A year after the assassination of its leaders, South Africa’s Abahlali baseMjondolo continues to advance

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Lindokuhle Mnguni, the chairperson of Abahlali baseMjondolo’s eKhenana commune, was killed in August last year, only months after the murder of its deputy chairperson Ayanda Ngila, and that of another activist, Nokuthula Mabaso. The commune and the movement keep their memory alive by consolidating their work

 by Pavan Kulkarni

Hundreds of people, including shack-dwellers, trade unionists, pan-Africanists and rights activists, commemorated Lindokuhle Mnguni, a leader of South Africa’s militant shack-dwellers movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), a year after his assassination on August 20, 2022.

AbM organized the commemoration on the first anniversary of his murder on Sunday, August 20 in Cato Manor, Durban, at its eKhenana commune, where he fell at the age of 28 to bullets fired by gunmen allegedly associated with the local ruling African National Congress (ANC). 

“We even have footage that shows the faces of the people who assassinated Lindokuhle. But the police have not nabbed anyone,” AbM’s deputy president, George Bonono told Peoples Dispatch.  

Twice imprisoned on unsubstantiated charges, Mnguni was the chairperson of the eKhenana commune. Under his leadership, the land occupation had resisted over 30 violent demolition drives by the eThekwini Municipality since its establishment in 2018. 

Backed by the police and private security guards, these demolitions, which often left several residents injured and their shacks ablaze, had only intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the ban on evictions. 

Nevertheless, the commune not only survived these attacks but thrived, building projects such as a poultry farm, a vegetable garden and a tuck shop to sell fast food items, advancing toward food sovereignty while also raising incomes for the community during the lockdown. The Frantz Fanon political school Mnguni had helped set up in 2019 provided training to run the commune, along with political education.

The commune’s leaders, including Mnguni, were subsequently persecuted on murder charges the police pressed using witnesses revealed to be lying in court, before he was eventually killed by gunmen allegedly associated with the family of one of the police’s false witnesses.

Also commemorated on Mnguni’s death anniversary was the commune’s deputy chairperson, Ayanda Ngila, who was assassinated five months before Mnguni at the age of 29, on March 8, 2022. On July 24, 2023 the Durban Magistrate Court sentenced Khaya Ngubane, a local leader of the ANC’s youth wing, to a prison term of 15 years for the murder of Ngila.

“At the time of his murder, Ayanda Ngila was working in the vegetable garden with Lindokuhle to fix the irrigation pipe. It had been cut by the goons of the Ngubane family. Khaya Ngubane and four other gunmen came in and fired several rounds at both of them, in broad daylight. Lindokuhle managed to dodge and escape. But Ayanda was killed. Lindokuhle, who was himself the target, was a witness to Ayanda’s murder,” Bonono recalled.

Read: Persecuted leader of South Africa’s shack dweller movement assassinated while on bail

Following Khaya Ngubane’s arrest, “one day before the hearing of his bail application, the Investigating Officer (IO) of the case came to eKhenana on May 5, asking for more witnesses. Some were fearing for their lives, but 40-year-old Nokuthula Mabaso stood up and said she saw everything and gave her statement. That very night she was gunned down. Lindokuhle was a witness to Mabaso’s murder also.” 

Read: Another leader of South Africa’s shack dwellers movement murdered in Durban

The affidavit she had prepared to submit in court the following morning had alleged that Khaya Ngubane’s father, Samson Ngubane, had threatened the AbM members in the court premises during a previous hearing of the case that “there will be bloodshed in eKhenana.” Samson, along with his brother Mhlanganyelwa Ngubane, were arrested for her murder in July 2022 but were released five months later when Mabaso’s post-mortem report went missing just ahead of their trial.

“We had hired a private doctor to also be a part of the post-mortem. We have the copy he had given us. But the court refused to accept the copy. It would only accept the original. The judge did not say Samson and Mhlanganyelwa were not guilty, but simply withdrew the case from the court’s diary until the original report was found,” said Bonono.

Samson is a “businessman who builds flats around the area to rent it out. He has been telling us when he sees us in court that the ANC will deal with us and take over the land of our commune. We are clear that he is a member of the ANC.”

Mnguni and Ngila were imprisoned on false murder charges

His daughter and Khaya’s sister, Ntokozo Ngubane, was one of the false witnesses presented by the police who in March 2021 had arrested Mnguni, Ngila, along with Landu Tshazi, who was heading AbM’s Youth League in eKhenana. They were accused of murder. 

Bonono, along with eKhenana branch secretary Maphiwe Gasela and a branch member Siniko Miya, were subsequently arrested and accused of conspiring to kill the witnesses. After Ntokozo Ngubane and another witness admitted to lying, all charges were dropped between late-September and early October 2021. 

However, only months after their release from prison, Ngila and Mnguni were arrested again in January 2022, along with Gasela, accused this time of another murder. Less than a month after their release on bail in February, Ngila was killed, followed by his murder’s witness, Mabaso.

To protect Lindokuhle Mnguni, who had witnessed both murders and had himself escaped assassination when Ngila was killed, the AbM had him moved to a safehouse. On August 20, 2022, he had come to the commune to contribute labor to the vegetable garden and poultry farm, and stayed back for the night.   

Two gunmen kicked down the door of his shack an hour and a half past midnight and opened fire, killing Mnguni. 

Read: “A fearless leader”: South African shack-dwellers’ leader, Lindokuhle Mnguni, assassinated in Durban

His partner, who was with him at the time, was also shot, and had to undergo surgery. “She still occasionally attends counseling, but she remains strong. She is also one of our activists. She was present at Lindokuhle’s commemoration,” Bonono said. 

‘A life dedicated to the collective’

A year after the series of murders of its leaders, eKhenana continues to thrive and inspire other land occupations, maintains Bonono. The vegetable garden, where Ngila fell to bullets and Mnguni had labored before his murder, “is green with spinach everywhere,” he said. 

The tuck shop — which was shut after Mabaso’s murder as its location and ease of access left members exposed to potential assassins — “was revived two months ago. The food that was served for lunch at the commemoration was cooked in the same kitchen used to supply the tuck shop.”

The poultry has expanded to supply “all the surrounding shops in the area. It has become a reliable supplier of eggs,” he said, reminiscing, “There were only three chickens when the poultry was set up. In a space of three months, we had 200. But when these attacks started, we lost a lot of chickens. There were days when we lost 20-30 chickens. But we revived. We now have close to a thousand chickens. We have eggs every day. Chickens are also cooked in the kitchens to make sure our members have a good meal. Lunch and dinner are served every day.”

“Nobody in eKhenana goes to bed on an empty stomach,” he said, remembering Mnguni’s insistence that “only by dealing with the politics of the stomach, can we make our minds capable of thinking freely of those who control the food chain.”

Mnguni had often argued that it was not sufficient to only address the question of shelter by occupying lands and building shacks for the urban poor. He stressed the need to go beyond and turn the occupations into communes that can produce food and generate revenue for the community. 

“Comrade Lindokuhle had dedicated his life to the collective — the commune. He died for it. But he lives with us in spirit in these communal projects that are not only flourishing in eKhenana but also spreading as an idea. Other occupations are also beginning to work towards building communal gardens and poultries,” Bonono said. 

Since Mnguni’s murder, AbM has started at least four more land occupations where they intend to build such communes, he said, adding, however, that the movement is not identifying all of them yet to avoid inviting state repression while still in an initial stage.

“We now have 150,000 members across South Africa,” Bonono said with a sense of pride. In the 18 years since its founding, 25 of the movement’s activists and leaders have been killed. But, AbM said in a statement, “there have only been three convictions,” including a police officer in 2013, two ANC councilors in 2014, and the ANC youth leader Khaya Ngubane in July 2023 for the murder of Ayanda Ngila.

There has been a notable improvement in the security situation at the commune, especially after South Africa was called to account for the killings of AbM members at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the UN Human Rights Council late last year. This was preceded by several statements of concern by UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor. 

“But we still remain in danger,” maintains Bonono. When Khaya Ngubane was convicted, his father Samson Ngubane and uncle Mhlanganyelwa Ngubane — who were arrested for Nokuthula Mabaso’s murder and freed after her post-mortem report ‘disappeared’ — were present in court. 

“Ngubane family’s goons were at the gates of the AbM’s office that day, trying to monitor who goes in and out. They are following some of us who are living in safehouses to identify their locations. Some members of the commune have been threatened. But all of us know that if we give up now, we will be betraying our fallen comrades,” Bonono said.

“We used to talk a lot about death because we knew that someday luck won’t be on our side. They will kill us,” Lindokuhle Mnguni had said two months before his murder during a panel discussion at The Forge, remembering his conversations with Ayanda Ngila in prison. “We.. said, ‘It is socialism or death!’”

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