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Glebelands Hostel: Living and dying by the gun in KwaZulu-Natal

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Vanessa Burger is an independent community activist for human rights and social justice.

After the 2017 arrest of the Glebelands Eight, a rogue cop and his alleged hit squad, the Umlazi hostel has seen several years of relative calm. But a sudden spate of assassinations again threatens community safety and stability. The recent killing of Zamani Cele – one of the cop’s most trusted lieutenants who was on trial for the 2017 murder of an ANC leader – highlights the need for broader, more holistic interventions to reverse the trend in which contract killing is increasingly employed as a problem-solving mechanism. 

Read: Why is murder once again stalking Glebelands Hostel?

News24 reported that on the night of 2 October 2017, three occupants of a grey VW Polo opened fire on Nkosinathi Ngcobo, a former Harry Gwala region ANC branch chairperson, while driving in the Hlanganani area of KwaZulu-Natal. Ngcobo, who died at the scene, was at the time employed as a clerk at the Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma municipality and was in charge of local councillors.

Ngcobo was one of seven ANC politicians assassinated in the Harry Gwala region between 2016 and 2018, the most high profile being Sindiso Magaqa who died of his injuries some months after being shot in July 2017. Most of the hits took place in Umzimkhulu – a municipality mired in graft, greed and ANC factional strife. But while not all these murders were politically motivated, political failure has given rise to institutional collapse and the conditions conducive to the use of murder as the ultimate problem-solving mechanism.

In February 2019, the police reported that Bulwer detectives and members of the National Intervention Unit had arrested “a suspect involved in a number of Glebelands-related killings” for the murder of Ngcobo. Zamani Cele, a former Glebelands Block 46 resident, was duly charged and appeared in the Hlanganani Magistrates’ Court.

Cele must have received bail, as a few months later hostel residents reported that Cele, together with a relative of Bhekukwazi Mdweshu (the rogue cop and alleged leader of the Glebelands Eight hit squad) and brother of his co-accused, Ncomekile Ntshangase, as well as Cele’s girlfriend, attempted to extort R80 each from residents of Blocks 45, 50, 53, 54, 55 and 57. A few days later two Block 54 residents were shot, one killed and one admitted to hospital. Both had allegedly resisted “donating” to Cele and his crew.

The community also fingered Cele and his associates for the August 2018 murder of a Block 50 resident and a Secureco Metsu security guard. The Block 50 man had also allegedly refused to contribute during collections held at that time.

Residents also claimed Cele was behind the murder of Glebelands grandmother Sibongile Mtshali, who was shot dead in the tuckshop she ran from her Block 46 room in July 2017. In April 2018, Khayelihle Mbuthuma, one of the Glebelands Eight, received a life sentence for Mtshali’s murder. The court found that although Mbuthuma was not the triggerman, he had acted with common purpose to effect Mtshali’s demise.

In 2016 it was alleged that Cele, Ntshangase’s brother and a third accomplice hijacked a truck in the vicinity of Jacobs. According to community sources, Cele was subsequently arrested at Glebelands where he was found in possession of an unlicensed firearm and goods from the hijacked vehicle. The arresting officers were not from the area and the matter seemed to sink without trace, suggesting that money may have changed hands.

Cele, a former Block 52 representative of Glebelands’ ill-fated peace committee, was reputedly recruited by the late hostel warlord Bonga Hlophe and Mdweshu to carry out taxi hits. It seems he also became a willing participant in the elimination of the hostel’s block committees. Cele had been prominent among the Glebelands Eight’s motley crowd of supporters and regularly rallied residents of “Madala Stezi” – the hostel’s old blocks – to attend court before the matter was moved to the Pietermaritzburg High Court in early 2019.

In a media statement dated 18 January 2021, police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo reported that the National Political Task Team had secured the conviction of professional nurse, Nokhona Mpanza, “who was found guilty in the Pietermaritzburg High Court for her role in the murder of her boyfriend, Mr Nkosinathi Ngcobo”.

“Mpanza was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment of which five years were suspended for five years. Her co-accused Mr Zamani Cele awaits his fate while the trial continues.”

Mpanza, who pleaded guilty in November 2020, told the court of her abusive relationship with Ngcobo. She describedhow over the years Ngobo had affairs with other women and helped himself to her salary. She said she had laid numerous charges against him and had even obtained a protection order against him.

“The police, however, did not act against the deceased when he infringed the protection order.”

Mpanza said Ngcobo had told her that: “I am wasting my time if I thought the police would arrest him as he was politically connected.”

When she tried to throw Ngcobo out, she claimed he threatened to kill her. As a last resort, it seems she enlisted the help of her cousin, Sibonele Ngcamu, to hire hitmen to rid her of her problem. After paying them R40,000 it seems Mpanza got cold feet. But Ngcamu told her the assassins had “arrived from Gauteng to carry out the job” and would kill them both if the hit was called off.

Ngcobo was duly killed by “three unknown assailants outside his home in Hlanganani”.

Mpanza admitted to the court that she and Ngcamu had conspired with others to kill Ngcobo and had agreed to testify against Cele. But Cele’s fate came sooner than expected.

On Thursday 21 January 2021 Cele was gunned down at Glebelands in what appears to be a power struggle between remnants of Mdweshu’s cabal and a group of killers that have recently coalesced around a Block O taxi man.

Commenting at the time of Ngcobo’s death, former ANC KZN spokesperson, the late Mdumiseni Ntuli, could not confirm if Ngcobo’s murder had been politically motivated and said the ANC “continued to place its hope and faith in the processes that were led by the Moerane Commission of Inquiry [into KZN’s political killings].”

Political failure

In his closing arguments back in 2018, evidence leader advocate Bheki Manyathi had told the commission that Glebelands was “central” to KZN’s killings and that the state and politically cultivated “chaos” had provided cover under which corruption and criminality could flourish.

Among its recommendations, the commission stated that, “There was ample evidence that acts of omission and commission by the police, through incompetence or political manipulation, has led to a loss of public confidence in the criminal justice system…”

It therefore recommended that “the State take immediate measures to ensure that institutions of the criminal justice system are immediately depoliticised and political manipulation [is] brought to an end and public measures [are] taken to instil [sic] confidence in the public that the State is acting vigorously, expeditiously, and without fear or favour.”

The commission further proposed that, “an inter-ministerial task force of national ministers of the security cluster, working with their provincial and municipal counterparts, immediately review the workings of the security agencies to ensure that effective coordination and coherence among and between these agencies is reinforced…” to counter “the culture of impunity”.

It also recommended that police should be adequately trained and that properly qualified and experienced officers should be appropriately placed. In other words, there should be no more political appointments of senior SAPS members to cover the asses of whichever faction of the ruling party happened to be in charge of the country at the time. The commission appealed for its recommendations to be considered at national government level as potentially similar conditions existed in all provinces.

Naturally, none of this came to pass as evidenced by – among other things – the ongoing war within SAPS’ senior management and increasingly, police members’ participation in criminal syndicates (the indirect fallout of which contributed to the assassination of a crack detective); a procession of tainted, dysfunctional ministers; government’s failure to hold politicians – at all levels – to account; and, predictably, the escalation of lawlessness and attendant socio-political collapse. The impact of all this on the ground has been consummate.

Just how broken is a justice system in which a professional nurse, someone who has dedicated her life to saving life, felt (seemingly with justification) that the only means of ending her abuse was by taking the life of her abuser?

How broken is a democracy in which law enforcement defers – not only to political leaders – but to lowly but politically connected public servants?

How morally bankrupt is a government that not only fails to reverse apartheid’s social engineering project that gave rise to the inhumane hostel system, but actively exploits these shattered communities and feeds off the endemic violence that has grown from their undignified and squalid living conditions?

How broken is an economy in which an increasing number of young men resort to killing to make a living?

How broken is a political party that not only fails to hold its own accountable, but whose members are the architects, enablers and active participants in the existing dystopia?

How broken is a society that accepts this status quo? DM

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  • Yep, all broken. Broken democracy, broken society; do you have any suggestion as to how realistically we can begin to repair what’s broken. That would be news worth reading. We see and experience the police, government, health system, education and everything is broken. There seem to be too few people interested in building. How about you?

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