Trapped and frightened, Vuyolwethu Sibulali, 34, leaned against the wall and surrendered to death. He said a little prayer: “If this is my day to die, then let it be.”
Since the eruption of the deadly violence in 2014 at the Glebelands Hostel in Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal, Sibulali says his life has been shadowed by threats of death.
He describes the day on which he and six others were allegedly attacked by a mob inside the hostel. The attack was the beginning of a deadly saga that still looms over the hostel.
“When we could hear the loud chants and shouting getting closer to our door, we all realised they were coming for us. We hurried to close the door, but some petrol bombs had already made it inside. Through the window, a storm of bullets and rocks were coming inside the four-bedded room. As the smoke and fire filled the room, we had our backs against the wall, certain we were going to die. We were lucky the police arrived in time; they were able to get us out,” says Sibulali.
Dying for peace and justice
In a report by Vanessa Burger, Building Community Resilience at Glebelands Hostel – If We Speak Up We Get Shot Down released in August 2019, it was found that the violence at Glebelands Hostel has resulted in at least 120 deaths between March 2014 and January 2019.
Sibulali’s character is half masked by his loosely carried cold bravery. Firm in his advocacy, he says “peace and justice” for Glebelands is a cause for which he is prepared to die: “This hostel is Satan’s den, but it’s become the story of my life. I have faced life-threatening attacks, attempted assassinations and police intimidation. But I won’t rest until the truth is revealed. The narrative that people are being killed for selling beds is bogus and undermines the deaths claimed by dirty politicians, police and hitmen,” he says.
The hostel is home to about 22 000 residents, who share ablution and kitchen facilities. It has 71 blocks; newer blocks have been added to accommodate more women, children and families, but the older blocks are clear by their bare and uncared-for facades and conditions, indicating neglect by the eThekwini Municipality. The hostel is overcrowded and poorly maintained.
Since its establishment in the 1960s, the hostel has housed generations of men who came from the Eastern Cape and the outskirts of KwaZulu-Natal seeking work in nearby factories, firms and shipping industries. Its foundation is layered in apartheid-era red brick, designed to house African male labourers working in the city.
The tension between the hostel’s blocks is subtle but the unmarked territories, no-go zones and bullet holes on some of the hostel walls are as obvious as the dripping water from burst pipes between the dark hallways.
A shopping centre for thugs
Poverty and unemployment remain rife in the hostel. Sibulali says this has made its people vulnerable to crime: “As Glebe became a crime hub, I saw men I knew, some from my neighbourhood, turn into heartless hitmen. They turned against us and helped Glebe become a ‘shopping centre’ for hitmen and thugs. The price to kill here may be cheap, but it’s enough,” explains Sibulali.
Currently, eight men are on trial at the KwaZulu-Natal High Court in Pietermaritzburg. They are charged with 22 counts, which include murder and attempted murder. The first accused is former SAPS police officer Bhekukwazi Mdweshu. His seven co-accused are Khayelihle Mbuthuma, Vukani Mcombothi, Eugene Hlophe, Mbuyiselwa Mkhize, Ncomekile Ntshangase, Mondli Mthethwa and Bongani Mbele.
Sibulali is one of a few residents with a credible reputation for fighting for justice and peace at the hostel, and this, he says, has made him a target. “A lot of people benefit from the violence, chaos and illegalities that rule at this hostel. It is a well-funded crime syndicate, that is why hundreds of murder and attempted murder cases remain unsolved. The truth is beginning to creep out and the masterminds will feel the heat. People will soon know the truth about why we are being killed at Glebelands Hostel.”
Almost casually he recalls the details of some of the life-threatening incidents he has allegedly faced as an activist living at the hostel. Since 2009, he had been staying at Block 57 and forced to move following the attack by the mob. Now, he stays in Block R where he says he feels “safer”.
“The group were proud supporters of the previous ANC Ward Councillor Robert Mzobe and ringleader, Bhekukwazi Mdweshu. That night, their objective was clear. They wanted us out of the hostel, dead or alive, only because we were against the blatant corruption and crimes that deprived hostel residents or development and social services. We lost our belongings and had to start anew.”
Sibulali arrived at the hostel in 2008 from Bizana in the Eastern Cape, to find work. This was after injuries sustained in a mugging in Johannesburg shattered his dreams of playing professional football. To start anew, he came to Glebelands Hostel.
At first, he stayed with his older brother who was an active member of the hostel committee. Sibulali was soon introduced to the hostel dynamics and its political schemes. His activism was fuelled by his outrage at the exposed crimes and unspoken injustices that he became aware of.
“My name started making rounds around the hostel, and soon I was also told my name was on a hitlist. Threatening phone calls would often warn [me] against talking too much; they [threatened] to shut me up,” says Sibulali.
Now living in Block R in a shared unit where he has his own room, Sibulali says although he has been threatened by hostility and violence, he cannot afford to leave the hostel: “I left home to try [to] make a decent living in Durban. Although I face these challenges, going back home is not an option. I would be failing my children and family. At least rent is one less worry, while I continue to seek employment,” he explains.
To Sibulali, the appearance of the eight men in court may unravel many more people involved in instigating violence at the hostel, but not its masterminds. “Dirty politicians and hard criminals have intimidated and dismantled all efforts for justice and unity at the hostel because Glebelands murder has become a cheap trade for easy money, although the current case will expose more criminals involved in extortion, murder and attempted murder. I fear the people behind all this bloodshed, uncertainty and senseless crime and corruption will get away because they will kill anyone who is in their way.”