Freed activists vow to hold the state to account

Members of Abahlali baseMjondolo arrested and in some cases held for six months plan to launch a civil suit against the state for unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution.

Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have said they will sue the state after charges of murder and conspiracy to murder were withdrawn against six members of the shack dwellers’ movement.

The state summarily dropped murder charges against three Abahlali activists, Ayanda Ngila, 29, Lindokuhle Mnguni, 27, and Landu Shazi, 33, on 29 September. They were arrested in April and charged with the murder of Vusi Shandu, who was shot in Durban’s Cato Manor township in March while on his way to work a night shift

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The state also withdrew charges of conspiracy to murder against Abahlali’s deputy president Mqapheli Bonono, 39, Maphiwe Gasela, 29, and Siniko Miya, 29, on 4 October. The three were arrested in May after being accused of hatching a plan to kill witnesses in Shandu’s murder case. 

In both cases, the senior prosecutor declined to send the case to the regional court for trial, citing insufficient evidence and no prospect of a successful prosecution. Abahlali will now help its six activists launch a civil suit against the state for unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution.

Fighting state persecution 

Logan Padayachee, the lawyer representing the activists, said there was no need to arrest and charge his clients because the police and the state did not have sufficient evidence to sustain the prosecution. “It is a pity that my clients had to endure such difficulties when there was no evidence linking them to the case. The state witnesses were contradicting themselves and each other. It was just a mess and this could not sustain a prosecution. That is why the state withdrew the charges.

“Now my clients are intending to sue the state, including the minister of police, the commissioner of the South African police services and others for unlawful arrest and prosecution. We have a strong case, and I don’t see them getting away from this,” he said.

S’bu Zikode, Abahlali’s president, said the movement will support the six activists morally and legally as they take on the state. This is to send a clear message to state organs that the movement will not take intimidation, attacks, assaults, arbitrary arrest and prosecution lying down.

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“We thank all the organisations in South Africa, Africa and the entire world who have supported [us] when our members were arrested and prosecuted for nothing. Everyone around the world wanted to know what happens to these comrades because it has an impact on their countries as well.

“If people here in South Africa can be arrested, prosecuted, sentenced for nothing, it can happen anywhere else. If we don’t sue the state, it is going to happen again when people would be arrested and prosecuted and thereafter freed without any consequences,” he said.

Time and dignity lost

Bonono said his arrest and prosecution affected his family and his dignity. “I thank my wife and family for supporting me. My father didn’t take it well when he heard that I had been arrested. I hope that now that I’m freed he will get better.

“There was a time, after I was arrested and charged, when I felt naked. I felt that people were looking at me as a killer. I felt that my dignity had been expunged or trampled upon. The distorted stories about us were all over the media. We were vilified and called murderers on social media. I don’t know how our names will be cleared in all these platforms because we have been vindicated,” he said.

Gasela said she was arrested just a day after her 15-month-old child was discharged from hospital after suffering a serious illness. She spent 10 days in prison before being released on bail on 20 May. Her bail conditions prevented her from staying in eKhenana.

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“The worst kind of pain was being separated from my family and from my community. I was denied the only place I called home. I was forced to move back home [to] KwaMashu where I suffered judgement and insults from … family members,” Gasela said. 

“I have mixed emotions on the outcome of this case. On the one hand, I am, of course, happy to be finally proven innocent. But the impact of this arrest cuts deep. I cannot bring back the time lost, and my entire dignity has been tarnished. 

“I haven’t been able to sleep well because of my displacement. I am angered by how we were targeted by the police and labelled as criminals by the state. The journey to our freedom hasn’t been easy, even after receiving bail,” Gasela added, saying that now she will return to eKhenana to restart her life.

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Miya had to spend six months in jail. He was denied bail after being connected to another pending case. He said he was happy to be released to join his family but that he felt heartache over the time spent in jail. He was not even at the meeting where the alleged plot to kill the witnesses was hatched.

“Now the truth [is out], and we are out of jail. But I am not entirely happy. I have lost out on so many things while I was in jail for flimsy charges. Worst of all, we had to spend time with real criminals. What I saw in jail during the six months pained me.

“We were staying with people smoking whoonga and sometimes they took other people’s things by force. I survived and managed to keep my belongings only because there were many comrades or people who supported our cause as Abahlali,” he said.

The power of unity

Desmond D’Sa, coordinator of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, an environmental justice organisation, supported Abahlali throughout the court cases.

“The cases are a clear indication that Abahlali are under systematic attack and there are people within the state who see this organisation as the threat. These are people who want to criminalise people who are doing good work in poor communities. These charges have been fabricated. There was no evidence of wrongdoing. Now that the charges have been dropped … the minister of the police must be held accountable,” he said.

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Verushka Memdutt of the Coalition of the Poor also applauded Abahlali members and leaders for the unyielding support it gave to the six throughout. “We have proudly supported the Abahlali movement because we believe in their mission, vision and principles. For those of us who are neglected, this has been a stepping stone that has made not only the coalition stronger, but it has also been an example for us all that in unity there is power,” she said.

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