On Friday, October 1, a magistrate court in Durban hearing the charges against Mqapheli George Bonono – deputy-president of South Africa’s militant shack-dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) – adjourned the matter until Monday. Bonono was arrested in May along with two other members of the organization and has been out on bail. He and his fellow militants have been accused of conspiring to kill witnesses to a murder in Cato Manor in Durban in March, a charge they have categorically denied.
Earlier, on Wednesday, three leaders of AbM’s eKhenana occupation branch – 27 year old Lindokuhle Mnguni, 29 year old Ayanda Ngila, and 33 year old Landu Shazi – were released from the notorious Westville prison at the order of the same court. This was after charges of murder were withdrawn against them. They had spent six months in prison awaiting trial.
The release of the three militants came after two witnesses, allegedly connected to the ruling ANC’s local structure, confessed to having given false testimonies in the case. The three eKhenana occupation leaders were arrested on the basis of these testimonies on March 16, after the murder of one Vuzi Shezi in Cato Manor. Following their arrest, on March 21, Mqapheli Bonono had organized an open meeting of the residents in order to ascertain the facts of the case.
Accusing Bonono of having conspired in this open meeting to kill the witnesses, the police on May 4, arrested him as well, along with Siniko Miya, another member of AbM’s eKhenana branch, and the branch’s secretary, Maphiwe Gasela, a mother in her mid-20s. “Miya was not even at this meeting, and the participants in the meeting can attest to its actual content, including the contributions of Bonono and Gasela,” AbM maintains.
Despite raising concerns that Bonono’s life was in danger, he was moved from police custody to prison on May 13, where the land and housing rights activist was held with those convicted of violent crimes. The movement maintains that at least 18 of its leaders have been assassinated since 2009.
“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,” AbM had said in a statement after his arrest.
After repeated postponement of his bail plea, Bonono, along with Gasela, was released from prison on bail. Miya, however, was denied bail on the grounds that he had another case pending since before he had joined the AbM, and was returned to his jail cell after the hearing adjourned on Friday.
Bonono’s bail terms prohibit him from entering the eKhenana occupation, in the organization of which he had played a crucial role. As in the case of other land occupations by the AbM, its members in eKhenana had built the makeshift shacks, and connected them to water and electric supply with no assistance from the government. Members also build churches and creches in their settlements.
“The ANC government fears the autonomy of the poor”
What made the eKhenana occupation stand out was the successful community project and the Frantz Fanon school, where resident-members are trained, not only in running these collectives, but also in leftist political ideology which guides the movement’s understanding and praxis.
The project here includes a poultry farm and a food garden, whose produce are used both to feed the members and to sell in the market. Along with cakes, chips and other consumables prepared in the commune, the produce is sold at the ‘tuck shop’, which is also operated communally.
“A portion of the profits of this shop is allocated to help the families in distress; another portion to buy supplies needed to continue production. And the remainder is distributed equally among the members according to the labor they contribute,” Thapelo Mohapi, AbM’s spokesperson, told Peoples Dispatch.
But with bail pleas of Mnguni, Tshazi and Ngila repeatedly denied, all the money made through this cooperative “has been spent on legal fees and to support their families.” This has severely affected the project. While the poultry farm managed to continue functioning, work on the food garden stopped.
“This is precisely what the ANC government wanted to do. Our food sovereignty approach had enabled the poor in the settlement to survive autonomously, without having to rely on the government handouts. The ANC fears this autonomy of the poor more than anything else,” he said.
However, with the release of the leaders of AbM’s eKhenana branch, “the comrades are picking up the pieces and rebuilding what the government tried to destroy,” he added. “I am certain they will not back down. I am confident that they will increase the produce from poultry and garden, and run the shop successfully. We will show that it is possible to live with dignity, without being dependent on the government for survival,” he said, adding that the work on the food garden resumed on the very day of their release.
Their release came only weeks after the witnesses, Mabongi Luthuli and Ntokozo Ngubane, “made statements to the Investigating Officer [IO].. stating that they had lied in their original statements. Ngubane admitted that she was in fact in central Durban at the time at which Shezi was murdered in Cato Manor,” AbM said in a statement.
“Luthuli has admitted that she was also not at the scene when Shezi was murdered, but was phoned by Mazwi Ndwandwe to go to the scene and to then make a false witness statement,” AbM said. “We have been told that when Ndwandwe heard that the IO was going to dismiss the case as there was no evidence, he begged him to keep the case, and even offered a bribe.” Ndwandwe, AbM claims, is closely associated with R2K, an NGO that is known to have been penetrated in the past by state intelligence.
“The ANC thought we would be destroyed if our leadership was arrested!”
“The ANC thought we would be destroyed if our leadership was arrested,” Mohapi said. His confidence that the eKhenana occupation will endure nevertheless comes from its experience since its founding in 2018 of facing attacks by police, the ‘Anti-land invasion unit’, private security forces hired by the local administration and, on many occasions, allegedly by the local mafia.
Even during the lockdown due to the COVID pandemic, when there was a moratorium against evictions, settlements on AbM’s occupations, in particular the one in eKhenana, had come under repeated attacks from the state, which has left scores injured.
The debris left behind by the demolitions carried out here using batons, bullets and bulldozers, were often burnt down to ensure that the shack-building materials – mostly corrugated sheets of metal – are not reused. However, AbM members continued to rebuild these shacks and mobilize, their everyday lives serving as acts of resistance.
Ahead of the next hearing for George Bonono, Maphiwe Gasela and Siniko Miya, AbM remains confident that the case against them too will collapse. Speaking to New Frame on Wednesday, AbM president said, “There is no doubt that that case, too, will fall away.”