With malice aforethought
16 April 2014 16:07 (South Africa)
South Africa

KZN: Anatomy of an assassination

  • Niki Moore
  • South Africa
niki-assassination-subbedM.jpg

Nkululeko Gwala was a loyal member of the ANC in Durban. But he really didn't know when to keep his mouth shut. He was expelled from the party for speaking out against corruption. And when this failed to silence him, his enemies tried twelve bullets on a dark winter night. By NIKI MOORE.

S'bu Zikode was the last person to speak to Nkululeko Gwala on 26 June 2013. “He phoned me several times,” said S'bu, “he wanted to see me urgently that night. He said he had evidence of corruption and he wanted to give it to me to keep in a safe place. He knew that his house was not safe. But I said, let's meet tomorrow morning. Early. Nothing can happen. Come to my office tomorrow morning.”

But something did happen. Nkululeko (34) was shot dead from behind at point-blank range while walking home from the local shebeen where he had been watching soccer. The two suspects who were arrested and then released, have been threatening community members with reprisals.

Gwala's murder made headlines because a few hours before he was killed, a senior ANC politician told a public meeting that Gwala was a trouble-maker, and should be removed.

A little over a month earlier, community member Thembinkosi Qumbela had been shot in a similar fashion. In Qumbela's case, there have been no arrests, and no headlines.

Both of these men worked closely with members of a social movement called Abahlali Basemjondolo (ABM). ABM is a group of concerned individuals whose main aim is to make sure that the government delivers houses according to their Constitutional mandate.

“It is written in the Constitution that everyone in South Africa has the right to adequate shelter,” says ABM President Mzwakhe Mdlalose. “But this is not happening. And the main reason it is not happening is because of corruption.”

ABM is not interested in being part of the political spectrum. Despite rising membership levels, they are not seeking votes or government representation. In fact, they encourage their members to abstain from voting at all.

When asked why, Mdlalose says they have lost faith in the political system.

“We need to remain a pressure group to make sure that elected representatives remain honest and effective, and fulfil their mandate,” he says, adding rather gloomily, “We have found that anyone who gets elected, becomes corrupted right away.”

Since 2007 there have been approximately 36 anti-corruption whistle-blowers who have been assassinated in KZN. In the majority of these cases, these were people within the ruling ANC party who wanted to speak out against corruption. And in many cases, the corruption concerned the building and allocation of houses.

Housing the peripatetic poor in South Africa is an extremely complicated subject. According to ABM, when squatters invade a piece of land, the first people who arrive lay claim to the place, demarcate their own areas, and then become 'shacklords' – i.e. they sublet parts of their 'claim' to newly-arrived 'renters' (in Durban, the shacklords are mainly local, the 'renters' are from the Eastern Cape). If the municipality - usually in good faith - begins to negotiate with these residents about providing houses, they talk to the 'shacklords' who might only make up a fifth of the total population of the settlement. The shacklords are encouraged to evict their 'tenants' and take up possession of their houses, leaving more than a quarter of the original residents back at square one. It's a first-come first-served system that is intrinsically unfair, as neither the shacklords nor the tenants actually have any claim to the land. It leads to internecine violence and protests and a completely arbitrary housing allocation. As a result, many houses end up in the possession of wealthy, politically-connected businesspeople who rent them out.

That is problem number one. The second problem is that the entire housing process is riddled with corruption. The fabulously ephemeral Manase Report, which alleged wide-scale corruption in the Ethekwini municipality, identified the housing department as the most problematic. It's not difficult to see why.

Here's how housing tenders work (and this is based on a real example, with detail supplied by whistle-blowers): the municipality issues a tender of R300 million for 4,500 houses. This works out to a decent price of R65,000 per home. The person who gets this tender, invariably a political buddy, takes R100 million for themselves, and appoints a sub-contractor. Who now has a budget of R45,000 per house. It is extremely likely that he will help himself to R10 million or so and appoint a further subcontractor, and so it goes. The supplier, knowing that he is dealing with a porous government tender, will double or triple his prices for materials. At the end of the day, the house will have actually cost R20,000 to build and will have crumbling walls and a leaking roof. A few bribes have been paid to housing inspectors to look the other way (or they are threatened to keep quiet), and in many cases the full payment has been made to the tenderer long before the houses have even been finished. Essential elements like drainage, ventilation and run-off have often been ignored or left incomplete.

It is because of this institutional corruption that ABM believes that state-provided housing is not doing the job.

“We believe that people should be given a piece of land, and they must be given title to that land,” says ABM chairman S'bu Zikode. “The state can then provide essential services, but the people then build the house they want. There can be no corruption, as they will build a house they can afford and they cannot steal as they are only stealing from themselves.”

But the existing corruption is not confined to the building process itself. The most dangerous corruption involves the delivery of the finished houses – which is at the interface of government and the people - and it is because of this that people lose their lives.

Nkululeko Gwala is the latest victim. He was a loyal ANC member until 2010. Even though he spoke out against corruption, he told people that he would never leave the ANC, it was his home. However, the ANC felt differently, and in 2010 the Ethekwini structures told Gwala that his membership would not be renewed. Once out in the political wilderness, Gwala turned independent and became a community leader in his own right in the Cato Crest informal settlement, in the Durban suburb of Mayville and – here's some irony – in the shadow of the massive upmarket Pavilion shopping centre. Gwala led the community protests in Cato Crest, which had been earmarked for a huge RDP housing development.

There were two main grievances: firstly that the process of eviction and resettlement was not being properly conducted and explained; and secondly that the allocation of houses (by the ward councillor, Mzi Ngiba) was corrupt.

“Ngiba sells these houses at night, over the bonnet of his car,” complained Gwala. “Sometimes he sells the same house three times to different people. He owns three houses himself, and he rents them out.”

This is not a new allegation: similar complaints have been lodged against the councillor for Ward 12, Mdu Ngcobo; the councillor of Ward 4, Dennis Shozi; and the councillor of Ward 56, S'thembiso Gumede, among several others. Despite these persistent accusations, however, no action is ever taken.

“If people have allegations of corruption against councillors, they must open a case with the police,” says city spokesman Thabo Mofokeng. “When we hear of houses being allocated incorrectly, or invaded by squatters, we do a verification of ownership. If the wrong person is living there, we have to go through a court process to evict them.”

“Some people claim that the houses were sold to them,” he continues. “If this is true, we ask those people to open a criminal case.”

Easier said than done. Our law holds anyone innocent until proven guilty, and a clever criminal can spin out a legal process indefinitely while they hold on to their positions and income. The ANC-dominated municipality in Durban, despite an oft-stated commitment that they will not tolerate corruption, also states that they will not act against a councillor until he or she is proven guilty. There is therefore no incentive to speed up justice, especially if the culprit can use this hiatus to kill or intimidate any witnesses.

Which brings us back to Nkululeko Gwala. Gwala had been leading community protests in Cato Crest since 2010. At the beginning of 2013, aware of red-hot tensions in the area, Durban mayor James Nxumalo told the community that they should elect a committee of ten people to represent them, and that he would then engage with that committee. Gwala was part of that committee.

On Monday 24 June, residents who had been evicted from their shacks by their 'shacklords' blockaded several major roads in Durban to protest their evictions. On Tuesday, they marched on the offices of the two ward councillors in the area, Mzi Ngiba and Zanele Ndzoyiya, and burned them down. Gwala said that the people were angry at the councillors for giving houses to politically-connected people, and for not serving their communities.

“People should get houses on merit and not political affiliations,” Gwala said. “If they say I am guilty of leading the protest then that is fine because I am doing it for the rights of people.”

On the following Wednesday, an ANC delegation met with the Cato Crest residents at the Community Hall. Gwala told a local newspaper, the Daily News, that he was not going to attend the meeting because he was afraid he would be killed. There was an understandable precedent for this: on March 15 this year four gunmen shot down Cato Crest Residential Association chairman Thembinkosi Qumbela. He had been doing similar work to Gwala, and had made similar allegations. His murder remains unsolved, but since his death, Gwala had been receiving similar threats. Perhaps it was just as well Gwala did not go to the meeting: at the hall, ANC MEC for Health and the ANC regional chair, Sibongiseni Dhlomo, singled out Gwala and told residents that he was a trouble-maker.

He told the 2,000-strong meeting that Gwala was not wanted in the area and that he “either leaves the area or the community leaves. He must go. He is not wanted here.” In a heated 25-minute speech, which was recorded by a community activist and handed to the local Tribune newspaper, Dhlomo said that Gwala should be banished and he should “scrub his heels because he is leaving today.”

He said that Ward 101 was the “Gedleyihlekisa Zone” and belonged to Zuma.

Five hours later, at 10.30pm, Gwala was walking home from Mgazi's Tavern where he had been watching a soccer match. Two men shot him 12 times in the head and chest and then ran away. They had frisked him hurriedly for his cell-phone, but it was in a jacket pocket and they did not find it.

When questioned by the Tribune about the incendiary speech, Dhlomo's response was to accuse the paper of planting 'agents' to record the meeting and for quoting him out of context.

Incidentally, Gwala did not live in Cato Crest, he had a business and property in Inchanga. “But I am fighting for people whose voices have been ignored by our leaders,” he said. In Inchanga, he owned a soccer team and was in the process of setting up a youth project. He had also formulated a rewards scheme for promising matric pupils. (Abahlali website notes that Gwala did live in Cato Crest and that, like many shack dwellers, he had an urban shack as well as a rural home. - Ed)

“He always wanted to bring change into people's lives,” said his father, Thembinkosi Ndokweni.

Police spokesman Col. Vincent Ndungu said that the police were investigating the murder, but did not regard it – yet – as a political crime.

“This business that we are called upon to investigate MEC Dhlomo for incitement is nonsense. No-one has come forward with any evidence of this incitement. If people get death threats they must open a case with the police. We don't respond to media reports or speculation, we can only respond when people come forward with evidence.”

He had no information about another three community leaders from Cato Crest who are still in hiding, or the evidence of corruption that Gwala said that he had. “No-one has reported anything to us.” However, the police have not interviewed S'bu Zikode either, or the Daily News journalist to whom Gwala spoke just before he was killed. Their numbers are on his cellphone.

The ANC itself seems to have mixed feelings about the culture of murder within the organisation to eliminate political opposition. At the funeral of another slain ANC office-bearer, Wandile Mkhize, who was shot dead on the South Coast on June 2nd 2012, KZN Premier Zweli Mkhize said that while the ANC had no specific knowledge of the motive behind his death, the party had to look at “the confluence of politics, criminality and business, as it was going to cause huge problems within the party.”

Two men were arrested shortly after the murder, and implicated two others. But since then the case has become bogged down in court delays and police inefficiency, to the extent that it almost appears that there is an agenda to subvert justice.

By comparison, the murder of Oshabeni branch chair Dumisani Malunga in September 2012 was solved within a month, as the murderer confessed – a fellow ANC member who had wanted Malunga's job.

Assassinations are the ultimate form of censorship, says journalism professor Jane Duncan. And they're effective: there have been 59 political murders in South Africa in the last five years. During the same period, the Public Service Commission has reported a twelve-fold increase in wasteful and fruitless expenditure, coupled with a sharp decline in convictions for corruption.

The picture is clear.

Investigative journalist Sam Sole of the Mail & Guardian has pointed out that the ANC has promoted the fusing of politics and business through its Black Economic Empowerment policies. This has led to an intimate relationship developing between political power and material accumulation, where election to public office is seen as the fastest way to achieving wealth. As Sole notes, “until the alliance recognises and confronts the reality – confronts its own addiction to short-term gratification – the prospect for a cure will remain remote.” DM

Photo: Nkululeko Gwala (Abahlali baseMjondolo)

  • Niki Moore
  • South Africa


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