South African state escalates repression against shack dwellers’ movement

In the wake of the assassination of two activists from Abahlali baseMjondolo, six members of the movement have been charged with murder

March 27, 2022 by Pavan Kulkarni
Abahlali baseMjondolo has been targetted with heavy repression and violence by state security forces as well as thugs from the ruling ANC party. Photo: Abahlali baseMjondolo

The six members of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) who were beaten, arrested and pressed with murder charges, which in the past have proven false, will remain in the custody of South African police until April 6, when the hearing of their bail application has been scheduled.

They are all residents of AbM’s eNkanini occupation in Cato Crest, Durban, where the AbM members have built over 3,000 shacks to house urban poor. Electricity and water supply in AbMs occupations are connected by the residents themselves, with no assistance, or permission, from the state.

The charges against the six members were pressed on March 20, when the AbM held a funeral for one its murdered leaders, Ayanda Ngila. Three of them were arrested a day ago while returning from the funeral of another activist killed by the police. The three others were arrested earlier on March 11 by heavily armed and masked police who conducted a night-raid of the occupation.

“They first went straight to Vusi Mazula’s home, broke through the gate and kicked in the door to gain entry. They kicked him demanding that he give them an unlicensed firearm which they claimed he had. When he told them that he did not have an unlicensed firearm they continued to assault him, and then arrested him and dragged him with them as they went to Mmiseli Khondlo’s home,” AbM said in a statement after the raid.

Khondlo was similarly beaten and arrested. Police finally barged into the house of Thandeka Sithunsa, who is the secretary of women’s league in AbM eNkanini branch. She was allegedly beaten and dragged out of her house in front of her children.

Her husband, Siyabonga Manqele, who was not home at the time, came rushing when he realized she was being arrested. “The police simply shot him dead. No questions asked. He was not armed,” said AbM’s national spokesperson, Thalepo Mohapi. “Other residents who came out in protest were fired at with tear gas and stun grenades.”

“Comrade Siyabonga was in charge of the security inside in this occupation. He used to patrol the occupation to ensure there was no criminal infiltration,” Mohapi told Peoples Dispatch.

Mazula, Khondlo and grieving Sithunsa were then taken into custody in Durban Central Police Station.

A week later, on March 19, a funeral was held for murdered Siyabonga Manqele, who was hailed as a martyr in the struggle for land-rights of the urban poor. After the funeral, the bus in which members of AbM members of eNkanini occupation were returning was stopped by more than 100 armed policemen.

Police forced the members out of the bus at gunpoint and made them all lie down on the road while they were searched. “Again, nothing was found. Yet, they arrested three more members without stating any reasons,” Mohapi said.

Second funeral

The following day, on March 20, when all the six arrested members were charged with murder, another AbM activist, Ayanda Ngila was laid to rest. Ngila too had been falsely accused of murder and imprisoned twice.

Ngila was the deputy chairperson of the eKhenana occupation, close to eNkanini, in Cato Manor, Durban. The eKhenana occupation is the pride of the shack-dwellers’ movement, whose national leaders often speak of the strides towards self-sustainability made there through communal projects such as the poultry farm, vegetable garden, and tuck shop. Along with providing training for running such projects, the Frantz Fanon school in this occupation also imparts political education.

Such efforts at collective organization of the urban poor to sustain themselves independently of the ruling party’s patronage have been treated by the ANC as threats since AbM’s inception in 2005.

21 leaders and members of this organization have been killed by policemen or by hitmen, allegedly at the behest of the ANC. Numerous have been injured, including with bullets, during armed demolition drives conducted by police and the Anti-Land Invasion Unit, which invade communities and raze down the homes of residents. These demolitions were escalated during the lockdown, despite the moratorium on evictions.

eKhenana was among AbM’s occupations which faced most such attacks. Nevertheless, not only were the demolished shacks rebuilt by members, but the communal projects thrived and were run profitably, until the arrest of the occupation’s leaders a year ago in March 2021.

Murder charges prove false

29-year old Ayanda Ngila, along with 27-year old Lindokuhle Mnguni and 33 year old Landu Shazi, were accused of being responsible for a murder in another part of the city and incarcerated in the notorious Westville prison.

Subsequently, in May, Maphiwe Gasela, the secretary of the AbM’s eKhenana branch, and another member, Siniko Miya, were also arrested along with AbM’s national deputy president, George Bonono, on charges of having conspired to kill the witnesses. They were later released on bail.

In September, after the police witnesses confessed to having given false testimony, Ayanda Ngila and the two other leaders accused of murder were also released from prison, after six months of incarceration on false charges.

The leaders went right back to work to once again stabilize the communal projects. By January 2022, however, the police once again arrested Ngila, along with Mnguni and Gasela. This time, they were blamed for another murder.

The trio were released on bail about a month ago in the last week of February when the police could not show evidence for the charges they pressed. Ngila wasted no time in getting back to work following his release. He was laboring on the vegetable garden to fix the irrigation pipes when he was shot seven times by four gunmen and killed on March 8.

According to witnesses, the lead gunman was Khaya Ngubane, the son of the local chief of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), N S Ngubane. AbM members of this occupation had already filed a case against Khaya Ngubane a day earlier, for leading the goons who had attacked the residents on March 6.

The attack took place hours after AbM’s monthly general assembly was held at Ekhenana. Ngila and the other imprisoned members had been welcomed back by this assembly, attended also by the movement’s national leaders. Soon after the assembly, Khaya Ngubane led an attack on the occupation, during which two residents, including Siniko Miya who was imprisoned last year on false charges of conspiring to murder, were assaulted by goons with axes. They were hospitalized due to their injuries.

However, the police did not arrest Khaya Ngubane when the complaint was filed the following day. Just a day after the complaint was filed which the police did not act on, he is alleged to have shot Ayanda Ngila dead. To date, neither Ngubane nor anyone else have been arrested for Ngila’s murder, complained Mohapi. “There is no eagerness from the police to deal with this case,” he said. “The police are only arresting activists from Abahlali for cases that are trumped up.”

Solidarity from South Africa and beyond

“We are shocked and disgusted and deeply saddened by the assassination of this working class leader, who was a hero to the community and to all the members of Abahlali baseMjondolo,” said Phakamile Hlubi Majola, the spokesperson of the country’s single largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA).

“We stand in solidarity with them and we say: Defend eKhenana! Defend Abahlali baseMjondolo!”, she added in the union’s statement on the day of his funeral.

From neighboring Swaziland, where organizations waging an anti-monarchist, pro-democracy struggle are also facing heavy state repression, the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) and the Swaziland Rural Women’s Assembly expressed solidarity.

United Textile Employees (UNITE) in Lesotho, the Socialist Platform of Zimbabwe and the Socialist Party of Zambia also issued solidarity statements, paying tributes to Ngila.

‘The slow Marikana’

“Yesterday we buried Ayanda Ngila in Port St. Johns. The day before we buried Siyabonga Manqele in eShowe. Ayanda was murdered by ANC thugs and Siyabonga was murdered by the police. This is the reality of how the ruling party and the state respond when the oppressed insist on the recognition of our human dignity and yet today they tell us that we must celebrate our human rights,” AbM said in a statement on March 21, the 62nd anniversary of Sharpeville massacre, which the ANC declared as Human Rights Day.

“The blood of those who sacrificed their lives for us to be free in Sharpeville 62 years ago has been betrayed by the ANC,” its statement added, explaining that while the “whole world knows about the Marikana massacre…there is also the slow Marikana of people being constantly killed by the police during evictions, protests and militarized raids on land occupations.”

“Today we salute the martyrs of Sharpeville, the martyrs of Marikana, the martyrs in our movement and all the others who died for standing up for dignity and justice, whether under apartheid or under the ANC.”