It was with growing concern that I read the United Front press statement of 22 October, titled Umlazi United Front activists harassed for ANC internal murder, which described a scenario that has become all too familiar across South Africa’s increasingly deadly political terrain.
On Thursday 18 October, Ward 88 residents and activists from organisations including the Right2Know campaign, Abahlali BaseMjondolo and Ubunye bamaHostela marched to the office of local ANC ward councillor Sibusiso Maphumulo to demand answers about R392-million that had been approved in 2016 by the Department of Human Settlements to build houses in Ezakheleni and Umhlabeni settlements. The money, it seems, had been eaten.
Later that evening Maphumulo was shot dead while returning home from a meeting.
ANC spokesperson Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu was quoted by TimesLIVE as saying:
“What is worrying to us is that in the morning there was a group of people who went to his home and they threatened to burn his house because they were not included in some project.”
According to the police, “an unknown vehicle stopped next to his (Maphumulo’s) car and men inside fired on the vehicle. The victim sustained a gunshot wound to the head”.
A single shot to the head from one vehicle into another at night. Clearly a hit carried out by professionals.
As always there is a story behind the story and the truth is regularly obscured by whoever shouts the loudest. In most cases this is the ruling party or whatever faction of the ruling party happens to have vested interests in whatever the particular issue is at the time.
Community voices are drowned out. Mainstream media, especially titles firmly controlled by politically connected owners, seek out “official” comment — usually from those with the vested interests and something to hide. The police are canvassed. And we all know how politically independent the SAPS is — uh, not. Fingers are pointed, people are blamed (often innocent parties albeit sometimes indirectly), issues are conflated and lives are threatened when the truth becomes a casualty of vested interests.
The United Front press statement described how one of the march conveners, Bheki Buthelezi, was visited by 13 armed men (presumably police) in the early hours of the morning after the murder of Maphumulo, who allegedly assaulted him and demanded he produce a firearm he was supposedly hiding. Two days later two other march conveners, Sizwe Shiba and Sithembile Doncabe, were arrested and questioned but later released.
ANC regional secretary Bheki Ntuli (of the AK-47-wielding bodyguards) reportedly called for ballistic tests to be carried out on all firearms at the Maphumulo crime scene. What was he suggesting? That perhaps Maphumulo’s comrades who were with him in the car at the time of his murder have a case to answer?
Ntuli also echoed Simelane-Zulu’s statement about people who had earlier threatened to burn down Maphumulo’s house. Once more ANC leadership demanded that police expedite investigations into the murders of ANC office-bearers as if only their lives mattered in this blood-soaked province.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for Maphumulo’s assassins, the march, the arson threats and the murder appear to have been conflated by the media, and, it seems, by the SAPS. The ANC has done little to clear up this useful muddle.
While Maphumulo’s murder is yet another depressing reminder of what has become of politics in South Africa — especially in KwaZulu-Natal, where a few K can buy you a hitman to take care of your opposition, business competitors, or those taking too keen an interest in local corruption — it seems perhaps Maphumulo wasn’t the squeaky-clean comrade his fellow party members have made out in the media.
R392-million is a lot of money to vaporise. Certainly more than enough to trigger a hit if deals didn’t go down quite as planned. On conveying condolences to Maphumulo’s family, Ntuli described him as, “a community leader who was selfless and loved by his community”.
According to the Abahlali baseMjondolo website, in July 2017 Sbu Maphumulo was arrested and charged with possession of an unlicenced firearm. Despite possession of an unlicenced firearm being a Schedule 5 offence, the Umlazi SAPS apparently released him the next day on police bail and little more seemed to have come of the case.
By comparison, Glebelands residents — ward 88 adjoins the hostel’s ward 76 — are (these days) almost without exception (correctly) denied bail if found with an illegal firearm. But of course the law becomes elastic when politicians break it.
The Abahlali BaseMjondolo website also records at length how in 2017, accompanied by heavily armed hitmen, Maphumulo allegedly gatecrashed community meetings, falsely accused members of arranging road blockades (a “crime” committed by most gatvol service-delivery-deprived communities across the country), intimidated, threatened and generally orchestrated a war of terror on its local branch leaders, regularly it seems, using Umlazi SAPS members to do his dirty work. It appears Maphumulo served time in jail before he became the ward 88 councilor.
An investigative reporter with insight into local dynamics said Maphumulo was “an absolute thug”.
While it may be said that one should not speak ill of the dead, some would also say, “live by the sword, die by the sword”, or gun, in this instance.
Poor communities across South Africa are daily battered into submission, their rights ignored, their voices muffled and their political agency subverted by arrogant, greedy, corrupt officials. Powerful political leaders set the tone of the narrative and a credulous public meekly swallows half-truths penned by an overworked, underpaid, much-abused and at times, poorly trained or politically manipulated media.
A few days after being hauled off by police, ward 88 march convener and anti-corruption activist Sizwe Shiba was shot at outside his home. Three spent cartridges were found near the gate. Word is out hitmen linked to a certain faction of the ANC are hunting him and co-convener Bheki Buthelezi. It would seem there is a co-ordinated effort by politicians, their hired guns and their politically tainted police to silence those seeking only what their community was promised.
Men like Buthelezi and Shiba have no need for guns — legal, unlicensed or hired. The strength of their convictions and will to do good for their communities is far more powerful than any hitman or mealy-mouthed politician. They are incorruptible. And that is precisely why they are hated — and feared — by KwaZulu-Natal’s political leadership.
Just as former premier Senzo Mchunu falsely accused Glebelands block committees of being behind the wave of violence that has engulfed that hostel for more than four years. Likewise, eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede claimed that Abahlali baseMjondolo is attempting to make the city “ungovernable”, and that a “third hand” controls the movement. And Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe is trying to portray the Amadiba Crisis Committee’s struggle to protect their land from mining and unscrupulous traditional leaders as “anti-development” and an impediment to job creation.
All over South Africa the narrative is hijacked by powerful politicians while poor communities are subjected to brutal repression, apartheid-style disinformation tactics and divide and rule politics. And if that doesn’t work, contract killers are called in. So much for the “clean deal” our new president is trying to sell to the world.
I have known Bheki Buthelezi and Sizwe Shiba for many years. I have nothing but respect and admiration for all they stand for — respect, dignity and a better life for poor people. They are not killers. They are honest men of integrity who would lay down their lives for their community and for what they believe.
South Africa needs more people like Buthelezi and Shiba — who have been thuma mina-ing years before President Ramaphosa made volunteerism fashionable — and the vibrant, grassroots-led organisations with which they are aligned.
Ward 88 has a long and troubled history of abysmal service provision and local government corruption. This is not the first time Shiba and Buthelezi have been targeted by police and government officials. In 2012 while mobilising for the installation of proper toilets, Buthelezi’s actions led to his arrest while many members of the community — including women — were shot at by police using live rounds.
At the time, peaceful and sustained protest action led to the “Occupy Umlazi” movement during which the former ward 88 councillor’s office and surrounds were reclaimed by the community. This grassroots initiative drew wide support from civil society and eventually resulted in some of the community’s demands being met.
Buthelezi’s support for the Marikana mineworkers also drew government disapproval. Shiba’s attempts to assist a local disabled group — long cast aside by the Department of Social Development — and other community activism has repeatedly drawn the wrath of government. The gap continues to close for constructive grassroots engagement with power. Too often the police are used as blunt political instruments.
So, a message for the SAPS: don’t allow yourselves to be used by corrupt politicians. Officers that get involved in political warfare have no place in the police.
And a message for the KZN ANC faction which we believe is likely to be behind attempts to permanently silence Buthelezi and Shiba: We know your modus operandi, we will know where to look if anything happens to them. As the apartheid regime learned to its eventual detriment — you cannot kill us all. DM
Vanessa Burger is an independent community activist for Human Rights & Social Justice.