At first, it looked like rubbish. Then she realised it was two dead bodies.
This was the last thing that a property owner, who owns the plot west of Pretoria where two badly decomposed bodies were found in a cave, expected to find.
“Partially clothed and dressed in Zion Christian Church (ZCC) regalia, one body was found lying face-up, holding a knobkierrie in one hand and a stick in the other, while the other body was huddled over.
The woman, who asked not to be named, said both bodies had been dressed in ZCC hats, while one had a ZCC star pinned to his chest. Their socks and shoes had been removed.
“On the way to the third ‘room’ [inside the cave], the flies and the smell got stronger. As I got closer, I saw something which first looked like rubbish. We went closer and saw that it was two dead bodies,” she said.
Moments earlier, the woman said she had only come to investigate whether there had been any damage to the cave, which was often used by worshippers for prayer.
The woman said she had been monitoring the cave after she noticed a man, who identified himself as a “prophet”, had made the cave his home. The man was often seen lighting fires, chanting and singing, she said.
She eventually decided to go inside the cave to see whether he had left. It was then that she discovered the gruesome find.
“We didn’t check the third ‘room’. We were scared he was there, so we left,” she said.
Police were alerted and three bodies were recovered on May 21.
The woman said she first encountered the “prophet” when she tried to stop him entering the premises.
He told had her that the cave was “Jehovah’s house” and that he would visit there as much as he wanted.
Soon after, she said, it became clear that he had made the cave his home. He had apparently claimed to be part of the ZCC, but would allegedly always badmouth it, claiming that its members were evil.
“The prophet and his friend were saying: ‘We are the people of the fire, and they were screaming fire, fire, fire.’ And: ‘The people that pray to the water’, referring to the ZCC people, ‘are evil and have bad spirits’,” she claimed.
She said he was always aggressive and threatening whenever they tried to ask him to leave the property.
“If you come back here, there will be war,” she claimed he once told her, threatening to slit her family’s throats.
The woman said it was not uncommon for people to approach her family, after they bought the property in 1991, wanting to come and pray in the cave.
“At first, we didn’t want any trespassers, but we also wanted to respect their religion, so we said: ‘Okay fine, you come in [and] you pray, you let us know when you come and leave, but no fires, use torches and keep it clean.'”
She said about five people would call each month and ask to come and pray. Some would stay there for days, but they would always come out alive.
She said that after struggling to get police to come and remove the man last month, they had eventually arrived and had said they would take the man to Weskoppies – a psychiatric hospital – because he was “not right in the head”, but he had returned a day later. Since the discovery of the bodies, he had not been seen since, she said.
Identifying the bodies
The police told News24 that the bodies were badly decomposed, and that the individuals had been dead for about three weeks.
Police spokesperson Captain Augustina Selepe told News24 that DNA tests were being conducted.
One of the bodies was that of Lukas Ntshabeleng – who is the only person identified so far.
His family had been desperately trying to find him, after he failed to return home last month.
The last time they had seen him was on the evening of April 26.
His two children had just gone to bed, and he had not told his wife where he was going. She apparently assumed he was going to attend an all-night prayer, which was not unusual for him as a devout follower of the ZCC.
After that weekend, there was no sign of Ntshabeleng, and all calls to his phone went straight to voicemail. His family began to panic.
He also seldom missed a day’s work.
Mindful of this, his sister Rose Ramaano tried to ascertain his whereabouts.
She told News24 that she searched for him at churches, mortuaries, hospitals and police stations.
Knowing that Zionists often go to the mountains to pray, she also scoured the area around Lotus Gardens, east of Pretoria, thinking that he may have collapsed there, and was perhaps stranded.
Desperate, and with no success, she then followed up on a rumour she had heard about two bodies which had been found outside a cave near Erasmia, about 15km from his home.
She said she thought at the time that one of the bodies might be that of her brother.
She went to the Atteridgeville police station to ask for an escort to the cave. She was turned away and asked to return at a later stage. When she did, she and her brothers, along with police, set out to find the cave.
Meeting the prophet
When they arrived, Ramaano’s brothers climbed to reach the entrance of the cave. She was told to stay at the bottom for her own safety. They shouted out Lukas’s name.
“Then a young boy’s voice emerged from the cave, and they started to ask him: ‘What are you doing in here?’ and he responded saying: ‘I live inside the cave. I’ve been living in this cave for three months,'” Ramaano claimed he said.
He apparently told them that he was from Zimbabwe and that he had been called to the cave by his ancestors to become a sangoma. He also claimed to be a prophet.
They asked if he had seen Ntshabeleng or anyone else enter the cave, and he said “no”.
The “prophet” told the police that he had been living there since January.
“The police asked him if they could enter, and he responded, saying if they believed they were strong enough, and if they had prayed, they could enter. Then the police took a step back and left,” Ramaano claimed.
‘It breaks my heart’
Ramaano cried when recalling the incident, saying that during that exchange, her brother was most probably already dead inside the cave.
“It breaks my heart thinking that, instead of the four weeks I spent going around and around in the same place, I didn’t know that my brother was inside that cave.”
Part of the reason it had taken weeks to find his body, she said, was due to the police’s reluctance to take immediate action when she first reported her brother missing, and when she first identified the cave as a possible place where he might be.
Despite numerous requests, Ramaano was allegedly met with several delays which stretched the search process over three weeks. By the time the body was discovered, it was so decomposed that it took three visits to the morgue, with various members of the family, to help identify him, she said.
“Maybe, if action had been taken quickly, in that [first] week, perhaps I would have found him still alive. Maybe I could have helped him, I don’t know. Or maybe his body wouldn’t have decomposed if I had received help to enter inside [that cave sooner].”
She added that Ntshabeleng’s wife had approached police when he went missing, but was told to wait a couple of days, “as Zionists often pray for several days”.
Ramaano described her big brother as a humble person, who was always very loving, someone who loved church, and who was quiet by nature.
“He’s the kind of person that, if he needs something from you, he’ll approach you in a decent way and tell you exactly what he needs. He’s a quiet person. A cool, calm guy.”
Abraham and the cave
News24 also tracked down another man who had been using the cave to pray since 2012.
He confirmed that he had came into contact with the “prophet” during his last visit in April.
The man, who only wanted to be identified as Abraham, said he was not a ZCC member, but believed his ancestors were in that cave, which is why he would often spend days praying there.
He told an unnerving story about his encounter with the young man living in the cave.
During his last visit, he said he was met by the man sitting outside the cave – it appeared as though he had been living there for quite a while.
No words were exchanged between Abraham, a friend who had accompanied him, and the prophet.
“I just saw him there, he didn’t talk,” said Abraham.
However, Abraham soon realised that something was wrong.
As they entered the cavern, the “prophet” followed them and began praying loudly.
“He was praying that he will kill my wife and children,” Abraham said.
“I realised that this guy isn’t well. There was something missing in his mind.”
Abraham explained that the man was asking God for the power to kill.
Despite experiencing this, Abraham and his friend prayed and then left. However, they decided not to return to the cave again.
When asked about Ramaano’s allegations, and that of the owner, that police were slow in their response – both in terms of the search for her brother and the removal of the “prophet” from the cave – Selepe said: “After the property owner reported about some people trespassing on her property, police attended to the complaint and those who were found in the said property… were removed and warned not to come back.”
She said they would investigate Ramaano’s allegations.
When asked if police were searching for the “prophet”, she said: “Police are investigating the case. At this stage, we cannot divulge on the merits of the investigation. All information that is brought to the attention of police, police are dealing with.”
Several attempts for comment from the ZCC were unsuccessful.