South Africa


Abahlali attacks are part of broader lawlessness of the ANC and could be treason – here’s why

Abahlali attacks are part of broader lawlessness of the ANC and could be treason – here’s why
Saturday 7 May, Abahlali baseMjondolo meet outside slain leader Nokuthula Mabaso's home. (Photo:Richard Pithouse)

This week, Nokuthula Mabaso, a leading Abahlali baseMjondolo figure, was gunned down. This is the 23rd fatal hit on Abahlali members, with only one case leading to a murder charge and conviction. Evidence suggests ANC and state involvement. But it is part of the wider criminality of the state against the poor and vulnerable. Albeit not conforming with technical legal definitions, morally it is treason.

Although Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) is a much smaller organisation than the ANC has been for some time, it is nevertheless comparable in many respects to what the ANC once was.

If one looks at the goals of AbM there is a lot that resonates with what the ANC stood for over many decades. Is there anyone who comes from the ANC of struggle (not stealing) who can dispute the need for land, for everyone to have a home, food and clean water, freedom and dignity?

Who in that ANC can dispute the need for freedom to organise and put forward democratic demands without fear or risk of harm or assassination?

Who in the ANC of struggle can dispute the similarity in the martyrdom of 23 AbM activists to that of many who died in the struggle against apartheid fighting under the banner of the ANC and its allies, to free this country?

Since the early days of the formation of AbM there have been a series of illegal and violent attacks on the organisation, illegal removals, illegal assaults, illegal killings.

During these actions, organs of the state have been bent to the purpose of wiping out an organisation that stands in opposition to the current ANC, AbM being an organisation that advances goals that once characterised the ANC.

Because AbM does not simply profess to hold these views, but takes meaningful steps to carry them out, it is a constant reminder of the betrayal of the ANC, the shameful acts carried out against the poor, or failure to come to their assistance where able and required.

People are asking whether the ANC can renew itself and at the very same moment that question is being asked, the ANC is undermining the structures of the state that its leaders have sworn to safeguard, whose Constitution they have sworn to defend and advance.

In the case of AbM, the movement says the ANC has used the police force, the eThekwini Municipality, sometimes private security and other forces for the destruction of homes, random intimidation and killings. It is said in a statement that AbM issued after the killing of Nokuthula Mabaso, a leading figure in their eKhenana Commune and Abahlali’s Women’s League on 5 May 2022, that the law enforcement authorities are totally unreliable, taking instructions from local ANC figures. Mabaso’s assassination follows that of Ayanda Ngila, a young leader of the commune who, like Mabaso, had spent lengthy periods in prison without charges.

Zweli Mkhize’s race against time and the Special Investigating Unit

Illustrating its work, Abahlali states that Mabaso, who was 40 and a mother of four, was a community and women’s leader and a “key figure in the establishment and management of the chicken farm that was part of the very successful food sovereignty project at the commune”. She ensured that “more than 100 families have land and a roof over their heads”.

Was there something that she did that may have provoked her murder?

“[D]uring the afternoon she was part of the team that was processing food received as part of the movement’s food solidarity programme after the floods. In the early evening, she was in a meeting of comrades who were making plans to attend a court case today. Khaya Ngubane, the son of NS Ngubane, the local ANC chief who has been driving the attack on the Commune, is scheduled to appear in court today [6 May]. Nokuthula was attacked when she left the meeting to go to her house and attend to a pot of rice that she was preparing for her children. She was shot five times, four at the back in front of her children. The other women rushed to her when they heard the gunshots. She was still alive when they found her. She died in their hands.” (AbM statement, above. The bail hearing was postponed, with Ngubane remaining in custody).

Defeating the ends of justice

Abahlali has repeatedly charged that the ANC and state authorities have acted illegally against the movement. The killing of Mabaso, according to the AbM statement, amounts to part of a continued and systematic pattern of defeating the ends of justice. If these facts are untrue, why do the ANC and state authorities not engage with or refute them?

This is part of the case levelled against the ANC and the government:

“Witnesses saw Khaya Ngubane murder Ayanda Ngila on 8 March but today’s court appearance is about the time that he attacked Sniko Miya with an axe on 6 March. The investigating officer for this case is saying that he cannot find any evidence to implicate Ngubane in the attack on Sniko, but he has not spoken to the witnesses. The same officer has been involved in arresting our members on trumped-up charges and recommending that they be denied bail. 

“Previously NS Ngubane clearly said in the court building that ‘there will be bloodshed in eKhenana’.

“Nokuthula had prepared an affidavit that was going to be used in court today at the bail hearing of Ngubane. Her affidavit 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. Her affidavit… explains that the witnesses to Ngubane’s crimes, who are women, would be at severe risk if Ngubane were to be released and that, in the interests of justice, he should be remanded in custody. 

“Nokuthula was one of a number of people who witnessed the murder of Ayanda, and could potentially have been a witness if the matter went to trial. She was also the main respondent to the eviction case that was brought by the municipality in eKhenana. She played a key role in fighting for the occupation, and in turning the occupation into a Commune. She was brave in collecting all the information on the various cases that would have led to the arrest of NS Ngubane, and many others who have been behind the destruction of eKhenana.”

On the basis of this and previously stated evidence, AbM says there is no doubt that the local ANC, led by NS Ngubane, is behind the assassinations of Ngila and Mabaso. It also states:

“[W]e have reported before that NS Ngubane openly instructs the police at KwaKito (Cato Manor police station) who to arrest and who not to arrest and openly advises the prosecuting authority in the Durban Magistrates’ Court on how they should proceed with cases relating to our members.”

These are serious allegations which have been made more than once, and met with no response.

AbM argues that it built the eKhenana Commune on the basis of its principle that “land is not bought and sold and shacks are not rented”. The local ANC, it claims, wants this land to be used for private profit and not to serve community needs. 

That is why, it argues, every AbM leader who emerges becomes a target for repression or murder.

AbM demands accountability, pointing to the abusive practice of “arresting to investigate”: 

“The ANC, the police, the municipality, the prosecuting authority and the magistrates who keep sending innocent people to jail after the police say that they have been arrested to investigate (whereas they should be investigating to arrest) all need to be held to account for their role in the long, violent and criminal attack on eKhenana.”

Neither the minister of police, the Human Rights Commission nor the NPA have addressed their crisis despite multiple communications. The aftermath of Mabaso’s murder illustrates the impunity that reigns: 

“The Cato Manor police station is around 500m away from where Nokuthula was assassinated. The police confirmed that they heard gunshots but it took two hours for them to arrive at the scene. In fact the leadership had to drive to the police station to call them when calls were ignored. However, when Mqapheli Bonono [Abahlali Deputy President] was rushing to the scene police could stop him, harass him, delay him and fine him for a damaged light on the car he was using. They refused his request for them to accompany him to eKhenana.”

Abahlali declares, without exaggeration, as was the case under apartheid: “The struggle for dignity, for land and autonomy, continues to mean death.”

Abahlali attacks are part of broader lawlessness of ANC and state practices. Are we not dealing with treason?

Definitions of treason tend to focus on overthrowing the state, an act of violence against the state or the government of the day. A lot of trials for treason in South African history have in fact related to that. We must ask ourselves, however, what treason means when the government of the day consistently deploys the state to attack the people of South Africa.

Morally, the notion of treason in the context of a people who have struggled to create a state that would benefit all, cannot merely be an act against the state. It must encompass acts against the people who have elected representatives to use the state to enhance, safeguard and protect their liberties in a range of different ways.

The state itself becomes an agent for misery of the people when it is deployed to murder or does not take steps to prevent the murder of freedom-loving people, as happened with Nokuthula Mabaso and many others, during lockdown, demonstrations and other situations where no law is infringed. It does not act on behalf of, but against the people.

The notion of treason must be rethought in our discourse if not yet possible in law. In the current context, it must include acting systematically, violently, illegally and unconstitutionally against the people of South Africa. A person or groups of people in organised form who do that, especially against the poor and vulnerable, for whom this new state was created, are performing an act of treason. And one may add that it is an especially grave form of treason.

The meaning of treason in the current context needs to include many of the actions of the current legislators, law enforcers and leading officials of government and the state as a whole.

Unless we rethink the meaning of some words, unless we take these words and reconsider them in light of what is currently experienced, we cannot make sense of the current situation, the dire crisis from which it is difficult to escape.

In an important article, Susan Booysen argues that the condition for stability of the ANC and its continued existence is in fact continued impunity for very many of its leading figures who have committed serious crimes (behind paywall).

What is common to almost all these crimes is that they have not been conventional white-collar crimes whereby people have defrauded companies or performed illicit forms of trading and gained shares and similar business irregularities.

The fraud has been committed mainly by diverting money intended to benefit the poorest of the poor into the pockets of ANC leaders or individuals linked to them. That is true of water, housing, electricity and a range of other projects and it’s true of the fraudulent expenditure for the Covid pandemic where those who suffered most were the most vulnerable.

It is shockingly true of the aftermath of the KwaZulu-Natal floods. Within a day or two of the President saying “corruption, mismanagement and fraud will have no place in the allocation and distribution of the flood relief fund”, there was stealing committed by the very people who were charged with distributing the packages to those in need of care. And the KZN premier himself demanded that water meant for those worst affected by the floods be diverted to his private home. Thus far none of the perpetrators has been brought to book.

Contracts are being put out to tender and an article in Daily Maverick 168 indicates that these, too, are likely to be marred by corruption.

It may seem dramatic to use the word treason, but it is in fact understating the gravity of the current situation to merely describe it as prosecutions failing or law enforcement being very slow, and a range of other low-key expressions of frustration with the progress in bringing wrongdoers to book.

The truth of the matter, as Susan Booysen shows, is that the President knows very well that certain people who are close to him ought to be in the dock and ought not to be in government. But he fears removing them because of the primacy in his eyes of remaining president of the country, no matter what it means for the people of the country.

In other words, the continued presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa has come to mean a free pass for allies who have engaged in serious criminality and for opponents who may spill the beans on others if law enforcement were seriously deployed.

I do not know how we stop this. One thing that is very important is that we stop pretending that the key issue of the day is who is on whose side in the ANC electoral contests.

People are dying of starvation or hit by police bullets, or facing forced removals, which leave them to face winter unsheltered and a general failure of the law to protect the poor. For them, the re-election of Ramaphosa or who is on his “slate” is not a priority.

In fact, it may be that the plight of the poor got worse under the Ramaphosa presidency, not simply because of Covid and floods. It may be that Ramaphosa himself is not corrupt. However, he has provided shelter and comfort for a range of people who have been alleged or shown to be corrupt or who have enriched themselves. There is also strong evidence to suggest corruption or that individuals have enriched themselves for reasons that they can’t explain, as with Zizi Kodwa.

To rebuild our democratic order and enhance the quality of people’s lives we need, first, to correctly identify the issues of the day. A focus on personalities, close to this or that leader, does not take us far unless we also identify programmes that can build connections between people and organisations committed to transformation and defending the constitutional order.

Even if many of these organisations and sectors are relatively small, that is where we may find the seeds for socioeconomic and political renewal, in a sense that is not merely a vague slogan. DM

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, violence, gender and sexualities. His Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    “It may be that Ramaphosa himself is not corrupt. However, he has provided shelter and comfort for a range of people who have been alleged or shown to be corrupt or who have enriched themselves.”

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