George Mqapheli Bonono, the deputy president of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), the shack dwellers’ movement at the forefront of the struggle for right to housing in urban South Africa, was produced in court on Thursday, May 6 following his arrest two days earlier. Bonono was arrested on the charge of ‘conspiring to commit murder’, which he and the AbM denies. He was remanded to custody until May 13, when the application for his bail will be heard. The conspiracy charge is based on an open fact-finding meeting he organized in March.
The judge conceded to AbM’s request that until his bail hearing, he be held at the Durban Central Police Station, instead of being sent to Westville Prison, where they believe his life is under threat. AbM’s leading organizers have been assassinated in the past.
AbM’s president, S’bu Zikode, who was recently awarded the Per Anger Prize — a prestigious international prize for defending human rights — has on several occasions been forced to go underground due to threats to his life.
The 82,000 member-strong organization he heads was formed in 2005, and has since championed the housing rights of urban poor by occupying unused lands and building settlements close to the centers of economic activity, where they stand some chance of eking a livelihood in a country where the unemployment rate is above 30%.
The act of occupying land is also a form of protest against the world’s highest rate of economic inequality, a feature engineered into South African society by the apartheid regime and subsequently kindled through the 27-year of rule of the African National Congress (ANC).
The settlements raised on these occupied lands consist of makeshift shacks built with the labor of its own members and connected to supply lines for water and electricity, without any assistance, or permission, from the government. Many of them are complete with communal poultries, creches, churches and political schools where left ideological training is imparted.
One such settlement is at the eKhenana land occupation in Cato Crest, Durban. Since its establishment in 2017, the settlement has endured repeated attacks by police and private security forces hired for what were essentially illegal evictions of residents, which saw no respite during the lockdown despite a ban on evictions.
“Comrade George had played a very important role in organizing this occupation successfully,” Thapelo Mohapi, the national spokesperson of AbM, told Peoples Dispatch. In March this year, George Bonono had organized a public meeting at the AbM ‘s office, following the arrest of the chairperson, deputy chairperson and the youth league leader of AbM’s eKhenana branch. They were accused of a murder, which, according to Mohapi, had “happened far away from the eKhenana land occupation.”
Mohapi maintained that the meeting was publicly held on March 21, and its purpose was that of a fact-finding mission to ascertain whether there was any truth to these charges or they were fabricated for political reasons.
A bizarre claim
The police, on the other hand, claim that the meeting was held on March 14, with the purpose of conspiring to murder the witnesses of the murder for which the three leaders of the eKhenana branch were arrested. On May 4, the police arrived at AbM’s office in Durban, with Siniko Miya, another AbM member from eKhenana settlement who had already been taken into custody. George Bonono was arrested from here.
“The claim that Bonono called an open meeting of residents to plan a murder is just bizarre,” AbM said in a statement on Thursday. “Even the izinkabi [an organized network of hitmen] who have murdered us with impunity, do not discuss their plans in well attended formal meetings open to all people interested in a particular matter. Everyone knows how the politics of blood works — murders are planned in dark corners.”
Mohapi, who was present at the meeting Bonono had organized, vouched that there were no criminal plans hatched in this meeting, and insisted that the fact that police have used it as the basis for charging Bonono with ‘conspiracy to commit murder’ makes it evident that what is happening is a politically-motivated attack.
The ANC, he argued, refuses to treat shack-dwellers “humans” with rights and deals with them as mere “vote-banks” of people desperately dependent on its handouts for survival. “But our occupations and its autonomous organization removes their dependence on the government, gives the shack-dwellers the confidence to refuse to serve the ANC as its vote banks,” he maintained. This, he insised, is a threat to the power of ANC, which has in turn persecuted the movement since its inception.
The arrests following the said murder is a ploy at the center of which, Mohapi suspected, is an agent planted by the intelligence. “We will mention his name after due legal consultation,” he said.
Mohapi also added that the three members of the eKhenana branch currently in prison have informed the AbM that Bonono risks an assassination attempt in the prison if he happens to be lodged there.
Bonono, however, remains unfazed, Mohapi said, adding that his last words to the AbM members who visited him in police custody was, “In revolution, we know that such things happen. And that only gives me more strength to fight the oppressors.” He added that “Abahlali baseMjondolo masses will be at the Durban Magistrate court to support comrade George” on May 13.