A Triple Revenge Murder That Isn’t What is Seems

A violent triple murder shocked the South African public in 2011, not least because the alleged perpetrator was Joseph Ntshongwana, a former professional rugby player with the Blue Bulls. After his arrest reports emerged that he had violently hacked to death three men with an axe, beheading two of them, in revenge for the gang rape of his daughter, during which she was infected with HIV.

A prolonged court case unearthed a very different series of events, ultimately resulting in Ntshongwana receiving five life sentences after being found guilty of three counts of murder, as well as kidnapping, rape and two attempted murders. The defendant was said to have a history of severe mental illness, and the alleged gang rape hadn’t taken place. More than that, reports in a number of news articles covering the trial suggested that Ntshongwana didn’t even have a daughter.

Ntshongwana playing for the Blue Bulls

A professional player between 1998 and 2011, Ntshongwana represented the Blue Bulls, at the time a ‘Super 12’ professional side based in Pretoria. Despite also representing South Africa’s national side, the Springboks, at Under-21 level, the flanker failed to establish himself as a regular starter for the Bulls, appearing just seven times for the first XV in total. After leaving the club he maintained a low media profile, and other than a move from Pretoria to Durban, little is known about his activity until reports emerged of his arrest in March 2011 following a series of violent murders in the suburbs of Durban and nearby townships. Posts on his personal Facebook page indicate that he became a devout and vocal christian around 2010.

The first killing took place on March 20th 2011, when Thembelenskosini Cebekhulu was hacked to death with an axe and beheaded in Montclair. Two days later, Paulos Hlongwa was killed in a similar way in Lamontville, as well as a third, unidentified victim in Yellowwood Park during the same week. Two further men were assaulted, one on March 21st and one two days later. Both surviving with severe injuries. 

The 33-year old Ntshongwana initially appeared in court on April 1st 2011, facing three murder charges as well as two more of attempted murder and one of assault with intention to cause grievous bodily harm. While his initial defence focused on the claim that the attacks were revenge killings in response to the rape of his daughter, police had been unable to establish if Ntshongwana even had a daughter, much less that the alleged rape incident had taken place.

His defence team then changed tact, claiming that he was not responsible for his actions due to a history of mental illness. His father took the stand as a witness, claiming that his son suffered from severe bipolar disorder. During his arraignment Ntshongwana violently resisted police and appeared to speak in tongues. He refused to enter a plea throughout the proceedings.

The axe reported to have been used to carry out the murders, pictured at Ntshongwana’s trial. Photo: Khatija Nxedlana

Despite his behaviour and the claims of his defence team, a court-appointed psychiatrist found that Ntshongwana was of sound mind, and that rather than either revenge killings or the acts of a man who had suffered a break from reality, the murders had been deliberately planned. The court heard how his victims, who had posed no threat to the powerfully built former rugby player, had been deliberately stalked under cover of darkness, chased down and hacked to death. In each incident Ntshongwana had deliberately aimed to decapitate them, succeeding twice. The head of one victim was found more than a mile from the body.

He was declared fit to stand trial in February 2012 and ultimately found guilty of three counts of murder, two additional counts of attempted murder and one count each of kidnapping and rape after abducting a woman and holding her prisoner for three days. He was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences in December 2014. In refusing to enter a plea, the judge opined that he felt no remorse for his actions. 

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