Overwhelming support for activists released on bail

The arrest of Abahlali baseMjondolo members on ‘trumped-up charges’ generated significant national and global support for the movement.

Hundreds of people braved the sun for three days, protesting outside the Durban magistrate’s court on 13, 17 and 20 May. They came from different areas of KwaZulu-Natal, and some from as far afield as Gauteng and Limpopo.

They were there to support Mqapheli Bonono, 39, the deputy president of shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, as well as Maphiwe Gasela and Smiko Miya, both 29, and residents of the movement’s eKhenana occupation in Cato Manor. 

Abahlali members outside the court were joined by members of allied organisations such as Ubunye BamaHostela, the Market Users Committee, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, the Amadiba Crisis Committee, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), among others.

17 May 2021: Abahlali baseMjondolo members protested the arrest of deputy chairperson Mqapheli Bonono and his co-accused Maphiwe Gasela and Smiko Miya, who were detained for more than two weeks.

There were also protests at the Constitutional Court, at the offices of the National Prosecuting Authority in Johannesburg, magistrate’s courts in Tembisa and Cape Town, and the South African embassies in London, Berlin and Accra.

Statements of solidarity were received from Numsa and Saftu, with video recordings of messages of support from the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Workers’ Movement) in Brazil and academics in the United States and the United Kingdom. Significantly, a number of progressive organisations in African countries sent video messages, too, including from Mali, Ghana, Niger, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania and Tunisia, as well as from Palestine. Many spoke of their personal relationship with and respect for Bonono.

Murder in Cato Manor

Bonono and Miya were arrested on 4 May and charged with conspiracy to commit murder and the intimidation of witnesses in a pending murder case. Gasela was arrested on the same charges on 12 May. 

The three are accused of planning to kill a witness to the murder of Vusi Shezi on 16 March. Shezi, who had been a resident of eKhenana, was murdered in Cato Manor, away from the occupation. The movement said he was expelled from the occupation in May 2019 after complaints about his conduct. A women-led assembly took the decision.

Following the murder of Shezi, Lindokuhle Mnguni, an elected leader in the occupation, was arrested and charged with murder. A second person, Landu Shazi (who the police shot during an eviction in 2019), was also arrested. He suffered a broken leg during the arrest and was taken to hospital. Later that day, Ayanda Ngila was also arrested when he attended Mnguni’s appearance in court. The three were then detained in Westville Prison for more than three months. 

17 May 2021: Progressive organisations and unions such as the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and the South African Federation of Trade Unions spread messages of solidarity for the detained Abahlali baseMjondolo members.

Residents of the eKhenana Occupation have offered strong support for the three, attended their court appearances and collected money for a lawyer and to ensure that they can access food and beds in prison.

The state alleges that Bonono, Gasela and Miya conspired to murder a witness to Shezi’s murder during a meeting held at the offices of the Diakonia Council of Churches on 21 March. The movement denies the state’s account, however, saying that Miya was not at the meeting and that the claim that Bonono and Gasela conspired to have a witness murdered at what it termed  an “open” and “well-attended meeting” was “farcical”.

Leading human rights organisation, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute, said the “arrests take place against a backdrop of unrelenting violence against the residents of the eKhenana settlement”. It described the arrests as an “abuse of the criminal justice system” and called for “the urgent release” of Bonono, Miya and Gasela.

Charges ‘plainly trumped up’

Rubin Phillip, a retired Anglican bishop and lifelong activist who worked closely with Steve Biko and remains committed to liberation theology, has expressed his admiration for “Bonono’s courage to speak truth to power, a quality we should all emulate”. He described the charges as “plainly trumped up” and added that “Abahlali baseMjondolo have been down this road many times before, and have always been vindicated”.

In all the previous cases in which members of the movement have been arrested on murder charges, the charges were eventually thrown out of court, sometimes after the accused spent long periods in prison.

20 May 2021: The crowd shouted with joy as it caught a glimpse of the detainees and their friends and family exiting the court.

Speaking outside the court, Verushka Memdutt, secretary of the Coalition of the Poor, an organisation that links various impoverished people’s organisations in Durban, said: “Abahlali as a movement for the poor has faced serious repression since its inception. We know their principles and they have demonstrated unity, solidarity and revolt for the poor in all that they represent … We view these arrests as an attempt to intimidate and silence the movement.”

Ellie Moloi, 71, chairperson of Abahlali in Mpumalanga, said: “We’re still in shock by the charges pinned to our members, beyond disbelief really.” She added that “our only goal here is to show them that we are fully behind them as the movement”.

The trio’s case was heard before magistrate Xolile Manjezi. State prosecutor Danette Cole opposed their bail application. They were represented by advocate Jimmi Howse, who said the state’s case “stinks to high heaven”.

20 May 2021: People joined Mqapheli Bonono as he chanted the popular resistance song from apartheid South Africa, Ayeza amaguerilla (The guerrillas are coming).

Cole argued that “conspiracy to commit murder is not a mere allegation” but “a serious case implicating the witnesses’ lives and cannot be ignored”. Arguing against bail, she said the state’s witnesses would be in danger if Bonono and the others were to be released.

But Howse submitted to the court that Gasela’s 16-month-old baby had been hospitalised just days before her arrest and made a plea for the urgency of reuniting her with her child.

He continued: “Preventative detention as a form of punishment by the law, in all its forms, has been frowned upon and is something that must be done in extreme cases. The court is required to prove a likelihood or probability that the three accused will interfere with the witnesses in the case involved. At the moment, the source of the allegations are still hearsay. In this context, does the state then deny the accused their liberty purely on this evidence?”

Out on bail

Bonono and Gasela were finally released on bail on 20 May. Miya, who had a pending case from before he joined the eKhenana occupation and the movement, was denied bail. The case was then adjourned, and resumes on 16 July.

There were emotional scenes as Bonono and Gasela left the courtroom. An excited crowd of protesters in a celebratory mood welcomed them as they walked out of the court building. A wave of hands picked up Bonono as he walked out, amid cheers, carrying him out of the gate.

Speaking to the crowd, Bonono said: “If you are an activist who has dedicated his entire will to fight against the system, just be ready to be vilified and labelled a criminal. We’ve just returned from the ‘university’ where we picked up some lessons.

20 May 2021: After his release, Mqapheli Bonono told the crowd: “Each time when the prison bus was bringing us to court, we would see and hear the chants of liberation, [and] the fire to fight flared on.”

“The support we’ve received since our arrests managed to keep us strong inside the dark, concrete, cold and dangerous cells in Westville Prison. There was no sleep, and barely any food. My body was at the brink of giving up because I had become so weak and ill from lack of food.

“Each time when the prison bus was bringing us to court, we would see and hear the chants of liberation, the fire to fight flared on.”

Abahlali baseMjondolo celebrated “15 years of revolutionary struggle for land, housing and dignity” in October 2020. The movement now boasts more than 100 000 paid members in 86 branches across five provinces. With the exception of the consistent support of figures such as Phillip,  the movement was largely isolated and alone during previous waves of repression. 

Nomusa Sizani, the general secretary of the movement, said: “Since our movement was formed in 2005, we have faced relentless state repression. Our struggle has been criminalised. We have faced killings, assassinations, threats and hundreds of wrongful arrests. But although they are criminalising our struggle, we have never stopped organising. That and the solidarity from comrades around South Africa and around the world is the source of our strength in difficult times.”

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