Photo by: Madelene Cronje
This week end the shack dwellers movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo buried another leader, Nokuthula Mabaso, murdered in front of her children. Abahlali claims ANC and state complicity and police have carried out no investigation of the crime scene. Alarmingly, not only is there government silence, but major organisations concerned with democratic rights have said nothing- a grave signal to the poor.
On Saturday 14 May, Nokuthula Mabaso, an Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) leader was buried, after being gunned down in front of her children. A few weeks earlier Ayanda Ngila, also a leader of the eKhenana commune was killed. Mabaso witnessed that murder and could potentially have been a witness to any trial for his murder that may emerge. The murderers in both cases are known in the community. The police have not even examined the crime scene in the case of Mabaso. They did with Ngila, indicating that there remains some professionalism among some of the police, even in stations complicit in killings of AbM members.
It has been repeatedly reported that murders of Abahlali baseMjondolo leaders and activists, now 23, have passed without much public or police attention. Police attention towards AbM has mainly been to harass or illegally attack them in one or other way.
By allowing this to continue, the system of law enforcement is undermined. They are eroding accepted processes of criminal investigation. By failing to properly investigate these crimes the criminal justice system is being undermined for a section of the population who happen to be affiliated to a particular social and political movement.
The police are allegedly being instructed how they should do their work by a powerful figure in the local ANC, NS Ngubane. The claim made by AbM in this regard, with evidence, has not been contested by the ANC or government. The state is allowing the police to have a murder occur within their jurisdiction and not to investigate the crime scene (in fact this holds for many such murders or attacks on AbM). That is not to suggest that every member of the police is implicated in such irregularity, but it is a substantial or overwhelming trend.
In the case of Ngila’s murder, it appears that police were on the scene quickly and secured the crime scene. It is unclear how far they followed up beyond that, with community members complaining that they have had to do the work of the police and collect cartridges.
Not even a police appearance has happened following the Mabaso murder, and the police have not visited the crime scene nor interviewed potential witnesses. They are not taking statements nor gathering evidence. They are not searching for clues that may require follow-up investigation of various types.
For any criminal investigation, for murder or assault to be pursued, there must be some attention to details: to what happened, how it happened, where it happened, with what weapons, and who, if any person witnessed it. Where are the people who witnessed it? What did they witness? What did they not see? How does what was not witnessed be established and be known to the investigating officer?
All these enquiries are pursued quickly for fear of evidence disappearing, to uncover significant evidence as part of the process leading to apprehension of the person or persons who have committed a particular crime. The investigators must establish a connection between the perpetrator who they need to identify because of interviews with witnesses and other factors and the commission of the crime. That person must be shown to have done something that resulted in the crime - in Nokuthula Mabaso’s case, a connection between a murderer or murderers and her bullet-ridden body.
In other words, was that person there? How does one prove that that person was there, and did they take steps leading to her death? What is the evidence that has been gathered to prove that?
What we have now is a situation where some of the basics of criminal investigation are not being followed. There is, in the case of Mabaso, no gathering of information, identifying physical evidence that is relevant, collection of evidence, some of which may in the end prove important or unimportant, and protecting and safeguarding that evidence. None of this is being done.
Witnesses who ought to have been interviewed may well themselves be murdered, as was the case with Mabaso who was a witness to the killing of Ngila. Others who have now been witnesses to Mabaso’s killing may themselves be in danger. She was herself taking precautions as was Ngila before his murder.
There is a method for managing a case and the crime scene itself. But we have a situation where the crime scene has not even been evaluated by those responsible for doing so. What does this mean, not just for this case, but for the commitment of the current South African state to the criminal justice system? What is being done with AbM has much wider implications than for Abahlali.
From what can be gathered, none of the prescribed procedures have been followed in this case. The murder of Mabaso happened some 500 metres from the Cato Manor police station. After two hours, they had not gone to the crime scene and to my knowledge they have not been there since. When the deputy president of AbM Mqapheli Bonono was driving to the scene, the police had time to stop him because of some defect on his car light while they had no time to go down to the crime scene. When Bonono was stopped, he urged them to come with him to the crime scene, but they refused.
There had been a line of communication between the president of AbM, S'bu Zikode and the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele. However, in recent times, that line has gone dead and Cele has not replied to messages from Zikode.
The national government has made no statement about this murder. I don't know if they've made statements about any of the others and certainly, what statements have been made by authorities in KwaZulu-Natal has merely been to deny that they've had anything to do with the killings.
All of this happened in the post-Zuma period, the period of the “New Dawn” and “renewal”. There was another high-profile murder in this period, that of Hillary Gardee, the daughter of an EFF leader, Godrich Gardee. The police deployed extensive resources and arrested three suspects within a few days. That was correct, and Zikode, the president of AbM does not begrudge the attention devoted to the Gardee case. But he asks legitimately why there is not similar attention to the Ngila and Mabaso murders and the other murders of AbM leaders and activists.
It is surely no understatement to say it is scandalous that this is happening. There is no legal process, no policing process happening to apprehend the offender(s) who killed Mabaso. And this is certainly a green light for more killings at a time when we have a Constitution which entrenches the right to life, which makes it illegal to do what was done under apartheid but continues to be done by shadowy assassins, the police and other security forces of the current state.
The same category of people who were targeted for violence under apartheid are still battered by violence and various forms of oppression under the post-apartheid state. Notably, in recent times in the post- Zuma state under Covid lockdowns and a range of other situations, violence has been unleashed against the poor, sometimes elderly people, sometimes disabled people and other categories of people, who are vulnerable and who happen to be almost entirely black. It is the poor, too, who have had what little that is due to them stolen by unscrupulous politicians.
What is striking about post-apartheid South Africa is that structural racism continues to pervade the modes of policing black South Africans. Racial profiling by both black and white police continues. If one drives past a roadblock, as a white, one will simply be waved past. If one is a black person, one will be stopped, and one may well find oneself lying face down on the pavement being frisked. This oppression of black people, which continues under post-apartheid South Africa, has several different manifestations - against the poor, the homeless, street traders, poor migrants from other countries and other poor and marginalised people.
AbM is a distinct target of police and ANC violence. It is located primarily in KwaZulu-Natal, but it also has a presence in other parts of the country like the Eastern Cape, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and has an audited membership of over 100,000.
In general, the attacks on AbM have not aroused a great deal of solidarity from other organisations in the country. Interestingly, the Eswatini People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) sent representatives to the Mabaso funeral. Where were the erstwhile South African freedom fighters?
In recent times Numsa has also sided with AbM. In searching the ANC, SACP and Cosatu websites the name Abahlali baseMjondolo does not come up. It does appear on the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) website but not in 2022, unless my search was flawed.
As far as I am aware neither the church nor other religious affiliations have said a word - not even Archbishop Thabo Makgoba - since 2009! It is possible that something has been missed but the searches I conducted conveyed nothing on recent murders!
None of the “civil society” organisations or campaigns defending the Constitution or campaigning to recover democracy consider AbM within the scope of their duties. Where is Freedom Under Law, the recently formed Defend our Democracy Campaign, Casac or the Helen Suzman Foundation?
Where are the foundations, established in the name of various freedom fighters, who, if they were alive, would surely have spoken about these murders? Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada were great leaders - but they were not elitists. They identified with the poor and would certainly have stood with Abahlali after such murders. It is shameful that these and similar foundations are silent.
For those who believe in the hard-won freedoms and constitutional rights that are intended to defend all and possibly especially the poorest of the poor, it is necessary to redouble our efforts to ensure that the policing system is cleansed and crimes are not perpetrated with impunity.
Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, violence, gender and sexualities. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.