Opinionista Vanessa Burger 28 June 2017

Glebelands Hostel: Where ultra violence is new normal

The day after an assassination attempt on the life of Ubunye bamaHostela chairperson, Vusi Zweni – where police failed to recover over 15 spent casings at the crime scene – Glebelands hitmen claimed their 95th victim.

On 14 June, police arrested one of Glebeland’s most prolific killers. He was found in possession of a stolen vehicle, illegal firearm and ammunition during “an intelligence driven operation… aimed at eradicating illegal firearms, searching for wanted suspects and stolen items,” read the SAPS press release. The statement failed to mention the police had actually been responding to a tip-off from the community – the same community the police blame for “failing to co-operate”, the reason for their zero conviction rate, while failing to acknowledge the correspondingly low murder witness survival rate.

The statement also failed to report that during the “operation” the Umlazi SAPS vehicles – with blue lights flashing for all to see – had halted several blocks away from the suspect’s reported location. Witnesses alleged this was obviously intended to alert the suspect and only the arrival of another unit secured the suspect’s arrest and prevented thugs from setting alight the stolen vehicle and destroying evidence.

The next day, a group comprising members of the Glebelands Peace Committee, community leaders and concerned residents requested a meeting with the Umlazi SAPS Station Commissioner. Brigadier Bongi Ntuli suggested they meet immediately as she would be unavailable the following day. Community members then had to wait over an hour for her to return from home (it was apparently just after 5.30pm). Matters were not resolved.

At a follow-up meeting with provincial SAPS representatives on Monday 19 June, the same day the Public Protector released her final report on Glebelands (nothing new there, so moving on), the community detailed a long list of complaints – officers who steal cellphones and demand bribes to kill murder dockets; wilfully botched operations (such as what almost happened on 14 June); failure to investigate crime scenes and follow up leads; officers who fabricate evidence, make false arrests, torture and kill residents; no static deployments at hotspots; a private security company hired at great expense by the municipality but whose employees kill members of the community they have been hired to protect; a forest of hi-tech CCTV cameras, footage from which has never been used to arrest or prosecute a single suspect; drunk officers sleeping under trees; and so on – the overwhelming message was: “Your officers are biased and don’t do their jobs!”

And it is not only the community that is pissed off with serial police failure at Glebelands, but some officers themselves.

SAPS sources claim that after the Public Protector’s office met state representatives in February this year prior to the conclusion of the Glebelands report, related murder dockets have gathered dust on the desk of Brigadier PT Mbele, who replaced Brigadier CRC Marion (more on him another time) as officer-in-charge of the Provincial Task Team investigating political killings and taxi violence in KZN. Since then a further 20 people have been murdered by hostel hitmen.

Inexplicably, given the vast number of murder investigations (90+ dockets), the task team handling these cases has, it appears, been culled to just three detectives, with one vehicle between them that seems to spend more time in the workshop than on the road. The vehicle is a single-cab bakkie, completely unsuitable for transporting vulnerable witnesses.

Recently, while waiting outside a south coast court for his busy colleagues to fetch him after opposing a bail application in a murder case, an investigating officer was subjected to hours of threats and abuse by family and friends of the accused. A member of the public eventually took pity on him and provided safe transport back to Durban.

Last year, a general from the National Intervention Unit tried to get to the bottom of the province’s abysmal prosecution record and learned of the transport issues. As a result three VW Amaroks were sent to assist Glebelands investigations, of which two have since been spirited off elsewhere.

Provincial head honchos apparently claimed ignorance of all this but vowed to take immediate action and provide feedback to the community.

Five days later, feedback came with police units from all over KZN. Entrances were sealed and residents searched for illegal firearms. A helicopter was deployed. Most of the action was focused on the old blocks –home to the hitmen. Sources reported thugs fleeing from block to block and hiding in kitchens in a bid to avoid arrest. It is unknown what or who was netted during this operation, but many residents noted that these police did their duty without fear or demanding favours – they did their job.

And herein lies the problem.

On Sunday, Ntuli reportedly called a member of the Peace Committee to ask if a protest march against her station was planned for the next day. The Peace Committee member, nonplussed, assured her, if there were indeed any protests planned, it had nothing to do with community representatives who had recently met senior SAPS officials.

When Tuesday dawned, bright and surreal as days are in South Africa, residents from the old blocks were herded by hitmen to Block 57 to protest against their recent “persecution”. Previously, residents reluctant to comply with similar instructions have at the very least, been threatened with eviction. Sources said at the time they did not know why or where they were supposed to be marching. But all became clear when the thugs, led by an Umlazi SAPS escort, forced them onwards towards Block R.

On nearing Block R, the killer protesters boasted how they had gunned down William Mthembu in 2015. In the presence of their police escort they reportedly sang songs of hate and blood, taunted the residents and swore they would kill all Block R leaders and Peace Committee members.

The marchers’ message were loud and clear: “remove police from other areas – we only want Umlazi SAPS.”

So what does this tell us?

That the “march” had no official sanction was borne out by Ntuli’s confusion the previous day, yet the protesters were provided escort by Umlazi SAPS vehicles, led by a senior officer.

This officer is well known to the community as the cop who used to escort the late warlord and his thugs to evict residents at gunpoint – many of whom were women and children – during the 2014 evictions. This officer was also reportedly present when senior provincial SAPS officers met community leaders last Monday.

As officer-in-charge of police escorting an illegal march (half of whom were known hitmen or wanted suspects nogal), this officer has brought the SAPS into further disrepute. Complicity with those who broke the law, both during the march and reportedly at other times, would make him an accomplice – a criminal in uniform.

By failing to arrest those who reportedly openly confessed to a double murder (Thokozani Machi was gunned down with Mthembu) and threatening to kill others – crimen injuria, incitement and failure to prevent a crime – he could be charged with defeating the ends of justice.

His conduct – like other officers’ known to us – utterly undermines hard-working, honest police members who struggle daily against limited resources, poor management and political interference. He has trashed the efforts of the Peace Committee – some of whom like Nkosinathi Shezi, sacrificed their lives for accountability – and wasted millions from the public purse by apparently actively sabotaging police operations and peace initiatives.

By commission or omission, during the three years of violence that has wracked this troubled hostel, this officer has, it would seem, contributed to the deaths of almost 100 people and helped spread homelessness, despair and trauma all over KZN.

This officer – described as large, light in complexion and around 50 years old with stars on his shoulders – is known as Ndlovu. Arrest him, or let the Minister for Police explain his conduct to the people. DM

Vanessa Burger is an Independent Community Activist for Human Rights and Social Justice

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