Another leader of South Africa’s shack dwellers movement murdered in Durban

Nokuthula Mabaso – a 40 year old mother of four leading AbM’s eKhenana commune – was gunned down the evening before she was supposed to appear in court to oppose the bail of the local ANC chief’s son, who is accused of murdering another eKhenana leader in March

May 09, 2022 by Pavan Kulkarni
SA-Abahlali murder

Another leader of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), South Africa’s militant shack dwellers’ movement fighting for land rights of the urban poor, was assassinated on Thursday, May 5. Nokuthula Mabaso, a 40 year-old mother of four leading the AbM’s commune at the eKhenana occupation in Cato Manor, Durban, was the third activist of the movement to be killed in less than two months. 

Described by the AbM as “a soldier in our movement who ensured that more than a hundred families have land and roof over their heads,” Mabaso was gunned down on the evening before she was supposed to appear in court to oppose the bail of Khaya Ngubane. 

Khaya is the son of the local ANC chief, N.S. Ngubane, and is accused by eyewitnesses in the eKhenana commune of assassinating their deputy chairperson, 29-year-old Ayanda Ngila, on March 8. Khaya Ngubane is also accused of attacking and injuring two other members of eKhenana with an axe two days before Ngila’s assassination. 

Mabaso was a key witness to Ngila’s murder

Mabaso, a key witness to his murder, “had prepared an affidavit” which “explains that it would not be safe for the community, and especially for witnesses to the axe attack and the murder, if Ngubane was granted bail,” AbM said in a statement. 

The affidavit further mentioned that N. S. Ngubane had already threatened the AbM members in the court premises on one of the previous hearings that “there will be bloodshed in eKhenana.”

And bloodshed there was, before she could make it to court. On her way back to her shack from a meeting with her comrades who had planned to go to court the next morning, Mabaso was shot at around 7:30 p.m outside her home, with six bullets – four in her back, one in her chest and one in her stomach.

Police fail to respond till two hours after murder

The police at the Cato Manor station only 500 meters away from where she was shot “confirmed that they heard gunshots, but it took two hours for them to arrive at the scene” despite repeated calls, AbM said in a statement. 

Deputy President of the AbM George Bonono, who stays close to eKhenana, went to the police station immediately after he was informed. Enroute, his car was stopped by the police because a headlight was not working. 

“They were writing me a ticket even as I kept explaining that it is urgent, that someone has been shot and is dying. I told them we have been calling the police station but we are not getting a response. I asked for assistance. They refused and told me to go to the nearest police station, even though they were not far away from the site of murder,” he told Peoples Dispatch.

At the station, the police refused to accompany him to eKhenana because there were only two of them, he said. “I asked them why every time members of Abahlali are murdered, the police is unwilling to respond. Then I drove on to Mabaso, but she was lying dead there already. There was nothing we could do to save her,” he said.

‘A brave woman who took charge when the leaders were being hounded’

Bonono remembers her as “a brave woman” who did not hesitate in the face of danger. “Every time we file a case or an affidavit against illegal evictions by the municipality, it needs to have names. Those giving names are at risk. Mabaso was the one who would always take the lead and volunteer her name,” he recollected.

“She was a very quiet woman,” he added. “You would never hear her raising her voice. But she was in action everywhere. You would see her with her hands in the mud working on the communal vegetable garden, you would see her in the poultry, you would see her in the kitchen making sure everyone in the commune has something to eat, you would see her in rounding up all the kids and making sure they are taken care of.”        

These communal projects like food garden, poultry and the tuck shop, helping to sustain its residents, is what makes AbM’s occupation in eKhenana a commune. “She played a key role in.. turning the occupation into a Commune,” AbM’s statement noted.

Her leadership came to the fore when leaders of the commune were arrested last year. Ayanda Ngila, along with two other leaders of AbM’s eKhenana branch, were arrested in March 2021 and charged with a murder that had occurred elsewhere in the city.

Subsequently, in May, two other activists of the branch, along with Bonono, were arrested and accused of conspiring to murder the witnesses against Ngila and others. The case proved to be fabricated and fell apart in October that year after the witnesses of State confessed in court that they had given false testimonies. 

Among the two witnesses was Ntokozo Ngubane – sister of Ngila’s alleged assassin Khaya Ngubane and daughter of N. S. Ngubane who had threatened “bloodshed in eKhenana” before Mabaso’s murder. 

After the murder case thus fell apart, Ngila was re-arrested along with two others in January 2022, accused of another murder, and released on bail in the last week of February after the police failed to provide any evidence. In March, a year after his first arrest, he was gunned down while out on bail. 

During this period when the leadership of the eKhenana branch were being hounded, the profitably-run communal projects, which were a lifeline to the residents of this commune, began to suffer. “It was Mabaso who at the time took charge and ensured that these projects to sustain the commune survived,” Bonono said. “But every time a leader emerges in our movement, they are arrested with false charges, and even murdered if they do not break,” he added.

Mabaso too was arrested and imprisoned on the charges of assaulting someone. The police eventually dropped the case after it became evident in court that they had no case to make against her. After Ngila’s assassination, Mabaso “was brave in collecting all the information on the various cases that would have led to the arrest of N. S. Ngubane,” AbM said.

“We have no doubt that the local ANC in the area, led by this unscrupulous pastor N.S Ngubane, is behind the assassinations of Ayanda (Ngila) and Nokuthula (Mabaso),” its statement affirmed.

“We have built a Commune in which, according to the principles of Abahlalism, land is not bought and sold and shacks are not rented. The local ANC wants the land in eKhenana to be used for private profit and not for communal purposes. The ANC is threatened by a woman who has led the occupation and continued with the Commune despite the severe repression over the years and when other leaders are in jail, in hiding or have been assassinated,” it added.

Leaders from other branches of AbM, along with the national leaders including Bonono and national president S’bu Zikode, visited eKhenana to pay her respects and proceeded to her family home on May 7. On Sunday, May 8, at the monthly general assembly of AbM held in Durban, the delegates paid tribute to Mabaso and vowed to continue the struggle for land-rights of the urban poor, in the course of which AbM has “lost 23 comrades to assassination” since 2009.