Maverick Citizen

AGE OF THE ASSASSIN OP-ED

Abahlali baseMjondolo killings – 130 civil society organisations demand measures to stop the terror

Abahlali baseMjondolo killings – 130 civil society organisations demand measures to stop the terror
Abahlali baseMjondolo has worked from within the cracks in our society to build opportunities not only for its members but for all poor South Africans. (Photo: vocfm.co.za / Wikipedia)

Anyone familiar with the hardships faced by the poor and landless in this country would not wish it upon another human being. And yet, in South Africa, committed activists who work to improve these conditions for the most marginalised are often faced with the threat of abandonment, imprisonment and assassination by local government, police and business interests.

This is a stark reality in the case of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), the South African shack dweller’s movement, leaders of which have been gunned down on three separate occasions this year alone.

If I had to ask my sibling or my parents who AbM are or what the eKhenana Commune of Cato Manor in Durban is, they would not know. Yet for so many of us who are trying to tackle the big problems of our society they are a source of hope and a well of possibility. This is a movement that has taken seriously the task of creating the means for the people of this land to live with dignity – something this democracy continues to fail to provide. 

Indeed, AbM often remarks that democracy does not exist for the poor of this country. 

The movement has worked from within the cracks in our society to build opportunities not only for their members but for all poor South Africans. Through democratic and collective processes, taking direct actions that bypass failed political structures, they are addressing the issues of land restitution.

The grim and simple reality is that the eKhenana Commune is an occupied piece of government land that provides shelter to the poorest residents of eThekwini, but it is also land that a housing syndicate in the area wants to profit from. The commune is a lovely space that, along with many families, houses a communal vegetable garden, a chicken farm, a collective kitchen and a political school. 

From left: Activist Nokuthula Mabaso was shot dead in front of her children at her home in the eKhenana Commune; Lindokuhle Mnguni, the Abahlali baseMjondolo chairperson of the eKhenana Commune, was killed recently; Abahlali base Mjindolo leader Nokuthula Mabaso was shot dead; eKhenana Commune and local Abahlali baseMjondolo leader Ayanda Ngila was gunned down. (Photos: GroundUp / Abahlali baseMjondolo / Nomfundo Xolo / Supplied)

The local ANC, the police and the taxi industry are implicated in the assassinations and imprisonment of key leaders of AbM. It is this syndicate that is spearheading an attempt to drive them off the land. Dozens of families and their homes are at risk, and the weight of killings and long detainments following trumped-up arrests hangs heavy. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Abahlali leader – Murder of Lindokuhle Mnguni ‘the end of our constitutional democracy’ 

This movement has hit some limits to what it can do for itself at the moment, and is unable to get help through official channels at a local level. It is necessary now for progressive elements of civil society to ensure that these issues are dealt with at a national level.

A recent precedent-setting letter from more than 130 different civil society organisations, addressed to the Presidency, highlights this urgent need. It makes four demands that represent a meaningful step towards addressing these problems and helping put a stop to the terror. 

In short, the demands are: 

  1. That high-level national investigators intervene, taking the whole system of housing development and allotment in the eThekwini municipality into account;
  2. That Police Minister Bheki Cele create a resourced team of national police and investigators to protect AbM activists who are at risk, and conduct an impartial investigation into the assassinations;
  3. That the South African Human Rights Commission conduct its own independent investigation and take appropriate action; and
  4. That the government invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders to do a country visit to South Africa.

The demands are a hugely important first step in the process of protecting AbM members. 

AbM is a light shining through a keyhole to a new dawn. We should be doing all we can to cultivate the seeds they have planted and are trying to nurture. At this moment the bare minimum requires whatever efforts we can offer to ensure their protection. Children should no longer see their parents shot and killed in front of them so that local politicians can line their pockets.

A focused investigation of the matter represents the beginning of building accountability, and will provide the government with facts about what is going on in Cato Manor, which will assist Abahlali to access justice. 

Nokuthula Mabaso gives Ayanda Ngila spinach from the communal garden at eKhenana after he and three others were released from prison where they had been held for six months before bogus murder charges were finally withdrawn. Ayanda was assassinated on 8 March 2022. Nokuthula was murdered on 5 May 2022. (Photo: Abahlali / Facebook)

An investigation into the systems and cartels involved in housing patronage and corruption would shed light not only on these assassinations, but also on eThekwini’s failure to provide housing and basic services for the poor as well as the larger scourge of housing-related assassinations in the city. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Killers of Abahlali baseMjondolo leader hunted him down in his shack after failing to find two of his colleagues

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Where is the outrage over the murder of Nokuthula Mabaso – another Abahlali killing with impunity?

We can also hope that the presence of higher authorities will be enough to prevent the use of detainment and criminal justice procedure as a tool to repress AbM leaders. 

To ensure progress on this matter even if (or when) the state fails, the Human Rights Commission and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders must also act. 

At this stage, it is as straightforward as using every tool in the toolbox. People are being killed and imprisoned now, so as much as we can hardly rely on the police and government institutions to keep our communities safe and accountable, for as long as we cannot make it together for ourselves, the best option for survival is to mobilise, apply pressure and offer solidarity.

We are fortunate to have a movement like Abahlali baseMjondolo in this land. Supporting them is an important opportunity for us to show them how we feel. DM/MC

Daniel Berti is a member of the Anti-Repression Collective, a civil society group involved in developing accountability for security forces (police, army, private security) across South Africa. They are currently in Minneapolis researching alternatives to policing as part of a PhD.

The Socio-Economics Rights Institute (SERI) statement on the letter to the President is available here.

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