The hearing of the bail application of George Mqapheli Bonono, the deputy president of the militant shack-dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) in South Africa, was postponed once again on Monday, May 17.
The next hearing has been scheduled for May 20, when AbM members will once again step out in hundreds to demonstrate in solidarity with Bonono who they believe is being framed on trumped-up charges. On Monday too, AbM members staged protests outside the National Prosecuting Authority in Johannesburg and the Magistrate Courts in Cape Town and Durban.
Accused of “conspiring to commit murder,” Bonono was arrested on May 4, along with Siniko Miya, a member of AbM’s eKhenana branch in Cato Manor, Durban. This branch’s secretary, Maphiwe Gasela, a mother in her mid-20s who was in hospital caring for her sick one-year old baby at the time of their arrests, was charged later on May 12. She was then arrested and separated from her child.
“These arrests take place against a backdrop of unrelenting violence against the residents of the eKhenana settlement, carried out by the eThekwini Municipality’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit together with Calvin and Family Security, which is a private security company contracted by the Municipality,” the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI) of South Africa pointed out in a statement on May 17.
Condemning the “abuse of the criminal justice system,” the statement adds that despite a moratorium on evictions during the highest level of lockdown last year, “residents of eKhenana settlement were attacked, had their homes unlawfully demolished and their property burned on different occasions. These recent arrests also form a part of the long history of formal and informal forms of state-sanctioned violence and harassment that Abahlali have been subjected to for many years.”
Threats to Bonono’s life in prison
Miya and Gasel both stand trial along with Bonono – a leading organizer of this movement which has been on the forefront of the struggle for the urban poor’s right to housing in South Africa. Until their next appearance in court, they will remain in Durban’s Westville prison.
The three were shifted from police lock-up to prison on May 13, when their bail hearing was originally scheduled. But “the courtroom was changed at the last moment, and the hearing for his bail was postponed” to May 17, AbM’s spokesperson Thapelo Mohapi told Peoples Dispatch.
When the judge decided to move them to jail, “we had raised concerns about threats to George’s life. The judge had assured us that he will be safe because he will be held in isolation due to the COVID situation. However, when we went to meet him in prison, he was not in the section where the isolated prisoners were held. George told us that he is being held with hardcore criminals,” Mohapi said.
He maintains, however, that the prison holds many activists and that Bonono is confident they will watch out for his safety inside. “But we remain worried. At least 18 of the movement’s leaders have been assassinated since 2009,” he said.
On May 17, the judge conceded the prosecutor’s request to postpone the bail hearing once more. The reason given by the prosecutor for seeking such a request was that “the Investigating Officer was not available as he was testifying in another matter in High Court and that.. the affidavit that she has from the investigating officer was, in her (own) words, ‘not to my liking’,” read a statement by the AbM.
Mohapi claimed that there is no case against Bonono and hence the prosecution is buying time by seeking postponements. “The common practice of the police is to first arrest and then investigate. They do it because they have no evidence,” he said, adding that the prosecutor nevertheless insisted that Bonono must be held in prison, characterizing him as a ‘danger’ to the society.
15 years of struggle
“George has struggled for 15 years for the right of the poor to have a roof over their heads; how can he be a danger to society?” asks Mohapi. Since its inception in 2005, AbM has been organizing the urban poor to occupy unused lands in areas close to economic centers where they stand some chance to earn a livelihood.
Members of AbM build makeshift shacks on these lands using their own collective labor, and connect them to water and electricity supply lines without any assistance or permission from the government. Many such settlements also have communal poultries, creches, churches, etc.
One such settlement that Bonono had played an important role in organizing is at the eKhenana occupation. The settlement continues to hold ground despite all the state-violence against its residents, highlighted by SIRI in its above statement.
Earlier this year, three leading members of AbM’s eKhenana occupation were arrested in connection with a murder in Cato Manor. After several postponements, their trial has been scheduled for June, Mohapi said.
Following this, Bonono had held a meeting with the eKhenana residents. The AbM maintains that the meeting was convened on March 21 with the purpose of ascertaining the facts regarding the murder that led to the arrest of the three members.
The police, on the other hand, claim that the meeting was convened on March 14 and allege that Bonono and the two other arrested members from AbM’s eKhenana branch had conspired in this meeting to kill a witness to the murder. AbM described the “claim that Bonono called an open meeting of residents to plan a murder” as “bizarre”.
The police claim to have two witnesses they will eventually produce as evidence. “As Advocate Howse (Bonono’s lawyer) noted in court, the fact that two people have made affidavits hardly constitutes serious evidence when the rest of the people in the meeting can all testify that their claims are, in Howse’s words, ‘a pack of lies’,” AbM said in its statement.
A history of repression and resistance
“This is not the first time that false witness has been borne against us,” AbM stated, adding that “Over the last 15 years, hundreds of our members have been arrested on ridiculous criminal charges and then often forced to come to court 6 or 7 times before the charges are dropped.”
Soon after the AbM’s formation, a wave of repression was unleashed against the organization in 2006. Its president S’bu Zikode, who recently won the Per Anger Prize for defending human rights, was arrested at the time, along with the then deputy president Philani Zungu. They were both allegedly tortured in custody before being released as no charges against them could be substantiated.
“The picture of South Africa as a democracy led by Nelson Mandela is an eyewash for the world,” Mohapi says. He argues that the African National Congress (ANC) government, which inherited the economic disparity engineered by the apartheid regime and kindled it further under its rule, is a “repressive state trying to criminalize all efforts by poor to organize themselves outside of the party’s control.”
“(S)tanding up to oppression comes with a serious price,” said Bishop Emeritus Rubin Phillip of the Anglican Church, in his statement of solidarity.
“Abahlali baseMjondolo has suffered repeated waves of violent oppression. There have been a number of assassinations. There have also been a large number of arrests on trumped up criminal charges, charges that are usually not brought to trial. When criminal charges have been brought to trial they have not withstood judicial scrutiny.” according to the Bishop.
Commending Bonono for his courage, he added that “We need to move away from the safety of the shore.. We need to begin to take real risks in the way we challenge those who are in authority, and rediscover the courage and resilience that are required to meet the challenges of these times.”
Several more individuals and progressive organizations in South Africa and across the globe have come forward in support of AbM.
Meanwhile, reiterating its commitment to continue the struggle for the right to housing of the urban poor in South Africa’s cities and towns, AbM has urged its supporters to build international pressure by undertaking solidarity actions, including demonstrations outside South African embassies in countries around the world.
All images courtesy Siyabonga Mbhele.