Opinionista Vanessa Burger 17 June 2021

Fear stalks KZN: Police stand back while assassination squads ramp up attacks on activists

The fragile peace that followed the 2017 arrest of Glebelands rogue cop Bhekukwazi Mdweshu and his seven alleged accomplices has been shattered by at least 26 killings and eight attempted murders since September 2020 — on average a fatal or near-fatal incident every seven days. This is a death rate nearly four times the national average and far higher than war zones such as Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Vanessa Burger

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

Only three weeks after receiving death threats, family members of Mbizana community activist, Vuyolwethu Sibulali, were attacked at Glebelands Hostel, Umlazi, on Sunday, 6 June.

According to Sibulali, at around 6pm his mother-in-law was in her room at Block P when, courtesy of Eskom, the hostel was plunged into darkness. She had a visitor, a young man from the Eastern Cape village of Ndakeni where for some years Sibulali has been engaged in community struggles for access to clean water and improved service delivery, by focusing attention on municipal corruption and the expansion of a local quarry that now threatens Ndakeni’s only water source. Ndakeni falls within the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (formerly Mbizana) local municipality.

While they chatted in the kitchen, Sibulali’s five-year-old son played games on a cellphone with another child in the bedroom. Suddenly, under cover of the almost total darkness, a gunman burst into the room and opened fire. In the ensuing mayhem, Sibulali’s mother-in-law sustained two gunshot wounds to her leg. Her visitor ran for the bedroom where he fell next to the bed where the children were playing. The gunman continued firing and the visitor eventually collapsed and died on the kitchen floor. According to residents who arrived at the scene shortly after, spent cartridges were found on the bed only inches from where the children had been sitting.

Sibulali — who divides his time between Ndakeni and Glebelands — was in the Eastern Cape at the time. On 18 May he had received death threats via text message.         

“Vuyo your days are numbered, you are always thinking you are the only person, we will crush you off and we know where you stay in place you can never hide yourself never, so be prepared bhuti. You can tell the police but we will get you raining or not!!!” (sic) the first message read.

A second message followed, “Hey brother we will Kill you we already organized everything for you just be prepared.” (sic)  

The threats were reported at Flagstaff police station in the Eastern Cape and Sibulali was eventually provided with a case number.

An older brother of the Block P victim, who also lives at Ndakeni, is Sibulali’s friend.

“But the guy who was shot was not close to me,” said Sibulali of the victim. “He was the type of guy who minds his own business. He worked and liked to drink at weekends, but he was not a violent person. I really don’t understand why anyone would want to kill him because he was friends with everyone.”  

Some Block P residents have suggested that Sibulali was the intended target because he and the victim were of a similar height and build. It was well known that Sibulali’s mother-in-law usually cared for his son during the day and that he would sometimes collect the child in the evening to take him back to Block R where Sibulali and his wife share a room.

“If this happened because of what I’m doing for my community [at Ndakeni], then surely they [the killers] would know that I’m not at Glebelands at the moment?” speculated Sibulali.

“I don’t know if the death threats and now this incident are a coincidence and they were really after my friend’s brother, or if they are sending me a message that I must back off because they can hurt my family or take me any time. It’s very confusing.”

As with so many other outspoken community leaders in post-apartheid South Africa, Sibulali, who has been at the forefront of Ndakeni struggles since 2009, has been living in the shadow of death for a number of years.

Mbizana is something of an assassination hotspot. In 2011, former Ward 8 councillor Monwabisi Mfingwana was killed in a hijacking that many, including Sibulali, claim was a hit. In 2017, Sibulali’s close friend and ANC activist, Bongile Hlambelo, disappeared after having allegedly been offered a “security job” at the ANC’s Nasrec conference. In April 2021, Councillor Lucky Birthwell Mbuzi was charged with the murder of ANC activists Mduduzi Madikizela and Hleliphi Thotshe. There have also been many taxi hits, while the unsolved 2016 assassination of anti-mining activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Radebe casts a long shadow over the independence of the criminal justice system.

And like many other community activists, particularly those opposing mining or municipal corruption, Sibulali has allegedly been targeted by police members who appeared to be acting on political instruction. Arrested on what seemed to be bogus charges in 2019, assaulted and thereafter repeatedly harassed for non-existent infringements, Sibulali’s case against the police was recently rejected by the National Prosecuting Authority, a decision he is now appealing against — another potential motive for the recent death threats. Sibulali harbours few illusions that the intimidation will be properly investigated. He is yet to be allocated a detective.

Back at Glebelands, the fragile peace that followed the 2017 arrest of Glebelands rogue cop, detective Bhekukwazi Mdweshu and his seven alleged accomplices, and the successful conviction of a number of other hostel hitmen, has been shattered by at least 26 killings and eight attempted murders since September 2020 — on average a fatal or near-fatal incident every seven days — levels of violence not seen at Glebelands since 2015, a death rate nearly four times the national average and far higher than war zones such as Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.

As a former block committee member, the community structures systematically eliminated by Mdweshu’s hit squad, Sibulali has for many years been among Glebelands so-called “walking dead” — those with targets on their backs who have miraculously, so far, managed to stay alive.

But unlike the political dimension to previous years’ violence, the recent carnage seems mostly criminally motivated. Residents have reported that Mdweshu’s cabal has split into two factions and that most fatalities over the past nine months are linked to their attempts to take control of Glebelands extortion rackets in which protection money is forced from residents of the hostel “old blocks” — the decaying northern section of Glebelands adjacent to Umlazi’s busy Mega City shopping mall. With about 15 blocks under criminal control, each of which accommodates more than 250 people, these “collections” can net up to R200,000 a time.

But sources suggest it is more complicated than a simple power struggle and that hostilities between Mdweshu and his co-accused are being played out at the hostel. The on-off “Glebelands Eight” trial (the case presently before the Pietermaritzburg High Court in which Mdweshu and his co-accused are charged with many murders, attempted murders, racketeering, extortion and a range of other crimes) has dragged on since 2018. Leading criminal defence lawyer advocate Martin Krog is defending Mdweshu and his brother, while their six co-accused are represented by Legal Aid. All were denied bail and have been held in Westville Prison since their December 2017 arrests. Mdweshu’s failure, initially to pay advocate Jimmy Howse, who represented them during their bail application, and later, Krog, has led to several delays.    

In evidence heard by the court so far, a number of witnesses claimed that Mdweshu and his cabal regularly extorted money from residents to buy guns and ammunition, bribe police officers, as well as cover their bail and legal expenses if arrested. As in previous years, many of the most recent murders have taken place during Glebelands “collections”. Sources have alleged that Mdweshu’s supporters are spearheading the latest “collections” to raise funds to pay Krog (Mdweshu apparently informed the court that he was “waiting for investments to mature”, to enable him to meet his legal expenses). Those represented by Legal Aid are allegedly keen to proceed with the case and are bitterly opposed to further delays while yet more money is squeezed from beleaguered residents. As a result, their supporters at Glebelands appear to be targeting those in charge of the recent “collections” who are allegedly still loyal to Mdweshu.        

Be that as it may, the police and the eThekwini municipality have historically proven unable or unwilling to deal with Glebelands extortion rackets — with the result that unemployed, poverty-stricken residents are increasingly forced into destitution or fall prey to mashonisas (loan sharks) to prevent their eviction, or worse.  

New research by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC) — which incidentally recorded a Covid-19 lockdown-related escalation in extortion in the Western Cape at around the same time as Glebelands — found that “an entrenched extortion market tends to be one in which members of the police are linked to extortion rackets, where the general population lives in fear of the crime networks and where the population has largely lost faith in the state, including the SAPS”.

The report warns of the danger extortion poses to democracy, economic sustainability and social stability, and that “in certain areas… where extortion has become rife, criminal governance has often displaced state institutions”.  

… State intervention is similarly missing at Glebelands. Despite the killing of four residents and the attempted murder of another two in the past week, there has been no increased police presence, no operations to recover the illegal guns with which the hostel is awash, and street lighting — the most basic security measure — is often left unrepaired for months while the municipality throws desperately needed maintenance money at non-essential projects such as the R11-million spent on, according to eThekwini municipality tender documents, “the provision of non-motorised transport routes” — ie new pavements. Corruption kills as surely as any bullet.

Likewise, in a recent analysis of the SAPS “assassination problem” following the murder of Western Cape Anti-Gang Unit section commander Lieutenant-Colonel Charl Kinnear, GI-TOC directors Mark Shaw and Julian Rademeyer warn that poor oversight and the SAPS’ failure to arrest corruption and criminality within its ranks, has, particularly within the Crime Intelligence Division, led to officers becoming “entwined with the criminal underworld, or drawn into political dirty tricks”.

It is in this “inherently compromising environment”, they wrote, that, “the foundations of policing have crumbled” and “the assassination economy… is now a feature of the South African landscape”.

According to Shaw and Rademeyer, the assassination of Kinnear and several other respected senior officers “puts SA at a crossroads… it is now impossible to tell the difference between some parts of the SAPS and organised crime itself”.

This, however, has been the reality for many poor rural or urban communities for some time. Assassinations, political dirty tricks and ineffective policing coupled with service delivery failure, systemic corruption, political patronage networks — often inextricably linked to organised crime actors — and unresponsive government departments, have long undermined the credibility of the SAPS as well as the state itself. The upcoming local government elections, widespread political instability and socioeconomic meltdown are likely to intensify the demand for hitmen in coming months.

Although Shaw and Rademeyer give Police Minister Bheki Cele some credit for admitting past mistakes, the ongoing war within SAPS upper echelons has done nothing to instil confidence that the police have their collective eyes on the ball.

And as Shaw points out in his latest book, Give us more Guns — How South Africa’s Gangs were Armed, a deep dive into the sordid police-guns-for-gangs saga (where a Central Firearms Registry colonel sold at least 2,400 firearms — most of which were handed in during earlier amnesty periods — to Cape Flats gangsters), there is significant cause for concern regarding Cele’s proximity to — among other dubious characters — the Gcaba brothers, the widely feared, politically connected, seemingly “untouchable dons” of KwaZulu-Natal’s violent taxi industry, an industry which, Shaw speculates, may have been among the first recipients of the stolen police guns.

In his book, Shaw cites sources that claim as many as 9,000 firearms could have been channelled to criminal enterprises of which the taxi industry would have provided a ready market. At around this time, Cele was KZN’s MEC for Transport before being appointed national police commissioner by former president Jacob Zuma, the Gcaba brothers’ uncle.

So great it seems was Cele’s esteem for elder brother Mandla Gcaba that he appointed him to broker peace between warring KZN taxi operators. Cele also enthusiastically endorsed the eThekwini municipality’s controversial appointment of Gcaba’s company, Tansnat, which took over the operation of Durban’s ailing bus service, only to run it into the ground while reportedly accumulating more than R600-million debt that the city seems strangely reluctant to recoup.

In 2010 amaBhungane reported that at least R1-million in cash was allegedly stolen from Cele’s home. Although this was denied by then deputy provincial commissioner General Johan Booysen and Cele himself, amaBhungane also noted at the time that, “questions [had] been raised about how Cele can fund his flamboyant lifestyle”.

Effective and ethical policing is the bedrock on which we need to rebuild our country. All tainted officers within the SAPS top echelon, including the minister, must go. We must start afresh. Strong civilian oversight with a legal component, including at the local station level (community policing forums are largely ineffective, often co-opted by the police, heavily politicised or can turn into vigilante groups), must become a feature of future policing.

Cele’s recent trip to Nkandla after Zuma flouted a summons to appear before the Zondo Commission raises further questions regarding the police minister’s loyalties, not to mention the unequal application of the law.

As a former Glebelands leader commented wryly, “if the police come to visit us, they knock once, if you are slow to open the door you will meet it flying halfway across your room when the police kick it off its hinges. But when it comes to high-profile people they send an email asking nicely for that particular tycoon to hand himself over, or they ask him or her what reason he or she might not be arrested. They even stop for Zuma’s child soldiers’ roadblock [a reference to MKMVA members ‘guarding’ Zuma’s residence]. Really, these things make us lose hope and to lose hope is not good because hope is all we have.”

The state’s equally uneven focus on South Africa’s “assassination problem” was also driven home by the high-level deputation that included Mining Minister Gwede Mantashe and the provincial commissioner Lieutenant-General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, who went “to pay homage” to Richards Bay Minerals executives after the assassination of general manager Nico Swart in May.

Although Mantashe got it right when he said “the safety and security issues affecting Richards Bay is not only a threat to the province but the country”, these same officials have been conspicuously silent on the killing of nearly 40 members of mining-affected communities in KZN since 2016, or the bloodletting in Pietermaritzburg that eventually culminated in the police shooting dead seven people, including alleged gang leaders who escaped from police custody in April.

At Tehuis hostel — also adjacent to Mega City mall — leaders’ attempts to defuse conditions similar to those that gave rise to the Glebelands carnage in which more than 100 people were killed in less than four years, have repeatedly fallen on deaf ears. Escalating volatility recently led to the shooting of two residents during community protests over a lack of electricity. One of the victims later died in hospital. Although suspects’ names and addresses were provided to police less than an hour after the incident, to date no arrests have been made. Likewise, investigations lodged more than a year ago into alleged contract irregularities appear to have ground to a halt.  

State intervention is similarly missing at Glebelands. Despite the killing of four residents and the attempted murder of another two in the past week, there has been no increased police presence, no operations to recover the illegal guns with which the hostel is awash, and street lighting — the most basic security measure — is often left unrepaired for months while the municipality throws desperately needed maintenance money at non-essential projects such as the R11-million spent on, according to eThekwini municipality tender documents, “the provision of non-motorised transport routes” — ie new pavements. Corruption kills as surely as any bullet.

The government, the governing party and police management are focused — to the exclusion of all else — on waging political warfare and plundering what little remains in state coffers. In the meantime our country burns. Cele recently asked President Cyril Ramaphosa to institute an inquiry into National Commissioner Khehla Sitole’s fitness to hold office after hostilities between former Western Cape Anti-Gang unit bosses and Sitole bubbled over into the public domain. Sitole has meanwhile approached Ramaphosa to try to clear his name. The stench of corruption, political interference and high-level police involvement in organised crime hangs heavy over this unseemly saga.      

There are rumours in KZN that should Cele successfully remove Sitole, he may replace him with Booysen — a long-time ally of the minister.

Shaw and Rademeyer are correct — South Africa is at a crossroads. Without sound policing and the political will to facilitate it, there will be no prosecution of State Capture looters; there can be no end to the violence meted out to our broken communities. Assassinations, political killings, taxi violence, and state and private sector corruption will escalate, and organised crime networks and their political facilitators — already embedded across all levels of society — will burrow ever deeper into our rapidly unravelling social fabric. Our descendants will suffer the accumulated dehumanisation of generational violence.

In a message after the shooting of his mother-in-law, Sibulali expressed fears for his son: “He cries whenever he speaks to me, he’s so traumatised. I’m very worried about how he will cope, especially at school after what he’s seen.”

Effective and ethical policing is the bedrock on which we need to rebuild our country. All tainted officers within the SAPS top echelon, including the minister, must go. We must start afresh. Strong civilian oversight with a legal component, including at the local station level (community policing forums are largely ineffective, often co-opted by the police, heavily politicised or can turn into vigilante groups), must become a feature of future policing.

Institutions of accountability such as the Independent Policing Investigative Directorate, the Public Protector and the Human Rights Commission have been rendered dysfunctional. We must police the police. For the sake of our country, our future and that of our children. We cannot allow this crisis to continue. DM

Gallery

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 1

  • THE AFTERMATH

    Business leaders concerned that eThekwini mayor offers platitudes but no concrete plans to rebuild operations

    By Des Erasmus