Death Threats in Durban

Harry Stopes

The last time I was in South Africa, in 2015, I met with members of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), an organisation of informally housed people, based mainly in Durban and the surrounding KwaZulu-Natal region. The group’s name means ‘Shack Dwellers’. I was added to their mailing list.

In the last few months the tone of AbM’s updates has become increasingly urgent, as the violence of the state’s response to the movement seems to have intensified. On 22 May, a group of unknown men ambushed and shot dead S’fiso Ngcobo, a branch chairperson in the west Durban suburb of Marianhill. AbM blame the murder on a local ANC councillor, who they say had previously made threats to Ngcobo. ‘Under the rule of the ANC,’ AbM said, ‘the price for land and dignity continues to be paid in blood.’ According to a letter that AbM sent to President Cyril Ramaphosa in June, Ngcobo was the 16th AbM activist murdered since 2009.

The updates continued: 7 July, 'Organising in the Shadow of Death'; 17 July, 'Abahlali Continues to Grow Despite Threats and Repression'; 23 July, 'Intimidation from Armed ANC Members on the East Rand'; 30 July, 'Brutal Attack on the Phumula Mqashi Land Occupation in Tembisa'; 1 August, 'Death threats continue in Durban'. 20 August, ‘S’bu Zikode is underground’.

Zikode is the president of AbM. He has long been subject to threats to his safety, both covert and overt. On 12 June, the mayor of Durban, Zandile Gumede, said that there was a ‘third hand’ behind AbM, a phrase meant to evoke KwaZulu-Natal’s civil war of the 1990s. The ANC councillor and chief whip, Nelly Nyanisa, accused Zikode of being ‘hellbent’ on making the city ungovernable, and promised to ‘deal with’ AbM. I spoke to the AbM general secretary, Thapelo Mohapi, on the phone a few weeks ago. ‘We have to watch where we go,’ he told me, ‘we have to watch who we talk to, we have to change our patterns [of movement], because there are hitmen watching us.’

AbM say they were approached by an individual with connections to the South African security services, who told them that Zikode’s name was at the top of an assassination hitlist in Durban, and offered him the opportunity to leave Durban for Cape Town, where he could live under police protection. AbM believe the threat is real, but rather than accept what they viewed as an attempt to co-opt and neutralise Zikode, he instead opted to go into hiding. (He has since appeared twice in public in Durban, as well as being invited to speak at events in Accra and New York.)

The violence against AbM isn’t an isolated phenomenon. Assassination Witness, a collaboration between the Centre for Criminology at the University of Cape Town and the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, identified 1317 targeted killings between 2000 and 2017. The last six years saw a sharp rise in incidents, against a slow decline in the early years of the millennium. Not all the murders are political – a high-profile criminal lawyer was recently killed in Cape Town – but many of the victims have been politicians, trade unionists or activists. Violence is often connected to conflict over resources or business interests, as with the 2016 murder of an activist opposed to the development of an Australian-owned titanium mine in the Eastern Cape.

To the extent that politicians are addressing these problems, they have mainly focused on factional violence within political parties. The Moerane Commission, set up in 2016, was tasked to investigate ‘the underlying causes of the murder of politicians in KwaZulu-Natal’. Its report was published in September. Political violence represents ‘a serious pathology in the province’s body politic’, the commission said, but its recommendations are vague and hard to measure or enforce. There are no concrete proposals that could seriously reduce the violence, either within the ANC or more broadly.

The police have made it clear they will not protect AbM. Of the many murders of the group’s members, only two have resulted in arrests; two ANC Durban city councillors were convicted in connection with the murder of Thuli Ndlovu. The officer assigned to Ngcobo’s murder told a reporter from the GroundUp news agency that he had never heard of Ngcobo and hung up the phone.

Richard Pithouse is an associate professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand. If Ramaphosa were serious about dealing with the violence, Pithouse told me, ‘he would face up to the reality that the police are compromised in Durban and bring in police units from elsewhere in the country. The police are absolutely entwined in these intersections of criminality and politics. I’m really worried about S’bu.’