Losing a loved one can be devastating, but it can also set one on a new path. That’s what happened when housing rights activist Nomusa Sizani lost her son in 2017. Samuel Hloele, 29, is said to have died at the hands of members of the eThekwini municipality’s anti-land invasion unit who struck in the Ekukhanyeni shack settlement in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal.
Sizani is the general secretary of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the largest shack dwellers’ movement in South Africa with 85 000 members. Abahlali fights against evictions and campaigns for public housing. Striving for equality and dignity for all, it has many women both on the ground and in leadership positions who advocate for women’s rights and gender equality.
Sizani’s work keeps her extremely busy and she can be difficult to pin down, a situation for which she immediately apologises at the start of an interview at Abahlali’s offices in the Diakonia Centre in Durban. “I’m sorry I can only afford you a little time. I have a Zoom meeting in an hour,” she says.
Sizani couldn’t meet earlier in the week because she, along with members of Abahlali’s women’s league, had to support a rape survivor testifying in court. The week before, she had to assist migrant traders who had been victims of xenophobic attacks and needed shelter. She is a beacon of hope for the impoverished, because she comes from the very people she stands up for and knows what they go through.
The worst day of her life was when her son was killed. Hloele was raised by both Sizani and his biological mother, her sister Betty Patosi. “It was a Tuesday, which they [the anti-land invasion unit] always came on, so we knew they were coming. But we didn’t think that they would kill somebody. They usually come to demolish our houses, but that day they came with the intention to kill. Not one house was demolished,” says Sizani.
Some men in Ekukhanyeni would not go to work on Tuesdays but stay home to protect their families and shacks against the demolitions. On that day, Sizani went to a meeting with other men in Zone 3, near where the unit usually comes through.
“I was preparing myself to go join the meeting as we had planned as women to join the men in Zone 3. We just heard sounds like ‘goo-goo’ [thumping sounds], and there they came in a group larger than normal. They didn’t use the entry point they always use. They came from the top of the mountain – Ekukhanyeni is on the side of a steep hill.
“They were shooting at us with live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas. I heard people screaming, ‘They are the municipality, they are here!’ We had whistles we would blow when they came. I then saw women and children running downhill away from the unit. I was making my way, dodging bullets, when somebody called me and said, ‘Quickly come, your son is shot already this side,’” Sizani recalls.
She made her way through the chaotic scene and found him on the ground along with two others, who were injured. But her son was dead.
Sizani, who moved to Ekukhanyeni in 2016, was already seen as a community leader in the shack settlement, but on that day she would be officially introduced to Abahlali baseMjondolo as its members came to assist the residents. She was elected as treasurer of her local branch in 2017, but soon her passion and bravery were noted and she went on to higher positions in the organisation.
Asked how she felt when her son died, she says, “I felt angry, and I thought to myself I’m not going to stop … Abahlali women have never stopped despite these assassinations, despite losing husbands, brothers and sons, despite being tortured in police stations and despite facing too many violent evictions for us to be able to keep count.”
And fight they did, successfully. The residents of Ekukhanyeni do not have to worry about constant evictions any longer, having won a court battle and a permanent court order that enables them to occupy the land. “We don’t have the title deeds yet, but we feel very good because there is no one bothering us. We are staying in peace,” says Sizani.
Despite this victory, Sizani says she still has not got closure through justice for her son. “We have opened the case [but] since 2017 till now nothing has happened. The police don’t follow up. We just open cases because we are supposed to open a case, but we get no assistance. It is worse if you are a shack dweller. That’s part of Abahlali baseMjondolo, our cries are never heard.”
Abahlali has a difficult relationship with the police and the eThekwini municipality as it has recorded many cases of rights violations perpetrated by the two institutions against members of the movement. “We are a threat because we awaken people to things like we can’t live with no water, no electricity, no toilets. And that has caused some of our activists to be killed with impunity over the years,” says Sizani.
She seems oblivious to the huge impact she has had on those she champions: the youths for whom she has become like a mother, the victims of xenophobia for whom she finds shelter and brings hope, the young women facing gender-based violence for whom she is a shoulder to cry on.
But she takes great pride in the support that Abahlali provides to women such as the rape survivor whose court case they attended earlier in the week.
“The lady we were supporting couldn’t even speak the first day she was supposed to testify. She just broke down, so that is why we went to stand by her. We were outside shouting, standing strong, letting her know we are with her. She became strong and testified with her shoulders high. And that is the power of unity, that is the power of women,” says Sizani.
Regarding what lies ahead for her and Abahlali, she says, “We continue to fight for dignity for every suppressed voice, and hope we will attain change without having to pay for it in blood.”