Abahlali baseMjondolo and the fight of the organized poor against a hostile justice system

Months after being imprisoned on a murder charge, three leaders of the eKhenana Commune of Abahlali baseMjondolo have been finally granted bail. Their arrests are part of a lengthy history of violent persecution of the shack dwellers’ movement

February 07, 2023 by Tanupriya Singh
Abahlali baseMjondolo leaders Maphiwe Gasela, Siniko Miya and Landu Tshazi, welcomed by the movement after being released on bail. (Photo: Abahlali baseMjondolo) 

On Tuesday, January 31, members of South Africa’s militant shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) gathered at the Durban Magistrate’s Court as three leaders of its eKhenana Commune, Maphiwe Gasela, Siniko Miya, and Landu Tshazi, were finally granted bail. They had been charged and jailed in November 2022 in relation to a murder that took place in 2020. Prior to their arrest, the three had already spent extended periods of time in prison on bogus charges—all of which were later dropped. 

On November 17, 2022, Gasela, Miya and Tshazi were called in for questioning at the Durban Central police station. They were subsequently charged and imprisoned. 

The leaders were warned of charges against them several times by the Investigation Officer (IO) even before their arrest. “Each time they would go to court, during proceedings in other cases, the IO would threaten them, saying that he had another case in which he would arrest them,” Mqapheli George Bonono, AbM national vice-president, told Peoples Dispatch.  

By the end of December, their bail hearings had been adjourned four times, on grounds including the absence of the prosecutor or clerk in court, the affidavit submitted by the IO being unclear, and a lack of electricity or water on court premises. All this while, they were kept in the notorious Westville Prison. 

Despite the fact that they had voluntarily brought themselves in for questioning and had cooperated with the IO, they were not granted bail until last week. 

“You also do not know the clear facts of why the state is opposing the bail,” Bonono added. On top of that, the “IO brought in affidavits signed by people in the community opposing the bail, basically saying that the arrested leaders are dangerous, and that the people are witnesses and are fearing for their lives.”   

“When we get to court and find out who submitted these affidavits, it is the same people who in other cases have confessed to fabricating statements. How can the state continue to allow such people to vandalize our lives? Now we have to fight to prove our innocence,” Bonono said. 

As a condition of their bail, Gasela, Miya and Tshazi will now have to present themselves at a police station every Wednesday. 

‘The justice system is anti-poor’

“This is not a [criminal justice] system of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. It is a system that seeks to diminish and abuse those who are poor. It is a system that is anti-poor,” AbM said in a statement. “The justice system is even more hostile to the strong poor, the organized poor. We have seen this very clearly with the eKhenana Commune.” 

Founded in Cato Manor, Durban, in 2018, the eKhenana land settlement is organized as a cooperative, with a communally-managed kitchen, a vegetable garden, a poultry farm, and a tuck shop. In 2019, the Frantz Fanon school for political education was established on its premises. 

For embodying socialist politics and providing access to land, food, and housing in a province where 52% of the population was estimated to be poor in 2020, AbM has paid with the lives of its leaders, violent and illegal evictions, arbitrary arrests, and imprisonment. 

Since 2009, 24 leaders of the movement have been killed. There were four assassinations in 2022 alone, when three leaders were killed in eKhenana and one leader, Siyabonga Manqele, killed in the eNkanini settlement. Manqele was shot by masked policemen during a raid on the settlement and his wife Thandeka Sithunsa, another leader of the movement, was arrested in the raid. 

Between 2021 and 2022, several leaders and members of the eKhenana settlement were arrested on charges including murder. None has resulted in a conviction.  

Mere weeks before his assassination, 29-year-old Ayanda Ngila, who was the deputy chairperson of eKhenana, was granted bail, alongside Mnguni and Gasela, after being arrested in a murder case. 

In March 2021, Ngila, Mnguni and Tshazi were arrested in connection with another murder that had taken place in Cato Manor. They were released from the Westville Prison six months later, after the state’s witnesses confessed that they had given false testimonies. Just a short while later, in May, Bonono, Gasela and Miya were arrested and charged for supposedly conspiring to murder those witnesses. These charges were also dropped in October and the leaders were freed.

One of the state’s witnesses was Ntokozo Ngubane, the daughter of Samson Ngubane, a local leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Months later, in March 2022, Ntokozo, along with her brother Khaya Ngubane, led private goons in a violent attack on eKhenana. On March 8, AbM stated that Khaya Ngubane had, along with three other gunmen, come to the commune to kill Ayanda Ngila. Ngubane was later arrested. 

In May, 40-year-old Nokuthula Mabaso, the chairperson of eKhenana’s women’s league and a crucial part of its communal projects, was shot and killed—a day before she was set to appear in court to oppose bail for Khaya Ngubane. Samson Ngubane and his brother were arrested for Mabaso’s murder in July.  

In August, the commune’s chairperson, 28-year-old Lindokuhle Mnguni, was assassinated by two gunmen, again a day before he was set to appear in court to defend himself against the murder charge filed against him. According to eyewitnesses, his killers were part of the same group of gunmen, led by Khaya Ngubane, who had assassinated Ngila just months ago. 

In a statement on February 1, AbM denounced the fact that the movement had still not received justice for Mnguni’s assassination. “The police have video footage of the attackers but they have not acted,” its statement read. Meanwhile, AbM leaders were repeatedly forced to seek refuge in safe houses.

Defending eKhenana

In a key development on January 31, Ntokozo Ngubane was arrested by the police for destroying the communally-managed shop in the eKhenana Commune where produce from the garden and poultry projects were sold. This was just two weeks after another close associate of the Ngubane family, Siyabonga Mngadi, was arrested, AbM said. 

While AbM leaders have had to wait months in prison to even have their bail petitions be heard by the court, Ntokozo Ngubane was promptly granted bail on February 1 as the state did not raise an objection.

Meanwhile, during the proceedings in the case against Gasela, Miya, and Tshazi, it was found that Ntokozo Ngubane had written the affidavit without acknowledging that her father was Samson Ngubane, essentially presenting herself as an ordinary person, Bonono said.  

“We have to clarify to the court that these are people from outside eKhenana, and from the ruling party, that are against the Commune in Cato Manor… We submitted a petition as eKhenana saying that we are the community, and we want to welcome our comrades back,” he added. 

AbM has long warned that eKhenana has been targeted by the local ANC in an effort to drag the settlement’s land into the commercial real estate market, away from the communal system in which it is currently organized. 

“When you go to eKhenana, you see that the people who have occupied the land actually have a vision for it. It is clear that people from eKhenana are having fabricated charges imposed against them, they are getting killed just because they are defending the land,” Bonono said.  

The interests of private capital and the local ANC leadership have intersected, according to him. “There were people from business forums with affiliations to local ANC members in the area… When a new project came to the area, the same people who were playing a major role in these business forums were the ones sitting in the rooms where tenure systems and resource allocations for projects are decided.”

While there are already several apartment buildings around eKhenana, Bonono said, the people of the commune have resisted this process, determining that the land should have a social—as opposed to commercial—value. This has been met with deadly repression, and in the explicit targeting of eKhenana’s communal projects. This violence has also been legitimized through narratives that criminalize the movement and its leaders. 

“We are perceived as people who are ungoverned, who are grabbing land for no reason,” Bonono said. But what AbM is working towards today, he added, was to ensure “that the Black majority of this country, the poor people of this country, can exercise their right [enshrined in the constitution] to access the land that was stolen from them.” 

While AbM members and leaders continue to face threats against their lives, Bonono stressed that the people of eKhenana were still resisting, working to make sure that the commune does not fall apart, and taking steps to ensure their own security, “because we have seen that the police are not there to protect our members.” 

“Our comrades have said, even if they kill us, even if they jail us, it is socialism or death. We will continue to fight for socialism in our lifetime.” 

Also Read: An image of hope: Abahlali baseMjondolo’s fight for dignity and land, 17 years on