100 Dead but no end in sight at Glebelands (Part 1)

Since the killings began in March 2014, 100 people have died in Glebelands Hostel-related violence – either violently from hitmen’s bullets, or more slowly, from stress-induced illnesses caused by the fear of living daily in the shadow of death. With a death toll now reaching almost four times the number of people killed at Marikana – which evoked worldwide outrage, political humiliation, commissions of inquiry and support groups – it is instructive to reflect on the state and society’s response to Glebelands’ ongoing slaughter.  

Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Analysis:

THE FIRST PERSON TO DIE was Zinakile Fica, killed by Umlazi police on 13 March 2014. A former block chairperson, Fica, together with two other block committee members and his roommate, was rounded up by Umlazi police officers and taken to a detective’s offices at Isipingo SAPS. Fica, who had been dragged naked from his bed, was not permitted to get dressed.

The men were verbally and physically abused and accused of being in possession of AK-47 assault rifles. The only person with a gun was Fica. The license Fica showed the police was for the official weapon he had been issued when employed in the security industry. It made no difference.

Fica was taken first to a nearby room, because he “was cheeky” according to one of the officers. Another member withdrew four SAPS evidence bags from the drawer of a desk in the room where the other men were held.

“You boys had better start talking the truth because you’re going to shit yourselves” he said, before taking the bags to the next room. The men heard Fica cry out once, then silence.

According to the independent autopsy report, Fica, who had an underlying heart condition he was unaware of, had suffered a massive heart attack when the police had shut off his oxygen with an evidence bag over his head. ‘Tubing,’ a torture technique popular with the apartheid regime to extract information or confessions, has been enthusiastically embraced by law enforcers of our democratic order.

Since Fica’s murder, at least 13 more hostel residents were tortured by police, including a young woman. Some reported their abuse to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), but most were too scared. Although the weight of evidence provided to IPID includes victims’ statements identifying officers, vehicle registration plates, medical reports and more, 44 months have passed and not one officer has been charged, arrested or even suspended. The IPID claims it is not dysfunctional.

Exactly a month after Fica’s death, a group of thugs led by the late hostel warlord and ululating members of the ANC Women’s League, marched on Block 57. They hauled the block committee chairperson before residents who were forced into an impromptu meeting and falsely accused him of ‘selling beds’ (the corrupt practice of selling space in hostel rooms).

He was beaten, publicly humiliated and his room and all his belongings later petrol bombed. The thugs had advised residents they had nothing to fear because, “the ward councilor knows, the superintendent knows, the police know, even Nathi Mthethwa knows.”

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Although the hapless block chairman opened a case at the Umlazi Police Station, his attackers were the first in a depressingly long line of suspects who have, over nearly four years, passed seamlessly through the local criminal justice system, only to return to Glebelands after a limited spell in jail, to pick up their guns and continue where they left off.

The block committees, later joined by Glebelands SACP and residents from nearby informal settlements, had in previous years demanded better service delivery, accountability and transparency, and ultimately passed a vote of no confidence in Umlazi’s ward 76 councilor, Robert Mzobe, as well as in the ANC’s branch executive committee. Their passage through the correct channels had, however, led to a political cul-de-sac where the former ANC regional secretary, Bheki Ntshangase, threatened that they must “stop bringing the party into disrepute,” or they would be “dealt with.”

As can be seen from the freshly dug graves spreading across our country’s killing province, to be ‘dealt with’ can mean only one thing. It may be cold outside the ANC, but if one raises one’s voice against dominant factions from within the organisation, one will likely experience the eternal freeze of the nearest mortuary.

In 2012, current presidential wannabe, Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma, had included Glebelands in her audit report on irregularly constituted provincial branches. After Jacob Zuma’s rise to power, community leaders’ dissatisfaction with the manner in which former president Thabo Mbeki had been recalled led to the formation of a COPE breakaway faction in 2009. Most of the dissidents were block committee members originating from the Eastern Cape. Residents claimed at the time that Mzobe had fomented ethnic and political intolerance to divide the community against COPE members. Although many later returned to the ANC fold, it is telling that most of those targeted during the 2009 violence were later killed from 2014 onwards. The deep-seated animosity was exacerbated after Mzobe subsequently took ward 76 by default – not popular vote – and to this day, this branch of the ANC remains improperly constituted.

Fast-forward to 2014 and the picture became clearer – Mzobe was there to stay.

Five-a-side meetings convened by block committee representatives at the Umlazi Police Station to try to resolve the attacks on their members were shot down when the warlord declared, “We cannot stop this project until the councilor tells us.”

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The police stood by and said nothing, later referring many of the women, who were subsequently violently evicted by the warlord’s thugs because of a real or perceived association with block committee members, to the councilor. According to a former Umlazi SAPS station commissioner, “the police cannot get involved in housing allocation issues,” conveniently sidestepping their mandate to ‘serve and protect’ ‘without fear or favour.’

The office of the MEC for Transport, Community Safety and Liaison was approached to intervene, but the five-a-side talks were suspended ahead of the 2014 national elections. The ANC had other things on its mind and it seems Mzobe, allegedly a Zuma clan member, had an important role to play in securing factional loyalty from his vast constituency as well as protecting politically connected business interests. Dissident hostel dwellers that made too much noise about construction contracts, jobs for friends and room allocation could simply not be tolerated. They had to be silenced – permanently if necessary.

So the police also stood by when thugs handed a memorandum to city officials and ANC representatives in July 2014, attached to which was a list of names of those deemed “unwanted at Glebelands.” Most were block committee members who were ordered to leave Glebelands within seven days or face consequences. To anyone but the police it seems the ‘consequences’ could not have been clearer. In a few short months, nine people had already been killed and dozens more violently and illegally evicted by thugs, reportedly escorted at times by local police officers.

On 28 September 2014, the former KZN Premier, Senzo Mchunu, weighed into the fray, declaring at a mass community meeting of several thousand residents, provincial hostel representatives, faith-based agencies, government officials and the media, that the block committees were the cause of the violence – in effect blaming the victims. Mchunu’s unilateral decision to ban these grassroots structures robbed the community of any form of self-representation, organisational capacity and leadership and effectively silenced hostel voices.

By that time, the death toll had risen to 20. During the month that followed Mchunu’s announcement that external units would now augment local patrols, a Public Order Policing Unit from the Eastern Cape brutally tortured 2 men, while Umlazi SAPS detectives assaulted and tortured a young woman. All three were somehow perceived to be associated with the block committees.

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