“We are not going to tolerate death!” bellowed George Bonono, an elected member of shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo’s interim national council. He then turned to the police in riot gear who were gathered at the gates of the Curries Fountain sports ground in Durban, from where the march set off. Bonono warned that the demonstration would not be stopped by “the same police who murdered workers at Marikana”.
Abahlali alleges that as many as 16 of its members have been killed in politically motivated attacks over the past five years, and that little has been done to stem the killings or hold those responsible to account.
The march came in the wake of a report published by the Moerane Commission, which spent more than a year investigating political killings in KwaZulu-Natal. While the report records some of the testimony Abahlali presented to the commission, no mention is made of the assassination of activists in its recommendations, which focus almost exclusively on factional violence within political parties and the governance of public services.
Included in the memorandum handed over by Abahlali at the conclusion of Monday’s march was a demand that the president “establish a credible and independent commission of inquiry into the killing of Abahlali activists and other community activists”.
Former ANC ward councillors Mduduzi Ngcobo and Velile Lutsheko, together with hitman Mlungisi Ndlovu, are serving life sentences for the 2014 assassination of Abahlali leader Thulisile Ndlovu. Phumlani Ndlovu, a former Cato Manor police officer, is serving a 10-year sentence after he gunned down 17-year-old Nqobile Nzuza during a protest. But convictions for the killing of Abahlali’s members have been the exception and not the norm, said Bonono.
Betty Patosi is still waiting to find out why her 28-year-old son, Samuel Hlole, was killed in June last year. Patosi turned 50 on 29 September. She told New Frame that Hlole used to wake her up on her birthday by cupping his hand around her ear and whispering, “Happy birthday, mummy!” Her past two birthdays have felt empty, she said.
Holding a microphone in one hand and a portable speaker in the other, Patosi sang tirelessly throughout Monday’s march in front of a giant portrait of her son on a banner that read, “Rest in peace”. Patosi told New Frame she came to activism late in life. It was Hlole’s resolve that galvanised her. “I am singing for two,” she said. “For me, and for his memory.”
Hlole was gunned down during an attempted eviction by the City of eThekwini’s notorious anti-land invasion unit at the eKukhanyeni land occupation in Marianhill. He was an outspoken leader of the occupation, and confronted the anti-land invasion unit directly for not being in possession of a court order for the evictions it was carrying out.
The chairperson of Abahlali’s eKukhanyeni branch, S’fisio Ngcobo, was killed earlier this year by a group of unknown men while buying a cool drink near his home.
Abahlali were joined in Durban by members of the Market Users Committee, Ubunye Bamahostela, the Congolese Solidarity Campaign, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and the South African Federation of Trade Unions, while other solidarity marches were held concurrently in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Another solidarity protest is scheduled for today in New York.
The march took on historical irony as the tide of Abahlali’s red shirts streamed down Dr Yusuf Dadoo Street. Crossing David Webster Street – named after the activist assassinated for his anti-apartheid activities – the demonstrators sang for another murdered by the apartheid regime: “Solomoni! Iyho uSolomon! Isotsha lo Umkhonto weSizwe! Wa yo bulala amabhunu eAfrika!” [Oh Solomon, the Umkhonto we Sizwe soldier who killed the boers in Africa!].
Once the marchers reached the city hall, leaders of the movement who have been forced into hiding by the killings drew wild applause. Abahlali president S’bu Zikode made only his second public appearance since going underground in July after attempts were allegedly made on his life. Abahlali’s Eastern Cape chairperson, Ntsikelelo Mathumbu, who has been in hiding in Durban since the murder of Eastern Cape headman Thulani Mjanyelwa, was also in attendance.
Abahlali wrote letters to both President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister of Police Bheki Cele in June, outlining the scale of the political killings of its members. It said it gave the president and the minister’s offices more than a month’s notice of the march.
When asked why nobody from Cele’s office had been present to receive the memorandum of demands, spokesperson Reneilwe Serero incorrectly told New Frame that the memorandum had been addressed only to the president, even though it was addressed to both Ramaphosa and Cele. Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Khusela Diko, did not answer New Frame’s calls.
Brigadier Tefo Mpete from the KwaZulu-Natal police eventually accepted Abahlali’s memorandum of demands, which infuriated some among the movement’s leadership. “There is no use in giving the memorandum to the same people who are killing us,” said Bonono.