100 Dead but no end in sight at Glebelands (Part 2)

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

Since the killing 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 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

Having the previous year drawn a blank with the Department of Social Development, the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), appalled by the impact of the violence on women and children, escalated concerns to the Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and Office of the Public Protector (OPP). The complaint, dated 8 April 2015 and addressed to provincial and national SAHRC commissioners and KZN head of the OPP began: “The CGE wishes to refer for urgent investigation… a series of human rights abuses and administrative justice failures emanating from recent violence and evictions at Glebelands Hostel, Umlazi, eThekwini.” Concerns were outlined in a detailed attachment.

To its shame the SAHRC has, to date, remained officially mute on Glebelands’ slaughter. It took a further eight months and the personal intervention of the UKZN’s acting director of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies and president of the Commonwealth Legal Education Association, Prof David Mcquoid-Mason, before the former Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela launched her investigation “Stop the Carnage.” By then 56 people were dead and hundreds displaced. Local civil society and religious groups, that seemed equally reluctant to become embroiled in what increasingly seemed to be becoming a struggle to the death with the ruling party, generally procrastinated and professed ignorance to the root causes of the ongoing violence.

In September 2015, by which time starvation stalked an increasing number of the displaced and dispossessed, local church leaders came bearing empty promises. Two years and as many visits later, when met with increasing community cynicism, a local church leader was said to have declared darkly, “No one is innocent at Glebelands!” before flouncing off, apparently never to return, or at least, likely not for another year.

Those, such as Gift of the Givers, that in October 2015, did try to ease the humanitarian suffering by distributing much-needed food parcels, were later branded as “opportunists” by provincial ANC leaders.

A well-known human rights legal outfit, after initially undertaking in late 2015 to engage with the eThekwini Municipality to provide alternative housing for illegal evictees, suddenly seemed to get cold feet after the appointment of a new regional director. In a staggering statement, made some three months later, the legal outfit claimed: “The violence and evictions at Glebelands stem from politics… We cannot be seen to be supporting any political parties. Once the PP’s report is released that will provide insight into exactly what the issues are at the hostel, so her report will be an excellent starting point on the way forward.”

By definition, the contravention of hostel dwellers’ rights to life, not to be tortured or illegally evicted could not be opposed if carried out for political reasons. And while the community waited for a starting point, another 33 people died.

It had by then become clear to community leaders that they needed to reach for help beyond South Africa’s borders. A bogus nomination process for the 2016 local government elections had propelled the ward councilor towards a third term and despondency was running high.

“We cannot sit with arms folded while our people are dying like flies,” declared one hostel leader. After much consultation, the affected community resolved to appeal to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Their decision was announced at a press conference on 17 April 2016.

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State push-back was immediate, multipronged and from all directions. In what can only be described as a ‘good cop bad cop’ strategy, calls were received from a former struggle-veteran-cum-peace-activist (who turned out to be the ANC spokesperson for the KZN South Coast and current member of the ANC’s regional executive committee) as well as a powerful man of the cloth. While the approach of the ‘peace activist’ (who names former State Security Minister, Siyabonga Cwele, and MEC for Human Settlements and Public Works, Ravi Pillay, as role models) was clearly intended to disarm, the religious leader cut straight to the chase, demanding the community “consider the feelings of the police.” Again, by definition, the feelings of the – by then – 13 hostel dwellers reportedly tortured by police were unworthy of consideration. However, the underlying message from both parties was the same: call off the press conference!

While journalists attending the press conference had expressly been requested to protect the identities of the speakers due to very valid security concerns (ANC PR councilor, Zodwa Sibiya had been gunned down the night before the event), ANN7 managed to air footage of the entire group several times on prime time news and retained the coverage on their website for days after their oversight was pointed out to them.

This landed ANN7 before the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) and in September 2016, the acting chairperson ordered the broadcaster to screen a public apology and admit to gross negligence by endangering community members’ lives.

Although the UN appeal went full circle back to be stonewalled again by the SAHRC, with the Public Protector’s investigation underway, local government elections around the corner and 62 dead, the ANC rapidly switched to Plan B. The former MEC for Transport, Community Safety and Liaison, Willies Mchunu, deployed his security advisor, Sibusiso Xulu, to facilitate a brand new peace process.

Once again the community was courted with promises of shiny new development. Those elected to the peace committee were given T-shirts and allegedly promised a 34% share in certain ‘peace projects’ that were to be brought to Glebelands. The propaganda machine was cranked into action, the old ‘bed selling’ motive dusted off and this time supplemented with ‘old grudges’ and ‘fights over women’ as just cause for the untenable violence.

Despite the spin, the process was instrumental in bringing together those who really did believe peace was possible. The unintended by-product of this, however, was a greater appreciation of circumstances and events that had previously been manipulated to divide and cultivate hostility. This in turn forged a more unified disgust with degraded hostel living conditions, failing service delivery and political arrogance.

With elections only weeks away the ANC upped the ante. Slashing the proposed year-long initiative to seven weeks, ‘peace’ was hastily declared at a Glebelands mega-bash on 24 July 2016. Amid the festivities, however, officials breathed not a word about a new hit list in which peace committee members had recently been identified as targets. The officials and other parties invited to lend legitimacy to this fatally flawed and dubiously motivated process, also looked the other way when a group of hostel thugs and hitmen, by then in control of all 14 of Glebelands’s old blocks, swathed in ANC flags emblazoned with the late warlord’s face, marched outside the venue, swearing to avenge him.

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Ten days later, Mzobe was entrenched as ward councilor for a third five-year term. Some residents, who had bothered to vote, claimed they did so only to write “poes” next to the incumbent’s name.

Predictably, immediately after the elections, the peace process faded into the sound of gunfire. The first to be targeted were the peace representatives from the old blocks. Deemed ‘traitors’ by their neighbours, who had been armed with fresh hardware allegedly by a rogue cop, one member was shot in the face and another forced to flee through the window of his room when killers axed down his door. On 7 November 2016, Block 52 peace committee leader, Nkosinathi Shezi was gunned down after leaving the Umlazi Magistrate’s Court in what many maintain was a hit ordered by the Glebelands rogue cop. Shezi had reportedly provided a statement implicating police in crime and corruption. It was well known that the last thing the policeman wanted was peace.

Institutional paralysis

By the time the Public Protector’s report was finalized in June 2017 (a mere cut-and-paste job of the previous year’s interim report), 89 people had lost their lives. Despite official claims to the contrary, none of the recommendations listed in the report have been implemented, no one has been held accountable, service delivery remains invisible and the continued roll out of a steady stream of lucrative contracts for “security measures” has done nothing but anger the community.

After Clr Sibiya’s murder in 2016, a shocked police officer had remarked: “Glebelands will only be free when God takes Mzobe.”

But the problem is far greater than that. With a juicy municipal budget of well over R40-billion, the ruling party’s elective conference in a few weeks time and a national election in 2019, and with the network of patronage the only thing left holding together government departments and state owned entities, and a crippled economy while most of civil society and the media are preoccupied with state capture, and a governing mindset mostly unchanged since the apartheid era – the prognosis does not look good for Glebelands.

On 7 November 2017, exactly a year after the murder of Shezi, two more residents were killed at Block 52. A total of 100 people are now dead. There has been only one conviction. The poison that was cultivated at Glebelands and since spread across the province has not only become a threat to national security – it is a national shame which we continue to ignore at our peril.

See the list of the 100 residents of Glebelands killed since 2014

Update:

Editor:

We would like to apologise for an inaccurate fact where we said that none of the recommendations from the Public Protector’s report have been implemented.

After we published Part 2 it emerged that one of the Public Protector’ report recommendation was implemented. Glebelands now has its own satellite police station, but no one knows how it will operate or from which unit the officers manning it are from or who is in charge.

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