Is it ok to kill hostel dwellers for political reasons, but NOT ok to kill politicians for various reasons?

Glebelands Hostel in Umlazi where the death toll has reached 100. Photo by Vanessa Burger

Independent Community Activist for Human Rights & Social Justice and Elitsha contributor, Vannessa Burger was one of the witnesses of the ongoing Moerane Commission, which investigates underlying causes of political killings in KZN, wrote an opinion piece for us. The Commission will sit again in August and political parties are expected to testify.

glebelands hostel, Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

This is the message coming across loud and increasingly frequently from political leaders, top cops, academics and political analysts. Even at the Moerane Commission of Inquiry “into the underlying causes of the killing of politicians in KwaZulu-Natal” convened by KwaZulu-Natal Premier, Willies Mchunu in October last year, some of the commissioners seemed at odds with the notion that poor hostel residents without title or agency, could be slaughtered in their numbers for political motives.

It must be ‘just crime’ (itself a worryingly dismissive categorization of the widening social dysfunction that has our country in a chokehold). It seemed more palatable to some commissioners that a rogue police officer (albeit with overt political backing) had coordinated the elimination of a large segment of the community of Durban’s second largest hostel using hitmen that have since expanded their operations throughout southern KZN and the Eastern Cape.

Mchunu stated that between January and October 2016, of the 20 political killings that were on record as having taken place in KZN, 12 were members of the ANC. During the same period 9 Glebelands residents had died, all loyal ANC members and a further 2 ANC councilors were killed by Glebelands hitmen, including Zodwa Sibiya, a popular campaigner for women’s rights at the hostel. It seems unlikely Mchunu included these deaths in his stats and Sibiya’s name, along with Richard Mbona’s, Glebelands ANC branch chairperson, seemed to have slipped Mchunu’s mind when he listed some of the more recent murders at the Commission’s press briefing.

On 29 May 2017, Police Minister, Fikile Mbalula, announced that the number of politically motivated murders had risen to 33 since January 2016. The number of Glebelands deaths for the same period had by then risen to 29, again it seems, Glebelands was off the map. Citing hitmen killed during factional battles, Moerane commissioners queried if all 89 Glebelands-related deaths listed in statistics provided to the Commission were indeed politically motivated, and asked that only those killed for political reasons be identified.

But how can one separate those who were assassinated because they previously mobilized against the ANC ward councilor and branch executive committee, from those who, for example, were killed by fellow hitmen during squabbles over money collected from residents to buy guns to kill councilors? Or those killed in taxi conflicts by hitmen originally brought to Glebelands to exterminate hostel block committee members accused of bringing the ANC into disrepute? Or those associated with block committee structures that died, say, from stress-related illnesses after the trauma of being endlessly persecuted by hitmen and collusive police after being deemed ‘not wanted’ at Glebelands by the councilor’s warlord buddy? Or the murder witness killed at court minutes before he was to make a statement implicating police in the protection of the same politically-connected warlord who had, months earlier, reportedly claimed in the presence of police that, “we cannot stop this project until the councilor tells us?”

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The body of Thandayiphi Cwele after he was shot by an uknown gunman as he was crossing the road back to Glebelands in July 2015. Pic by Vanessa Burger

Who is still not seeing the politics here?

Political analysts and academics seem equally unable to see the wood from the trees, often describing the Glebelands carnage as some kind of ‘normal’, a combination of apartheid’s social engineering and today’s spiraling poverty, unemployment and inequality, something “that’s always been there.” Sure, these factors play a role, but if this were indeed the case, then why is every hostel not spewing corpses at a rate comparable to a small-scale war?

And then there’s the astounding impunity afforded those believed to be driving the violence: for the rogue cop and his squad of hitmen; police implicated in bribery and torture; government officials whom both Public Protectors found guilty along with the SAPS of maladministration and having failed in their constitutional obligations; the politicians who disregarded their party’s protocol and constitution, not to mention the will of the people.

The state’s resounding failure to take conclusive action to address the root causes of the carnage and provide remedial support for the victims – although indicative of the widespread and systemic dysfunction of accountability mechanisms – in this case, is disproportionate to government interventions sometimes afforded lesser crises. Omission to act strongly suggests the tacit approval of the ruling party, as do provincial leaders’ many attempts to deflect, obfuscate – even lie when speaking of Glebelands.

The inconvenient truth remains; hitmen initially imported for political reasons have proliferated, diversified and spread because of the impunity rendered by their political connectivity and the broad-based systemic failure of government departments that have been incapacitated by a culture of political patronage. The fact that it has been permitted on the scale that it has, The state’s persistent refusal to acknowledge the Glebelands crisis – many claim benefit is derived from it – combined with the broader public’s silent disconnect from poor community’s struggles, has allowed the catastrophe to develop on the scale that it now threatens the stability of the entire region.

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Will the Moerane Commission succeed where all else has so far failed?

Commission findings, like Public Protector recommendations and #GuptaLeaks have a habit of being ignored by ZumaInc (of which Glebelands’ ward councilor is apparently a member). But, unprecedented media attention, the Commission’s snap decision to visit the hostel, the IPID’s hysterical outburst and subsequent calls by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Policing for the SAPS and the IPID to testify, suggest now at least this can of worms is open. On the ground, sources claim there is a hit out on Monday’s witness. The rogue cop has reportedly tried to blackmail him, frame the witness for crimes he did not commit. So it seems some are feeling the heat.

Many have fought long and hard to keep Glebelands politics under wraps. A few have fought equally hard to force this evil through the door of the Moerane Commission so that a light may be shone on its shame.

In a democracy that is not a democracy, where the overwhelming power of the political elite commands every aspect of our lives, the work of the Moerane Commission may easily be consigned to the accountability trash heap. In relation to Glebelands, it is after all, only investigating a few hundred ordinary lives – the expendable poor whose lives are valuable to the ANC only when translated into crosses on a ballot sheet.

Will the Moerane Commission’s findings and recommendations be implemented? That, dear comrades, will be entirely up to you.

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