have. In English, if needs be, it can be fatal force or deadly force.
"We’ll have to make sure that police are well-equipped for such situations to protect themselves fully. Please, if you are called again to do the same thing, do it.”
But he also turned his attention to the religious sector. “People are eating snakes, they’re told they’re eating pasta so don’t fight us pastors," said Cele.
"We are going to profile these churches. We are going to profile them and know who they are. Don’t say we’re atheists, we’re not fighting the churches but churches need to be churches.”
As the Engcobo community reflects on a dramatic and peculiar series of events, some are asking why this had to happen in their town.
Perhaps part of that answer lies in the former police minister’s words at his last media briefing.
“It is only now we’re getting the people who kill police in that church but community reported it a long time ago," said Mbalula.
"That is not a church. They’re practicing something no one understands. We should have attended to that thing the first time it was reported. We as police were supposed to be there, send our intelligence there. We would have long discovered those thugs. Now five police had to die before we respond.”
Speaking on the violent attack, Armstrong Luke, the uncle of one of the deceased, said, “(Criminals) don’t respect police because police are bound by these sanctions. They are not allowed to shoot to kill even if they are in trouble. I should think if the government can just try to be lenient in these tight laws which bind the policemen from not shooting when they are in danger maybe criminals will understand or respect the police.”