South Africa’s shack-dwellers’ movement to protest during bail hearing of accused in activist’s murder

Samson Ngubane, allegedly a local leader of the ruling ANC, is under arrest for the assassination of Nokuthula Mabaso, a leader of Abahlali baseMjondolo’s eKhenana occupation in Durban

August 05, 2022 by Pavan Kulkarni
Slain activist Nokuthula Mabaso, centre, at the eKhenana Commune in Cato Manor, Durban. Photo: Nomfundo Xolo

South Africa’s militant shack-dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), will be demonstrating on Friday, August 5, at Durban magistrate court to oppose the bail application of Samson Ngubane. Allegedly a local leader of the ruling ANC, Ngubane was arrested along with his brother on July 26 for the murder of Nokuthula Mabaso, an activist in AbM’s eKhenana occupation in Cato Manor, Durban.

Other residents of eKhenana occupation, who have been allegedly been facing repeated intimidation by gunmen since her murder, fear their lives will be further endangered if Samson Ngubane is released on bail.

Mbaso, a 40-year-old mother of four, was gunned down on May 5, the evening before she was to appear in the Durban court to oppose the bail of Samson’s son, Khaya Ngubane. She was the key witness against Khaya, who was arrested for the murder of AbM eKhenana branch’s deputy chairperson, Ayanda Ngila, earlier this year on March 8.

At the time of his murder, Ngila was out on bail. He had first been imprisoned in March 2021 on false charges of murder, along with the chairperson and the head of the branch’s youth league. AbM’s national vice-president George Bonono had also been subsequently imprisoned on the charge of conspiring to murder the state’s witnesses against Ngila.

All charges were dropped and all the incarcerated AbM members were released by September after it was proven in court that the two witnesses of the state had given false testimonies. Among them was Ntokozo Ngubane, who is the sister of Khaya Ngubane and the daughter of Samson Ngubane.

Barely four months after his release from prison, Ngila was re-arrested along with two other members, and charged with another murder. They were released on bail at the end of February, after the police failed to provide any evidence.

A leader during a time of crisis

Amid this state-persecution of eKhenana’s leadership, its profitably-run communal projects ground to a halt. These included a vegetable garden, poultry and a tuck shop, which, AbM says, had evolved the occupation into a commune and set it on road to self-sustainability.

It was during this crisis that Mabaso rose to leadership by taking charge to revive these projects. Two months after Ngila was murdered, Mabaso was gunned down while returning home after a meeting to finalize the organizational details of the demonstration the following day at the Durban court where she was to oppose Khaya Ngubane’s bail.

She is the 23rd activist the movement has lost to assassination in its 17 years on the frontlines of the struggle for the right to housing of the urban poor – occupying lands, building shacks and self-connecting them to electricity and water supply, in defiance of government and capital.

‘Our lives will be in further danger if Samson Ngubane is given bail’

The affidavit she had prepared to oppose Khaya’s bail had also mentioned that during one of his previous hearings, Samson Ngubane, identified in AbM’s previous statements as N.S Ngubane, had threatened AbM members in court premises that “there will be bloodshed in eKhenana.”

“Since her funeral, gunmen have been frequently coming near the commune and firing in the air. The police, who are always keen on arresting our comrades on false charges, never respond to our distress calls. They say a patrol is on the way, but no residents have ever seen these patrols arrive,” Bonono told Peoples Dispatch.

“The situation is still very tense. Our lives will be in further danger if Samson Ngubane is given bail,” he said, showing around on a video-call the AbM office where its activists, mostly young women, were engrossed in preparing the placards for the demonstration on Friday.

Vegetables, chickens and bullets

Following Mabaso’s murder, the communal projects, which were an important source of income and food for the commune’s members, once again came to a halt. “At a meeting in the commune’s Frantz Fanon political school a couple of weeks ago, the future of these projects were discussed. Members concluded it is extremely dangerous to run them. Anyone who takes charge of developing them risks getting assassinated,” Bonono said.

“It was decided in this meeting to close down the tuck shop where commune members sold fast food. This shop towards the road was an easy target. Assassins could easily walk in as customers,” he added.

It was a hard decision to close down this means of eking out a livelihood, at a time when the officially admitted unemployment rate in South Africa is nearly 35% – over 50% among the youth. “There is fear – this is a matter of life and death,” Bonono explained. Nevertheless, he said that despite the risks, “the members decided in the meeting to not close down the poultry and the vegetable garden,” where Ngila had fallen to bullets while working on fixing irrigation pipes.

Bonono remarked, “we now have a fence around the vegetable garden” – a modicum of security to grow food under the threat of bullets in a country where more than one in ten are suffering hunger. 70% of the country’s households had come to depend on government aid to avoid hunger in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

By providing a source of income and nutrition in such dire times, the communal projects in eKhenana commune, AbM maintains, have shown the urban poor a way forward to liberating themselves from dependence on ANC’s patronage for survival.

Perceiving this as a major threat, the ANC-led government in Kwazulu Natal province, has orchestrated a campaign against the eKhenana commune, involving the police, local municipality and hitmen, AbM alleges. Calls by Peoples Dispatch to ANC headquarters to seek the ruling party’s comment on these accusations were not answered.