Dying for land and still overlooked – the other side of the coin

Why it is that the political killings of party members and councillors receive notable public attention, while the murders of activists in a large and sustained movement of impoverished people are often passed over in silence?

Steven Friedman, former trade unionist and now a professor at the University of Johannesburg, recently published a column in Business Day titled Abahlali murders show that your right to speak depends on where you live.

Friedman’s article (accessible here) questioned the resounding silence from political parties around the ongoing assassination of members of the landless people’s movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo. 

The movement, which now claims more than 50 000 paid up members, has faced regular waves of repression since it was first formed in Durban in 2005. 

Abahlali say that five of their activists have been assassinated in the past eight months. Most recently, S’fiso Ngcobo, the chairperson of their eKukhanyeni branch in Mariannhill near Durban, died after being shot seven times by unknown men, metres from the entrance to his home.

Friedman asks an important question about the nature of our democracy. He questions why it is that the political killings of party members and councillors receive notable public attention, while the murders of activists in a large and sustained movement of impoverished people are often passed over in silence.

The most significant response to the escalating political murders in KwaZulu-Natal has been the Moerane Commission of Inquiry. 

The Commission was established in October 2016 by KwaZulu-Natal premier Willies Mchunu after a spate of political killings in the province. 

It was chaired by Marumo Moerane, and its investigations, which included testimony from Abahlali’s president S’bu Zikode, ended in March 2018. 

The report – which is 424 pages long– was handed over to Mchunu along with recommendations last Tuesday (June 12) and will be tabled before Parliament. The contents of the report have not yet been made public.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has repeatedly expressed his serious concern at the political assassinations in KwaZulu-Natal. 

On May 14, following the murders of ANC ward councillor Musawenkosi Mchunu in Pietermaritzburg, and IFP member Sibuyiselo Dlamini in Ulundi, he announced a ministerial task team to investigate killings of politicians. 

Ramaphosa’s announcement made no mention of Abahlali members and on May 23, Abahlali urged the President to set up an independent committee to look into the killings of its leaders. 

Abahlali has suffered previous waves of repression. In 2013 for instance, Nkululeko Gwala, a prominent member of the movement involved in a land occupation in Cato Crest, died after being shot 12 times. 

Months later, Nqobile Nzuza, a teenager, was killed, this time by the police, in the same area. The following year Thuli Ndlovu, the movement’s chairperson in KwaNdengezi, was assassinated. 

A police officer was convicted of Nzuza’s murder and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. Two ANC councillors were convicted for the murder of Ndlovu and received life sentences. But in most cases there have been no arrests following the murder of Abahlali activists.

Although the epicentre for political violence is in KwaZulu-Natal, repression of grassroots struggles is a national phenomenon. 

Just over a month ago, members of the Good Hope settlement in Ekurhuleni were left shaken as men travelling in a car did the rounds in the cramped community, searching for the branch leaders of the Abahlali movement who were responsible for the land occupation of a nearby piece of land they have named Zikode Extension. 

In the later part of the first decade of the 2000s in eTwatwa’s Extension 18, also in Ekurhuleni, former ANC councilors Simon Sintu, Desmond Mbikwana and Gladys Baleka were accused of using the police and politically affiliated mobs to harass, assault and threaten community members including David Mathontsi, chairperson of the local branch of the Landless People’s Movement (LPM). There were reports of arrests, homes being burnt and two murders.

Prior to this, a similar cycle of repression, assault and intimidation of politicised shack dwellers manifested itself in Protea South, on the outskirts of Soweto when LPM activist Maureen Mnisi was attacked along with other members on more than one occasion. The Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) documented the repression of LPM activists in the mid-2000s. 

Movements like Abahlali and the LPM don’t come out of nowhere. There is a long history of grassroots struggle for urban land. 

In the 1940s James Mpanza led the Sofasonke movement that occupied the land that became Orlando, Soweto. 

Mpanza and his movement faced regular repression, including from municipal policemen who threatened people organising for land. 

The struggle for urban land continued in the 1950s and became a very powerful force in the 1980s.

But despite this history, politicians and others in the post-apartheid era have often ascribed popular struggles for urban land to a “third force:.

To blame justified grievances on a “third force” working clandestinely in the shadows takes away from the power and weight of what the landless are fighting for. 

To ignore them and dismiss their efforts as spontaneous is another way to diminish the organisation skills of the oppressed and to completely disregard the fact that it often takes months of discussion and work to plan land occupations. 

Road blockades also require careful discussion and planning.

Falsely ascribing popular struggles to a “third force” or presenting them as “spontaneous” also overlooks the patience many have exercised over the past 24 years while they remained impoverished and landless while others got empowered through corrupt processes.

It is clear that the official forums for the engagement by “stakeholders” have not worked for the majority. This is arguably why people have turned back to direct action.

Organising in South Africa is tough. Many people experience the police as more of an occupying force than a public service. 

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) reported 3 827 cases of assault by police between 2016 and 2017. 

To join an occupation or a road blockade means that one must face the crack of rubber bullets, and perhaps worse.

In their 2017/2018 report, Amnesty International reported two cases of police firing rubber bullets during peaceful protests in Johannesburg and Hout Bay. 

In May last year, 17-year-old Leonaldo Peterson was shot with rubber bullets and required numerous surgeries for his wounded hands. 

Four months later, 14-year-old Ona Dubula was shot at with rubber bullets at close range which left him with injuries and speaking difficulties. 

The police are not the only threat to the struggles of impoverished people for urban land. In June last year Samuel Mabunda, a Mozambican national from Ivory Park, Johannesburg, was fatally beaten by the Red Ants during an eviction. 

Just a month ago, Ndumiso Mdluli of Abahlali was hospitalised and left critically injured by the Anti-Land Invasion Unit in Durban. 

Many have now given their lives just to have a constitutionally-guaranteed right to housing realised. The struggles across the country for urban land and housing are just. They emerge from profound injustice and not from any conspiracy. We need to take these struggles, and the repression that the landless are suffering, much more seriously. Friedman is right. The lives of grassroots activists need to be given the same respect as the lives of politicians.

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