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Protea South — a troubled township on the edge, trusting neither police nor politicians

Protea South — a troubled township on the edge, trusting neither police nor politicians
A before and after photo of the police van that was burnt by residents of Protea South in Soweto on Sunday afternoon following the murder of a resident by a police officer. I Protea South Community Policing Forum chairperson Pamella Zothe. (Photos: Supplied)

In almost 30 years of democracy, there’s been little cause for celebration for residents of the Protea South informal settlement in Soweto, the recent scene of protests after a resident was shot dead by police. Poverty, unemployment, crime and other social ills have driven the community to the brink.

Mgebe Ndlayuvulwa (52) swings his black wheelie bin to the pavement on Cadbury Street in Protea South to chat. It’s early in the morning and the bin is empty. On a good afternoon out, he rolls it back to his home, a two-room shack, full of recyclable bottles. 

“We have taken all the hard blows of all sorts of traumatic experiences we encounter as poor black people. We find ourselves going to the extremes just to survive,” he said. “There are no jobs. Things have gone from bad to worse in a few years.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections 2024

Ndlayuvulwa supplements his small income from the recyclable bottles with what he makes during his spare time fixing shoes in Lenasia. He also works for Supreme, a company contracted to remove waste from pit latrines in the area. The father of three has hardly ever enjoyed formal work since his arrival in Gauteng from the Eastern Cape almost 20 years ago.

“I left home for one reason, to look for work so that I can provide for my family and give them a comfortable life,” he said.

Almost two decades later, he can barely provide for his family and is struggling to make ends meet. The only life he shares with his family is one of misery. Ndlayuvulwa is not alone. Many Protea South residents suffer the same fate.

Little trust in police

There has been a complete breakdown of trust between the police and community members in Protea South. The community now puts its trust in the local Community Policing Forum (CPF) above the police or they resort to mob justice. 

On Sunday, 14 April 2024, the community clashed with members of the South African Police Service (SAPS) after an officer fatally shot a man whom they suspected of selling alcohol. The ensuing violence culminated in the torching of a police van and a protest, which featured running battles between the police and the community and lasted until Tuesday.

The family of the deceased man, Simon Maluleke, who was in his 50s, is shattered. According to his daughter, Nhlamulo, her father repeatedly told the officer that he was not selling alcohol and would therefore not go to the police station. Maluleke was shot inside the family’s shack.

“He cooperated with the police and told them that the alcohol was not his to sell,” she said.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) confirmed to Daily Maverick on Monday, 15 April, that a complaint had been lodged against the accused police officer. Spokesperson Phaladi Shuping said: “The matter was reported to Ipid, and they have started with the investigation.”

Gauteng SAPS spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Mavela Masondo confirmed that the case was“ with Ipid”.

On Monday, some residents marched to the local police station and when they were not satisfied with the SAPS response, they blocked traffic on the road in protest. The community’s rage continued on Tuesday, but had fizzled out by Wednesday morning.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Soweto residents scrounge for water amid continuing City of Joburg crisis

About a month ago, a man who was suspected of committing house break-ins in Protea South died at the hands of a mob. A Mrs Mahlobo, who asked that only her surname be published, claimed the man had broken into their house while they were asleep and stolen their television set, speaker and cellphones.

“I also wanted to throw a punch or a stone but I realised that he was too weak,” Mahlobo said. 

Masondo, the SAPS spokesperson, did not respond to questions about a vigilante killing in the area, and local police from the Protea Glen Police Station, said they could not establish whether the mob justice victim was linked to robberies in the area. Daily Maverick has been unable to establish the victim’s identity.

According to crime statistics for the third quarter of the 2023/24 financial year, from October to December, at least 431 murders were linked to vigilantism and mob justice attacks across the country. Gauteng registered 84 such incidents.

‘Uncontrollable crime rate’

“The crime rate in this area has escalated to uncontrollable levels. People are bringing complaints almost every day, saying they have been robbed on their way to work in the morning,” CPF chair Pamella Zothe said.

“The only challenge with the CPF is that people do not want to join because they want an incentive. It’s just a few of us and mostly women.”

Zothe said robberies and house break-ins were common. She said the CPF was working hand in hand with the police.

“What always shocks us though is that every time we apprehend a suspect and hand them over to the police, that suspect sleeps with us here in the township that very same night,” Zothe said.

“The other problem we have is the police response time, but they always complain about having only one van. We have no idea how long they will operate with one van.”

SAPS did not respond to questions on the police response times in Protea South and insufficient police resources, such as police vans.

Democratic Alliance (DA) PR councillor Popi Mnisi said there was always a shortage of police vans.

“And even when they do pick up suspects, they let them go and this endangers the lives of the community members who are always encouraged to report criminality.”

‘Political posturing’

The ANC and DA have been the most prominent political parties in the area for more than a decade, but in recent years parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Al Jama-ah now have a presence.

Residents such as Ndlayuvulwa remain committed to casting their votes in the upcoming 29 May national and provincial elections, but others said it was the last thing on their minds.

“I have not been voting in the last few years but this year I will definitely vote,” Ndlayuvulwa said. “I have been given pockets of chances [piecemeal jobs] and I feel that I need to put myself out there, and voting is the start.”

Some residents, particularly those who plan to distance themselves from the 29 May poll, said political parties in the area practised political posturing to manipulate the community. 

“Politicians have failed to provide [a] steady supply of the four most basic needs, which are water and sanitation, electricity and jobs. They are looking after their own stomachs instead of serving the community, which they get paid heftily for,” resident Nelisiwe Ndlovu (58) said.

“One good example of this is what is currently happening since the torching of the police van on Sunday.

“You have the DA leading the malleable community around the township and to the police station. When the police turn them away, they roam the area and interfere with traffic. This is not leadership; the DA and all the political parties should have told the community that this was a matter for the Independent Police Investigative Directorate,” Ndlovu said.

“The DA should have advised residents to follow the court case to put pressure for denial of bail or hefty conviction for the accused. The next we know the ANC and EFF will also lead the community in different directions over the same issue,” Ndlovu said.

“I can give you a series of examples where you can see that the parties collaborated together to pull wool over our faces, but some of us do not fall for it. The willy-nilly selling of pockets of land by the different political party members, especially the EFF and ANC, you’d be naive to tell me that the political parties have not collaborated on it,” she said.

EFF coordinator Moses Moshe and ANC councillor Noxolo Nofemele did not respond to requests for comment regarding claims that members were selling land in the area.

The DA’s Mnisi said residents of Protea South had been left to defend themselves because of the collapse of policing in the area. 

“We will soon be going to the elections, but we head there with sore hearts because of load shedding and now water shedding.

“The crime rate is scary, to the point where you don’t know what is the right move. House break-ins, murders, it’s a lot.”

Mnisi told Daily Maverick that she had also been affected by crime in the area. Her car, which was being driven by one of her children, was recently hijacked. She still hasn’t got the vehicle back.

Mnisi said: “Our government is a disgrace. They give people R350 [for the Social Relief of Distress grant]. What does an old family man do with R350? The ANC needs to go.” 

Mnisi said the killing of Simon Maluleke by police should not be forgotten, and that the police must be held accountable.

Living on handouts

For some years, hundreds of Protea South children and elderly residents have relied on handouts from the Muslim community in Lenasia, who regularly provide community members with groceries and meals.

Unemployment and poverty mean many people regularly go to bed hungry and wake up to the same fate. 

“Where are the politicians when entire families go and queue for food from the Muslims? Nowhere.

“Politicians need to be stopped. What is happening in this community is a shame for the government,” Ndlovu said.

“Go to Cashbuild now, at the corner and tell me what you see. The government is breeding nyaope zombies, which, unfortunately for them, they can’t even use at the polls.” DM

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