Three members of the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo were greeted with jubilation when charges of murder against them were withdrawn in the magistrate’s court in Durban on Wednesday, 29 September.
They had been awaiting trial at Westville Prison since April, when they were arrested at the eKhenana land occupation in Cato Manor.
Before their arrest, the occupation had become widely known among progressive networks in South Africa and abroad for its farming cooperative and the Frantz Fanon Political School, which continues to be run from there.
When the three men – Ayanda Ngila, 29, Lindokuhle Mnguni, 27, and Landu Shazi, 33 – were finally released from prison they received a heroes’ welcome from more than 100 supporters who had braved heavy rain to picket outside the court.
They had been charged with the murder of Vusi Shandu, who died after being shot in Cato Manor while returning home from work in March. Several court appearances, at which they were repeatedly denied bail, resulted in them spending more than six months in prison while awaiting trial.
Abahlali baseMjondolo and other land activists believed that the case against the men was bound to be dismissed as there was no credible evidence against them. The movement described the arrests as a “crude frame-up”.
They say they felt vindicated when the senior public prosecutor declined to take the case to the Durban regional court for trial, citing weak evidence and no prospect of a successful prosecution.
After the brief court appearance, Mbali Kubheka, the attorney representing the men, said there never was a case against her clients. She said the victim was shot, but no firearm or ballistic report linked the three accused to the murder.
“From the get-go there was no evidence linking my clients to the murder. Now they had spent more than [six] months of their lives for a crime they did not commit.
“Their families were severely affected by this case and now they have to reintegrate themselves back into society. Some people who heard about their arrests but did not follow the court proceedings would still shun them and regard them as murderers.
“Justice has to take its course and my clients have the option of suing the state for unlawful arrest and incarceration and malicious prosecution, in which case they would be seeking monetary compensation from the state. But I will await the instruction from my clients before taking any further action,” said Kubheka.
According to Shazi, his leg was broken when the police arrested him. “I was denied access to healthcare during my incarceration,” he added.
He said at some point he and his co-accused had lost hope of ever being released. “This case has stripped me of my dignity. It made me feel like I was not human. We were placed behind bars for more than [six] months and denied bail for no reason. The trauma I have experienced will take at least 10 years to heal.
“In the end, the truth has been revealed and I must now rebuild my life, my dignity, as I go back to my community. The case has disrupted our livelihood as well as that of our families. It has also jeopardised the progress on the food and community sustainability projects we had created in eKhenana.”
Mnguni said while he was in jail, his family had received threats from Shandu’s friends and family. “I was also scared that my family would come under attack. But I am glad I am out of jail and ready to restart my life. But I am very angry about what has happened to us.
“In this case, it was clear that there was no evidence linking [us] to the murder, yet we had to endure spending [six] months in a high-security prison. We need to be counselled and compensated for this,” said Mnguni.
Abahlali baseMjondolo youth leader Mfanufikile Sindane said the lives of the three were under threat despite the court outcome.
“We demand the police to provide them with security as their lives and families are still under threat from some members of the community who are opposed to the cause of Abahlali. There was not enough evidence to put them behind bars in the first place,” Sindane said.
A joyful Abahlali baseMjondolo president, S’bu Zikode, said his organisation would rally behind and support the three men when they litigate against the state.
Zikode himself has been attacked and threatened so many times over the years that he has to have bodyguards.
“We are over the moon that these charges have been withdrawn. We as Abahlali have been saying that these were trumped-up or fabricated charges for which there was no evidence.
“For years, the state and the ruling ANC and the eThekwini municipality have been using the police and the justice system to intimidate our members. At times, our members have been attacked and even killed; at other times, they were assaulted and arrested,” Zikode said.
“The ruling party has been consistent in saying that Abahlali has been getting funding from foreign agents to destabilise the country. Of course, that is nonsense. We have been trying to establish socialism in our community. But the ruling party sees us as a threat and they have been using everything at their disposal to attack and fight us.
“This case will show everyone, including the international community, that our organisation is under siege from the state and the ruling elite.”
Zikode added that another example of this is the case against Abahlali baseMjondolo’s deputy president, Mqapheli Bonono, who faces charges of intimidation and conspiracy to murder witnesses in the Shandu murder case. Bonono, who is out on bail, is scheduled to appear in the magistrate’s court in Durban on Friday, 1 October.
“There is no doubt that that case, too, will fall away just like this one,” said Zikode.
In a statement released the evening before the three accused appeared in court, the movement said that it was “outrageous that the criminal justice system has been captured by the ANC and misused to repress grassroots activists”.
Supporting each other
The picket outside the court was attended by activists from several grassroots organisations.
Verushka Memdutt, secretary of the Coalition of the Poor, an organisation that links various impoverished people’s organisations in Durban, said although it welcomed the withdrawal of the charges against the three men, it feared the long-term impact the case will have on their lives.
“We are disappointed in the justice system because it has once again proven that it has the ability to incarcerate innocent people. How will the state be able to [compensate for] the lost time and the permanent damage it has brought to their lives? Without movements such as Abahlali, where young people find belonging and support, the three would still be in prison for years,” said Memdutt.
Mluleki Mvelase, an administrator at Pan Africa Today, which connects progressive organisations across the continent, said it felt duty-bound to support Abahlali baseMjondolo and its members.
Among the picketers was Themba Shiba, 68, an Umlazi resident who has a visual impairment. Shiba said he felt victimised, just like the accused, because the government had closed down a centre for the disabled in the area. Before it was closed and the residents evicted, there had been water and electricity cuts.
“Abahlali baseMjondolo had helped us during our own struggle, and now that they needed our help we are also here to be with them,” he said.