An ‘extraordinary and loving’ activist – who was struggling for dignity in Gugs – has been gunned down
We remember Gugulethu community leader Ntsikelelo Msweswe, shot dead along with two others on Saturday, 14 January 2023. He leaves behind his twin daughters, aged 12, and a community devastated by the loss.
One Saturday night in mid-January 2023, gunmen burst into a home in Gugulethu and shot three people dead and left one injured. So common are murderous shootings around the city that they register as a sort of warlike background din — requiring a particular awfulness, scale or close proximity to be noticed by us, remembered by us
It is trite, perhaps, to point out that these acts of violence happen, on each and every occasion, to full humans, complex and storied and loved. One of the three killed that Saturday night was Ntsikelelo Msweswe, a charismatic 38-year-old fellow community organiser, friend, leader and father of twin daughters aged 12.
Here we remember Ntsikelelo.
South Africa does symbolism well. And Ntsikelelo’s all-too-short life could stand in for our famous resilience, our forced moves into the criminal, our challenges in overcoming, our being held back and our being failed by the structure of our society.
Ntsikelelo was born in Cape Town in 1984 and, to relieve his asthma, spent 10 years as a child in Qonce, then King William’s Town, in the Eastern Cape. He became involved in criminal activities while at high school in Mowbray, Cape Town, dropping out in Grade 11. Not completing matric haunted him; he described himself often as “someone who likes to read too much”.
When, at the age of 22, he was released from prison in March 2007 after a five-year term, despite being hardened, as a means of survival, in the ways of prison gangsterism, he became determined to turn his life around. No matter how hard it would become, he was determined to leave criminality behind.
Finding a job in South Africa’s incredibly scarce job market without a matric is hard. Having a criminal record narrows your options even further. Yet, after his release from prison, Ntsikelelo soon found work as a cleaner.
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In 2010, he and his partner became pregnant with identical girl triplets, one of whom sadly died before birth. Needing to earn better to support his enlarged family, he sought and obtained security industry qualifications and found work as a security guard.
Around this time, he also found his true calling, becoming involved in various community projects.
After a couple of years of feeling unfulfilled in his security job and being good with people, he thought he might have better prospects working in hotels. He swiftly landed a job at the Southern Sun hotel on Strand Street. It was in this job, while checking in a young man, that he thought, “you see this is a young boy, he is a graduate. But why am I not a graduate? I can be one if this boy can do it. Why not me?”
He saved up some money and set his sights on eventually enrolling at the University of Cape Town for a business science degree. He resigned from the hotel in 2014 to embark on a level-four national certificate — a matric equivalent.
After a couple of years, the financial strain of having two young children, on whom he doted, made studying alongside doing odd jobs unfeasible. He had to drop out and find full-time work for his children to have food on the table.
Becoming an activist
Around 2016, Ntsikelelo became more of “an activist in my community”. He joined the Zuma Must Fall protests and became involved in a campaign with Gugulethu’s subcouncil chair to clean up public spaces in Gugulethu to make them safer and happier for children.
He joined the Gugulethu Progressive Development Forum and headed up its safety and security portfolio. He became a leader of his local neighbourhood watch.
He was also an active member of the ANC Youth League Western Cape where he said they were “challenging the eldership (sic) of ANC inside the branches… [because they] are all not happy with the corruption.”
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In April 2019, the unemployed people’s organisation, Organising for Work (OfW), opened a branch at the Gugulethu library. Over time, he became its most active volunteer, devoted to OfW’s mode of operation: unemployed people running their own branches to improve each other’s chances of finding work. His energy, passion and productivity earned him a paid position, for a time, as one of OfW’s coordinators.
When the Covid-19 pandemic shut the libraries in March 2020, Ntsikelelo began organising actively in the Gugulethu chapter of the city-wide organising effort, Cape Town Together. Along with other OfW volunteers, community leaders and other residents of Gugulethu, they cared for many of the most vulnerable, seeking to mitigate the health and financial ravages of the pandemic and associated lockdowns.
In 2019, Ntsikelelo revisited his goal of obtaining a matric, enrolling with his local Adult Basic Education and Training college. But the pandemic put yet another hurdle in his way, delaying the completion of his final two subjects.
Struggling, with passion
Ntsikelelo was an extraordinary and loving person. And great company. He had an activist’s passion. He could be fighty and get carried away. And he was absolutely devoted to a better life for his community. He would tell you in his jolly, husky voice: “I love working for my community, it’s like I’m not working when I’m busy with my community.”
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Since leaving his hotel job in 2014, he struggled to maintain steady employment. At first, working less was deliberate to give himself time to complete matric. Later, he took a position as a night-shift security guard, among other gruelling short-term jobs and attempts to start informal businesses. Remarkably, it was in this difficult period that Ntsikelelo was most active and giving as a leader in Gugulethu — including helping many others to find work as volunteers with OfW at the library.
Ntiskelelo embodied the complex history and understanding of the problems of our country, saying he didn’t want society “to destroy a black person by spoonfeeding by giving freebee money. Instead, to give a freebee trade skill.” He would say: “It is time we do things by ourselves [rather] than wait for political leaders as we all know their behaviour in SA.”
He had great dreams for his daughters’ upliftment through education. He wanted to enrol them at Christel House, a private community school for underprivileged children, making plans for them to be tutored to meet the entry requirements.
Ntsikelelo heroically lived the notion that through our own efforts and ability as individuals we can overcome grotesque structural barriers to a better life. At the same time he fought to change the structure to improve opportunities for others.
Ntsikelelo, friend, fellow organiser, we miss you. Hamba kakuhle! DM/MC
Pamela Silwana is a member of the Gugulethu Community Action Network (part of Cape Town Together) and a director of the unemployed movement Organising for Work. Ayal Belling is a founder of the unemployed movement Organising for Work. He previously worked in finance and tech in London and Cape Town. Marina Hall (semi-retired) is founder of Prime Candidate U.