Charges against leaders of Shack Dwellers’ movement in South Africa dropped

Seven months after making the first round of arrests and failing to produce any evidence, the charges against all AbM members have been dropped, similar to previous cases persecuting its militants.

October 04, 2021 by Pavan Kulkarni
29 September 2021: Members of Abahlali baseMjondolo cyring tears of joy outside Durban magistrate court after Lindokuhle Mnguni, Lando Tshazi and Ayanda Ngila were freed. Days later, charges were dropped against the rest of the militants of the movement charged in the case. Photo: Mlungisi Mbele / New Frame

The criminal charges against George Bonono, Maphiwe Gasela and Siniko Miya –militants of the South Africa’s shack-dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) –  were dropped at a magistrate court in Durban on Monday, October 4. The three had been accused of conspiring to commit murder.

George Bonono, AbM’s deputy president, Maphiwe Gasela, the secretary of AbM’s branch in eKhenana occupation, and Siniko Miya, a member of this branch, were thus absolved, on the 16th anniversary of the movement’s founding in 2005.

Arrested in May, Bonono and Gasela were released on bail after spending two weeks in prison. But Miya was denied bail on the grounds that he had a case pending from before the organization of eKhenana occupation. Held in the notorious Westville prison for five months on charges the police eventually failed to substantiate, he was finally released from jail today.

AbM has called for an enquiry into abuse of police power, arguing that the collapse of the prosecutor’s case proves that it was a politically motivated attempt to harass the movement by the ruling ANC. It has also stressed on the need for reforms of the South African criminal justice system which readily renders itself to misuse by the ANC to grind dissent.

AbM’s activists have repeatedly faced arrests since its founding since 2005 and even suffered torture in holding cells. However, as the movement pointed out in a statement, “never once [has there] been a conviction in sixteen years because these charges are just a form of harassment against activists. It is often local councilors and their committees who point out the people to be arrested.”

“All that the prosecutor could say in response to the plain fact that there was no evidence was that the police required more time to find evidence,” the statement adds. “Surely there should be credible evidence before arrests are made, rather than arresting people and then keeping them in prison while looking for credible evidence.”

False witness borne against eKhenana branch leaders

The collapse of the prosecution’s case had already become evident on September 29, when the incarcerated chairperson, deputy-chairperson and the head of the youth league of AbM’s eKhenana occupation branch were released after six months in Westville prison. Their release followed confessions by witnesses of the state that they had provided false testimonies.

AbM branch leaders 27-year-old Lindokuhle Mnguni, 29-year-old Ayanda Ngila, and 33-year-old Landu Tshazi were arrested in mid-March and charged on the basis of false testimonies for the murder of Vuzi Shezi in Cato Manor. While arresting them, AbM said, the armed police were not wearing uniforms. Confronted by threatening armed men, Tshazi began to flee, whereupon he was shot at.

“The police shot at him while he was running away (unarmed and with his back to the police) and one of the police officers accidentally shot off his own finger. Tshazi suffered a broken leg during the arrest and on 18 March, when he was in hospital, Detective Subramoney threatened to force an unlicensed gun onto his hand and then arrest him for shooting the police officer who had shot off his own finger,” AbM said in its statement.

“Also in the hospital, Constable Shandu told Tshazi ‘If you come out you are committing suicide’. This was clearly a death threat. There needs to be a specific investigation into the threats made by Subramoney and Shandu,” the movement demanded.

Days after their arrests, AbM’s national deputy president, Bonono, “acting as a responsible leader, called an open meeting (of eKhenana residents).. to establish the facts of what had happened,” AbM recalled. Subsequently, on May 4, he was arrested, along with Gasela and Miya, on the accusation that he had conspired to kill witnesses against Mnhuni, Ngila and Tshazi.

“On the 21st May Mabongi Luthuli, a witness for the state, confessed in the Family Court to having borne false witness by lying in her witness statement. Her confession is on the court record. Why were the charges not immediately dropped after this?” AbM demands to know.

Subsequently, a few weeks ago, Luthuli, along with the state’s second witness, Ntokozo Ngubane, “whose father is a powerful person in the local ANC”, both gave sworn statements “admitting that they lied in the original statements”, on the basis of which the three branch leaders of eKhenana occupation were arrested.

When the trio were released on September 29, Mngunhi, the youngest of them, was required to appear in court the very next day in connection with another case where he was “one of 24 people who were arrested on a charge of ‘public violence’ in November 2018. These charges remain open despite the state’s failure to be able to prosecute.”

While the hearing of this case happened to be postponed, AbM stressed, “the fact that an activist can come out of prison after being detained for six months on one bogus charge and then be scheduled to get straight back in the dock on another bogus charge the next day shows just how threatening the self-organization and political autonomy of the poor is to the gangsters in the ANC.”

Self-organization, AbM argues, is essential for the poor to gain political autonomy, and overcome their reliance on handouts of the government, which the ruling ANC uses to keep the poor dependent and root out dissent amongst them. Informed by this position, AbM members – consisting of about 100,000 poor people in urban areas – occupy land in towns and cities and build makeshift shacks, with no assistance, or permission, from the government. These shacks are self-connected to water and electricity.

Self organization and political autonomy in eKhenana

The organization’s occupation in eKhenana had stood out in that it had applied this principle of self-organization, not only to the struggle for housing, but also to the struggle for livelihood. With a communally operated poultry farm and food garden – and a tuck shop where this produce is sold along with cakes and other consumables prepared by the residents – the occupation’s members were becoming increasingly autonomous.

This communal project was built while the occupation, since its founding in 2018, has been enduring relentless illegal eviction drives, which leave their shacks and community centers bulldozed and burnt down. Residents are often injured by armed police and private security guards hired by the local administration to assist in the demolitions. Even the local mafia has allegedly been deployed on many occasions to threaten the occupation.

While the occupation continued to thrive despite this continuous crackdown, its leaders, Mnguni, Ngila, and Tshazi were arrested and framed wrongfully in this murder case. Even after they were released with all charges dropped on September 29, the police sought to continue the persecution of Bonono, Gasela and Miya, as the prosecutor dragged on, seeking more time to find evidence to substantiate the charge of consipiring to murder the witnesses.

After failing to produce any evidence, seven months after making the first round of arrests, the charges against all AbM members have been dropped, as has happened in the previous cases persecuting its militants.

“The police and the National Prosecuting Authority must be compelled to answer for their outrageous actions. We cannot tolerate a situation where local ANC thugs can misuse the criminal justice system to have activists arrested and jailed. We will be instructing our lawyers to sue,” AbM said in its statement.

“We are also calling for serious and effective reform of the criminal justice system which has routinely functioned as a mechanism to repress activists since the emergence of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign in 2000. There needs to be a full inquiry into the sustained abuse of the criminal justice system to repress activists over more than twenty years.”