Niren Tolsi, Mail & Guardian
On June 4 activist Napoleon Webster will have spent 150 days in Rustenburg prison.
He has been charged with the murder of an ANC councillor in Marikana, in the North West province, but his lawyers and supporters are adamant it is a stitch-up.
They contend that Webster, an Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) member who has been involved in support campaigns linked to the 2012 Marikana massacre and in Marikana’s housing struggles, is being persecuted for his activism.
Webster echoes the sentiment: “This thing is political,” he said when the Mail & Guardian visited him in prison. “This is not the first time that the police have come after me and it is because of the trouble I cause for the ANC and the government.”
In a part of the country where platinum mining companies extract profit with documented disregard for the living conditions of their workers and the settlements surrounding their operations, his angry, urgent voice for socioeconomic change had to be silenced, Webster contends.
“We saw the police acting as defenders of the mining company in Marikana in 2012 and we are seeing it again now,” he said.
In January last year Webster was involved in an unlawful occupation of government-built houses in Marikana Extension Two. The land had been donated by Lonmin to the local municipality for the national housing department to build low-cost housing.
The entire process — from who got jobs on the building site to the allocation of houses — was mired in controversy with anger and protests occurring since the first sod-turning.
Shortly after an official handover of some houses by government officials in January 2016 — minus President Jacob Zuma, who pulled out of the ceremony at the last minute, apparently fearing for his safety — people occupied the rest.
The occupation was named Mambush 34 after Mgcineni Mambush Noki, one of the 34 striking miners shot dead by police on August 16 2012.
A shortage of housing, and Lonmin’s failure to meet its 2006 legal obligation to build 5 500 family unit homes for its workers by 2011, was one of the main drivers of the 2012 strike, according to the Farlam commission report. By 2012, Lonmin had built only three show homes.
One of these is now being used by the Mambush 34 occupiers as the movement’s office.
The housing shortage continues today, exacerbated by Lonmin’s conversion of its hostels into family units and its changing of social and labour plan targets.
On December 8 last year ANC councillor Sabata Petros Chale was hacked to death by a vigilante group at his home in Marikana West, next to Marikana Extension Two. Several men, all from the Mambush 34 occupation, were arrested. Webster was arrested at their bail hearing in Rustenburg in January.
This, according to Webster, is when events took a turn for the dangerously absurd. During his arrest outside court, a crowd gathered around the police vehicle in which Webster was handcuffed.
“The Hawks, who arrested me, ran away and the police released me and asked me to calm down the crowd. I went outside the bakkie and the police started shooting — I was hit by a real bullet on my head — and then they arrested me for trying to escape,” he said.
Since then, Webster’s bail hearing for the murder charge has been postponed eight times — because the recording devices at the Rustenburg Magistrate’s Court sitting in Tlhabane weren’t working or there were no stenographers — before magistrate Andries van Wyk finally heard the case and ruled he be remanded in custody until the murder trial.
Last week Webster’s lawyers at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (Seri) lodged an appeal in the high court in Rustenburg. Seri, a public interest law body, also represents
the families of the striking miners killed during the 2012 strike at Lonmin which eventually left 44 people dead.
They have argued that Van Wyk had erred in his ruling that Webster had not established the exceptional circumstances required to be released on bail.
In its notice of appeal, Seri argued that the state’s case against Webster is weak and its evidence “inconsistent and contradictory” — which the magistrate had accepted in the bail ruling. According to Seri, three of the four state witnesses — all police officers — had given different versions of vital facts, including what weapon Webster had allegedly been armed with. The fourth police officer had testified that Webster had not been armed.
The National Prosecuting Authority, in arguing against Webster’s bail, cited the volatile political situation and raised concerns about his safety and of the public.
Van Wyk had found the police officers’ evidence “differs … in a lot of manners and a lot of ways” and had also been critical of the investigating officer’s inability to provide any particularity about the witness statements the state would use in its case.
Yet Webster’s lawyers provided two witnesses, a filmmaker and a student activist, who testified that they had accompanied him to a local supermarket, and provided receipts with a time of purchase to back up their testimony, at the time of the killing. Despite this, Webster was denied bail.
Seri attorney Thulani Nkosi said they had experienced difficulty in obtaining the court records, which had further lengthened the process. He also questioned why the magistrate had denied his client access to the supermarket’s closed circuit video footage.
In prison, the 38-year-old Webster’s wide, toothy grin just about masks the torment of his protracted time there … until he recounts his experiences inside.
He describes living in a 5m x 5m cell with about 30 other men — many hardened criminals. The ablution facilities and showers are inside the cell, so there is no privacy. “I sleep next to the toilet,” he said, through the thick, dirty glass in the visitor’s area.
He says there was an attempt to kill him while he was sleeping, averted after “some of the gang leaders in the prison heard about it and stopped it at the last minute”.
This is also not the first time he has been arrested by police. Webster alleges he was previously “kidnapped” by police in Rustenburg for public violence and then taken to the local football stadium. Webster takes up his bizarre tale: “They stripped me naked and placed me in a drain and then put the lid back on. It took me four hours to free myself, and when I finally pushed the lid off I walked to the police station, naked. I appeared on the CCTV footage and I went back to get the footage but they refused.
“This is all about silencing me,” he says. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) confirmed he had reported the matter.
North West Hawks spokesperson Colonel Tlangelani Rikhotso denied Webster’s arrest was political and confirmed that he was charged with murder and escaping from lawful custody. She said police had fired warning shots during Webster’s arrest in January to dissuade an allegedly armed crowd from freeing him from police custody. Although the Marikana housing shortage continues Lonmin, according to its 2015 annual social and labour plan report, has developed a “partnership model” to meet its housing obligations.
It aims to “provide services, pre-feasability studies, nonfinancial technical support and, where appropriate, land” while working with government and securing funding from
the Social Housing Regulatory Authority.
The company aimed to build a further 4 000 flats as of June last year, but citing the “reality” of “constrained capital expenditure”, conceded that it would “only be able to build one-third of these units”.
For almost three years, Webster was an ever-present figure at the commission of inquiry set up to investigate what happened during the fatal unprotected strike at Marikana.
When Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, a nonexecutive director at Lonmin at the time of the massacre, testified, Webster was there, wearing a “Buffalo Head” T-shirt (in reference to Ramaphosa bidding for a multimillion-rand buffalo at an auction) and leading the chants of “Blood on his hands!”
Webster had moved to Marikana before the massacre. Like others who have asked questions of the state — from Foreman Road housing activists in Durban who were attacked by police last week, leading to the death of two-week-old baby Jayden Khoza, to Bonginkosi Khanyile, the student activist and EFF member who was denied bail for six months before being released on a R250 bond — Webster appears to have received violent answers.