Maverick Citizen

ABAHLALI OP-ED

A worried mother wanted to build a communal garden in Durban, she was murdered for it.

Nokuthula Mabaso leaves behind her husband and four children. She was an activist, mother, humanitarian and leader. She loved her community, she loved her family and she loved her garden. She would not back down to injustice and, for that, she was murdered.

eKhenana sits in the rolling hills and evergreen valleys of Cato Crest, in Durban. The settlement began as a land occupation in 2018. After a long battle against evictions, residents created a democratically managed commune as part of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the powerful shack dwellers’ movement. It was once a site of promise, a place where the forsaken of South Africa could find solace, both in the land and each other. Today, it is soiled with the blood of yet another fallen comrade. Nokuthula Mabaso was murdered, in front of her own children, in her own home on 5 May

The murder was only another iteration in a long catalogue of violence against eKhenana, including the murder of Ayanda Ngila on 8 March. Along with the murders, the community has suffered arrests, imprisonment, arson and assault.  

Not that long ago, the commune was flourishing, but now every communal institution is in jeopardy of ruin. The roadside stall, where the surplus from the garden was sold, has been ransacked. In the past, it was prosperous, supplying a basic income for the community. Now, it stands empty, desolate, and locked up. The poultry project is on hold. The Frantz Fanon school, previously a model of popular education, respected by activists across the country and the world, now goes unused. The communal garden, once described as the commune’s pillar of strength, has been systematically dismantled. In the past, nobody went hungry. But now, things are different. 

After the murders, many residents are in constant fear, and fear is a paralysing force. It has worked to limit the potential of eKhenana. It is difficult to thrive when you are in a constant struggle just to survive, when you don’t know what the next moment may bring. Residents live and speak as if more murders are inevitable.

It is not just buildings and homes that have been left in ruin, but also people’s lives. 

Nokuthula Mabaso was shot dead in front of her children at her home in the informal settlement of eKhenana, where she was an activist. (Photo: Supplied by GroundUp)

A worried mother

Nokuthula Mabaso arrived in Durban in 2010. She came to the city as a worried mother. She needed to live close to the central business district so that her child, with special needs, could have access to a higher-quality school. She eventually settled in eKhenana, and there she began to work. She worked not just to build a shack on occupied land, but to defend that land, democratise its governance and nurture a community. She, and fellow leaders of the commune, created a place of possibility. They envisioned a commune, an egalitarian society with communal institutions and the recognition of our shared humanity, of ubuntu. Mabaso loved eKhenana because residents shared with one another and worked together.

Mabaso leaves behind her husband and four children. She was an activist, mother, humanitarian and leader. She loved her community, she loved her family and she loved her garden. She would not back down to injustice, and, for that, she was murdered.

eKhenana is a site of relentless violence and repression because the residents – the communards – are using land communally, to benefit the common good rather than private gain. Land is not bought and sold and shacks are not rented. The community cooks and shares meals together. When the garden was flourishing they evenly divided the work, and when surplus spinach and veggies were sold, the profit was shared equally. The residents also shared a cultural life, establishing poetry projects, theatre work and a choir. 

These communal institutions and practices – some of which continue –  gave people the collective strength to resist and continue the struggle, even after years of repression. All of this challenges the concentration of wealth and power of the local government and ANC. The municipality views eKhenana as a barren space, whose economic potential is being wasted by the commune. The local ANC wants to remove the shack dwellers and use the land for private profit, not communal development.

But the repression is about more than just the land. The social, political, and economic institutions of eKhenana are representative of what grassroots urban development can be, and because of this, the commune directly challenges the logic of capital, top-down forms of governance and the power of the ANC. 

By working from below to begin to realise the South Africa promised in the Freedom Charter, eKhenana has subverted the authoritarianism, contempt and, increasingly, sheer criminality of post-apartheid governance. In doing so, the community has inspired other communities and struck a deep fear within the local structures of the governing party. 

This picture shows Nokuthula Mabaso giving Ayanda Ngila some spinach from the communal garden at eKhenana. Ayanda was assassinated on 8 March 2022. Nokuthula was assassinated on 5 May 2022. (Photo: Abahlali Facebook)

Democratically managed communal garden

Perhaps the most fundamental element that separates eKhenana from many other informal settlements is the democratically managed communal garden. The success of the commune is interwoven with the success of the garden. If the spinach, butternut, and amadumbe grow strong, so too do  the minds, bodies and souls of the residents. The garden is a place of possibility and creativity but, most importantly, sustenance. It feeds the commune. 

Mabaso was one of the leaders of the garden. She was a mother and community activist, but also a spinach enthusiast and an admirer of fresh squash and spiralling towers of beans. To Mabaso, the garden was everything. It was a site of possibility and reclamation. She would smile and sing as she weaved between the rows of crops. Breathing with the earth, she would reach down and with each grasp return with a bundle of spinach. Working in the garden meant everything to Mabaso. It was how she fed herself and her family. 

Because food prices are rapidly escalating throughout South Africa, and other countries as well, it has become increasingly difficult for poor unemployed residents to access food. 

In South Africa, 26% of households are food insecure, but in eKhenana, because of the communal garden, no resident goes to bed hungry. The success of the communal garden serves as a good example of how many social problems can be resolved from below.

The garden where the murder of Ayanda Ngila occurred. (Photo: Jordan Buser)

The idea of the garden emanated from the direct experience of hunger. Marginalised by even further unemployment during the pandemic, people simply could not access food. The garden became a communal solution to one of the most precarious contradictions of capitalism. You need food to survive, but because food is considered a commodity, to access it requires money. In the context of Durban, a city with staggering unemployment, this means a lot of people live with food insecurity. 

As a resident I spoke with said, “Most of us are unemployed, but need money to buy everything, buy food – when you are unemployed where do you get the money?” 

But the garden is not just about food. Residents stress that it is also about dignity. It is impossible to have dignity, to feel like a human being, when you are systematically denied access to healthy, sustainable and nutritious food. By ensuring that no one goes to bed hungry, the communal garden has restored dignity. 

As another resident said: “When you are full in your stomach, you feel like you are a human being, you are not ashamed of anything; that in my way, that is dignity alone, because if you are hungry, you are scared to even speak to make decisions, but if you are full in the stomach … you know what you’re doing and you do it right.”

It is shameful that people who live in shacks are treated as disposable, unworthy of food, water, housing and dignity. 

Mabaso was murdered because she believed in the power of the garden, and the commune built around it. She believed in the assertion and defence of dignity as a starting point in the fight for equality. She took great joy in her political work and recognised that through the communal production of food, we have the power to change everything, the power to restore dignity and realise a more equitable world. The extraordinary achievements of the commune and the garden illustrate that the planting and tilling of the soil is our most potent weapon in the fight against injustice

Nokuthula Mabaso must be properly mourned and remembered as the amazing woman that she was. It is essential that we honour her life by planting and tilling the soil, by appreciating and sharing food not as a commodity, but as a gift. Together, by changing our relationship with land, each other, and ourselves, we can restore dignity and create a more humane world. As the philosopher John Holloway said, “There is no question of first revolution, then dignity: dignity itself is the revolution.” DM/MC

Jordan Buser is a student at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. He recently completed a research project on the eKhenana commune. This article is the result of a month of research and time spent in the community.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Anne Chappel says:

    Well written, but sad story of a brave woman helping her community. For what was she killed?

  • Craig B says:

    ItS an apartheid story ……. a community starts to gain traction by doing something and then along comes mysterious murders and destruction and nobody knows how why or where. Such a sad story. Communes like this should quite simply be given that land legally and then have it secured so they can live in peace. The government is responsible on every level for this not having happened.

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