South Africa

OP-ED

Mbizana Local Municipality: Another activist goes into hiding as the body count rises

Mbizana municipality (supplied)

We owe a major debt to whistle-blowers exposing the depth of State Capture. But there is little protection for the many ordinary, often poor, community activists who know they may end up dying in their struggles for justice. In the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, the body count continues to rise. This is the story of some of those activists.

It’s always a gamble going public. You never know whether it will scare off those who you have been warned are plotting your elimination, or whether it will precipitate an immediate attack. But by the time this stage has been reached, those who have become targets often feel they have little left to lose.

They know their untimely deaths have become inevitable; it’s just a matter of when and where, no longer if. They know their murder will likely be notched up to the wave of crime that engulfs our country and poor communities particularly. The outcome of any investigation will be marked “undetected” by police who are frequently involved.

The faceless killers are of course known to the community. They are often high-profile politicians. They pay the hitmen, but make sure they never get their hands dirty. Cash is king. They are never brought to justice. And if by some miracle they are arrested, a few weeks or months later, the state will quietly withdraw charges. “Insufficient evidence.” A deal has been cut. They are too important to the party to be sacrificed for the life of one poor and noisy activist. It may cause disunity.

To those for whom this may sound too fantastic, too far-fetched in our constitutional democracy where apartheid’s death squads have been safely assimilated into the current administration’s security apparatus: welcome to our world. But it is not the guns of the old order that community activists have to fear, only the old techniques. It has become the enemy within a party so divided, so toxic and so distinct from its former liberation glory, that it willingly crushes the lives of its poorest constituents in its race for power, possessions and position. Those who stand in the path of this juggernaut are cut down — discredited, isolated or killed. Their only protection is their voice and the voices of those who stand with them.

But these faceless killers cannot kill us all. Neither can they crush communities’ dreams of a better life, equitable service delivery untainted by corruption, a responsive government. Through their local efforts these community activists are performing an untold service to our country, yet they remain unknown, unheralded and unprotected. If we love our country and want to see it recover, if we believe in justice and a more equal society, it is our duty to stand with them.

*****

Even if they kill me, the struggle will continue,” said Vuyo Sibulali in a WhatsApp message a few days ago.

The day before, Sibulali had received a tip-off that a high-ranking local government official, a ward councillor and a local businessman were allegedly plotting his assassination.

Sibulali, a community activist from Ndakeni village in the Eastern Cape, has been consistently outspoken about the Mbizana Local Municipality’s (between Port Edward and Kokstad) failure to deliver basic services to his community. He has strongly condemned government officials’ arrogance when dealing with poor communities, their lack of consultation, failure to deliver on promises, some made decades before, and, above all, the corruption that he and his fellow community members believe is to blame for their appalling living conditions and lack of opportunities.

A persistent thorn in the side of local politicians, Sibulali and his comrades have been subjected to harassment by the police, who it seems, may have been acting on instructions from their political principals. Community service delivery protests in 2018 were met with maximum force. Live ammunition, stun grenades and the liberal use of teargas ensured residents’ justifiable anger was quickly suppressed. Sibulali tried to help members of the community — several women — who had allegedly been assaulted, to open cases against the police. They were chased away from the police station. The officers are now under investigation by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID).

These protests didn’t spring up overnight. The frustration of years of petitioning unresponsive local government officials finally boiled over when Mbizana mayor, Daniswa Mafumbatha, failed to arrive at a community meeting — one of many. Seven hours later, once the teargas had cleared protesters from the area, Mafumbatha’s entourage eventually arrived to address the community. When those residents who had not been taken to hospital or arrested during the earlier protest failed to reassemble with sufficient haste, Mafumbatha was overheard impatiently instructing the police to “tell these monkeys to write a petition,” before she swept off in a flurry of luxury vehicles and private security.

The demands of Sibulali’s community are not unreasonable and have remained consistent over the years.

They would like speed humps installed on roads near local schools where speeding drivers have hit or killed many children. They would like proper access roads to their villages and for the few roads that have been built to be properly maintained and repaired. Other roads remain incomplete.

The community would like government support to set up small initiatives to create jobs in an area where the unemployment rate — according to the Mbizana Local Municipality’s Integrated Development Plan (IDP) for 2016/17 — is above 44% and almost half of those who do work earn less than R2,500 a month.

Residents claim that over the past two decades, budgets intended for service delivery have mysteriously “disappeared”, or have been redirected to communities that are seen to be politically “compliant”.

Not many residents can afford electricity even where connections exist. Roads are in a shocking state. The few amenities provided by government stand unfinished or have been poorly constructed. An RDP housing project promised to the community more than 10 years ago has never materialised.

Above all, the community needs water.

Like other villages in the area, Ndakeni’s only water source is a filthy stream that residents are forced to share with livestock. A major dam was built almost six years ago, but the municipality claims it no longer has the funds needed to pipe the water to all its intended recipients.

The water deficit also appears to have been exacerbated by a local quarry. The mine was established in 2014 by a well-connected businessman to supply aggregate for the controversial SANRAL Mnthenthu Bridge and N2 Wild Coast Road upgrade — a project believed to have been initiated to make it easier, quicker and cheaper to transport titanium from the highly contested proposed mine at Xolobeni, to an East London smelter.

It was the Xolobeni community’s decades-long opposition to titanium extraction that led to the assassination of anti-mining activist Sikhosipi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, who was gunned down in classic hit style in March 2016. Shortly before his death, he had reportedly been tipped off that there was a plan to eliminate community leaders opposing the development. To date, no one has been prosecuted for Rhadebe’s murder. The Xolobeni struggle continues amid state persecution and political obfuscation.

To serve the quarry at Ndakeni a borehole was sunk near the source of the village stream. This is alleged to have considerably reduced the flow of water available to residents. And that was before the drought.

The mine has been a sore point for Sibulali, who claims the company failed to implement offset projects promised to the community as part of its corporate social responsibility programme.

Permission for the quarry was allegedly provided by a local chief and a ward councillor. According to the community, there was no proper consultation and no environmental impact assessment, no social labour plan, no proper lease agreement that anyone is aware of, or rehabilitation plan once the mine ceases operations. Residents who had to move to make way for the quarry were allegedly “told” of their relocation — not consulted — and were too fearful to contest it. Sibulali said many of the replacement houses provided to them were poorly constructed or not completed.

The quarry is right on Ndakeni’s doorstep. Dust chokes residents already weakened by poverty and years of drinking contaminated water. Blasting carried out several times a week, including at night, has reportedly damaged homes.

Sibulali also claims the development, instead of providing the plethora of jobs they were promised, has instead fuelled corruption and divided the community. Some residents have allegedly been “bought off” and there are tales of nocturnal payments to loyal supporters of the project and the politicians who facilitated it.

Sibulali’s attempts to demand accountability from the government and the police have earned him the title of “troublemaker” and “ringleader” of the disenchanted community. Local politicians have predictably denied Sibulali’s accusations and attempted to discredit him. He has been accused of harbouring political ambitions (as if this were a crime in a democracy).

Around two months after the community protests, Sibulali received gruesome photographs via WhatsApp of what appeared to be crime scenes where suspects had been shot dead by police. His close friend Tshepo Hlambelo disappeared under mysterious circumstances eight months previously. There have been no arrests.

In January 2019, directly after addressing a rally about closing the quarry, Sibulali was arrested, pepper-sprayed in the face and allegedly brutally beaten by police. Some residents allege the officers were acting on the mine owner’s orders. Sibulali was denied medical attention while held in prison prior to his bail application and his injuries became badly infected. Charges were withdrawn a few months later. He still has ugly scars on his leg and is emotionally traumatised by the experience.

The same police members implicated in brutality during the 2018 community protests have repeatedly subjected Sibulali and his associates to harassment, often pulling their vehicles off the road for random “stop and searches”, preferably in busy areas in an apparent attempt to cause maximum public humiliation.

Sibulali was eventually forced into hiding and now makes only fleeting visits home. The strain on his family has been immense, but they fully support what he is trying to achieve for his community.

Thankfully, Sibulali’s community is no longer struggling alone. The Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS), a human rights organisation based at Wits University, is representing the people of Ndakeni, Dinda, Bhukuveni, Maqgabasini and Malanda to realise their right to water and is engaging with both local and provincial government on their behalf. CALS has been notified of the alleged plot to assassinate Sibulali and is extremely concerned for his and his colleagues’ safety.

In the meantime, Sibulali refuses to let fear silence him.

I heard that [local politicians] are saying my community will never get anything from the municipality. They must know that we will never back down on our demands. [Although] we condemn violence and we don’t want to go and burn tyres on the R61 [the main artery that runs through Mbizana], they are pushing us.

Our brothers and sisters are being killed on the road between Ndakeni and Mfundisweni. Our kids are being hit by cars because there are no speed humps on that road. We’ve been asking for speed humps for years but they refused. To make matters worse, the first person that died on that road was hit by a car driven by [one of the individuals allegedly involved in the plot to assassinate Sibulali]. By now I’ve lost count of how many people lost their lives on that road. We are forced to share water with animals. People are getting sick and nobody cares,” he said.

[The quarry owner] is making millions on our land and doesn’t care about the poor. He never delivered on his promises to the people. He never built the bridge or the preschool he promised. When we asked him about time frames he became arrogant. He says he is untouchable and I am nothing compared to him because he is loaded. So he is not going to do anything [about the corporate social responsibility projects] yet the mine is still operating. Now we want him to pack his things and leave our land.

We are sick and tired. We don’t know who to turn to. Service delivery is very poor. All these officials do is lie to the people and now we are fed up with their stupid lies. They only come when they need our votes, after that, they disappear into thin air. We are the ones suffering yet they are [the ones] stealing from us.

They must not underestimate the power of the people. Now we, the people, are saying it’s enough!”

*****

On the night of Saturday 26 October 2019, well-known human rights and anti-corruption activist Thabiso Zulu miraculously survived an assassination attempt in Pietermaritzburg. He was shot in the chest and arm. Forced to discharge himself from the hospital immediately after receiving medical attention in order to avoid the potential risk of hitmen coming to complete the job, Zulu has once again gone into hiding.

Zulu has spoken out stridently about a variety of issues, exposing the rot at the heart of the ruling party after the attempted murder and subsequent death of his friend, former ANC youth leader Sindiso Magaqa in 2017. His explosive testimony later at the Moerane commission of inquiry into KwaZulu-Natal’s political killings earned him death threats and a target on his back, and he has been compelled to keep moving since. Never spending more than a night or two at any location and repeatedly refused witness protection, even after his attack, Zulu has continued to raise his voice against the corruption that is eating the heart out of our country.

The list of those killed in the pursuit of justice is long and growing daily.

In March 2014 taxi operator Dalisu Sangweni was gunned down outside his home in KwaDabeka. He and his colleague Charles Khuzwayo — assassinated in Pinetown, Durban only a month before — had allegedly uncovered major corruption linked to the eThekwini Municipality’s controversial Go!Durban integrated rapid public transport network. I met Sangweni a few weeks before his death. He had decided to go public and was looking for a trusted investigative reporter to help expose the evidence he said was contained in the mountain of files and documents he carried with him. He never got that far. Go!Durban, so far, has gone nowhere.

In May 2015 Glebelands hostel leader Sipho Ndovela was assassinated on the doorstep of the Umlazi Magistrate’s Court. He had been a key witness in several murder cases — one of which implicated a hostel warlord. Ndovela was also about to make a statement implicating the warlord and a police officer, who, according to subsequent court testimony, was allegedly on the warlord’s payroll. For weeks Ndovela and his family had received death threats. He was warned: “You will not see court.” Like Zulu, Ndovela was also denied witness protection and the cover-up after his death has implicated senior police members in perjury.

More recently, a string of hits on the northern KwaZulu-Natal coast appear to be connected to the construction of a liquid natural gas refinery just south of Richards Bay. This development is likely linked to the proposed oil and gas exploration off the KwaZulu-Natal coast, a project that the Department of Mining, Energy and Minerals is trying to steamroller through, despite numerous objections.

Community members who have vehemently opposed their removal from the area apparently earmarked for the refinery have been hunted down by hitmen, while unknown benefactors seem to have gifted luxury vehicles to compliant local chiefs. The police, as always, are allegedly involved. This struggle also continues.

Campaigners for a more just society like Zulu, Sangweni and many others less well-known, such as Sibulali, with few resources besides their bravery, wits and commitment to clean governance and a better life for all, should be celebrated, supported and held up as examples. But instead, we often watch their struggles from the sidelines, not hearing their messages, or too frightened to listen, not really caring, until they slip away — another day another hit, more blood in the dust — having made the ultimate sacrifice for struggles we should all be fighting.

To paraphrase from the press statement (“Sindiso Magaqa murder trial resumes under a dark cloud” 13 October 2019) that Zulu asked me to circulate a few days before he was shot:

Yes, I know I may not win… but one thing I know is that I have waged a risky fight tirelessly, [and] even if [they are] not found guilty by a court of law, [they] and those [who] protected [them] from prosecution will never find peace on this earth, their consciences will forever haunt them.”

As US activist punk rock band, Anti-Flag sang on their 2003 album, The Terror State:

You can kill the protestor
You can’t kill the protest
You can murder the rebel
You can’t murder the rebellion DM

Vanessa Burger is an independent community activist for human rights and social justice.

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