Mahala: To Kill a Poor Man

by Samora Chapman and Caelin Roodt / 05.11.2013

Now is the time for the whole world to turn their gaze upon the atrocities occurring in the townships of Durban, South Africa. These are real stories from recent clashes between Durban shack dwellers and the powers that be.

On Monday 7 October Nyati Gcinithemba was shot in the chest at the entrance to the uMlazi Courts. He was unarmed, leading a chorus of voices, singing songs of freedom. Nyati and 30 other members of Abahlali base-Mjondolo (a shack dwellers movement) were calling for the release of three fellow activists who had been held by police all weekend for attending protests in uMlazi.

Nyati refused to stop singing, even after being shot, beaten and handcuffed.

Earlier that day, two policemen, Mbongwa and Ndwandwe, had a conversation that was clearly overheard by members of the protest. According to the protesters, these cops discussed a plan to kill two people, Nyati Gcinithemba and Khayalihle Majola… “to teach those rats a lesson.

We headed into Silver City, uMlazi, to meet Nyati Gcinithemba and Khayalihle Majola, Abahlali Base-Mjondolo members who were at the forefront of the march on uMlazi courts on Monday 7 October.

They say they are fugitives, living in fear of execution at the hands of those mandated to “serve and protect”.

We meet Khayalihle on a hill overlooking the settlement. He is over six feet tall, wears a black cowboy hat and his belt is unbuckled.

“We can’t talk here,” he says glancing around nervously. “There’s snipers looking for me and Nyati.”

He hops in the car and we head off. The heat is stifling as we navigate through a sea of silver shacks, which glisten like quicksilver in the sun. Around a bend, disaster strikes… a paraffin stove has exploded. Fire!

We screech to a halt and join the crowd running toward the orange flames. A growling and screaming fills the air. It’s the owner of the shack, an elderly woman. The neighbours drag her away from the scene to the relative safety of a nearby shack.

The community springs into action… in no time, there are 15 people running between the nearest tap and the fire with buckets of water. But it’s hopeless. The tap trickles and the buckets line up… empty, thirsting for water.

In desperation we turn to the black stream of watery excrement which runs between the shacks… filling our buckets and tossing the brown liquid at the seething shack-fire.

In 10 minutes the shack is engulfed, but the fire has been contained… saving thousands of homes. A small victory.

“Life goes on,” mutters a bystander as he sips a bottle of smelly, warm Milk Stout.

We leave our vehicle at a dead end and follow Khayalihle deeper into the Silver City maze on foot. We arrive at a clearing next to a dusty soccer field and are introduced to Nyati. He is small, but strong and barrel chested… the look in his eyes is that of a warrior.

He takes off his t-shirt and shows us the bullet wound in his chest… the bullet is still lodged under his armpit and his breathing is laboured. The bullet narrowly missed his heart.

“My life is not safe,” he says. “The cops told me that they are going to finish me.”

We all examine a cellphone picture of the cop who Nyati alleges pulled the trigger, while he explains the events surrounding his shooting.

“We were singing and trying to get into the court house to support our AbM comrades. Then the cops encircled us and pushed us up against the armed guards. That is when I was shot. I don’t know who shot me. But a guard was holding me and I think the bullet went through his arm before it went into my chest. That is what saved my life.”

Nyati has been charged with Assault GBH, based on the fact that a security guard was shot in the arm at the scene. He was released without bail but has been ordered to report to the police station every Wednesday until his trial.

In other words, he has to report to the front door of the very men who he claims have repeatedly threatened to slay him and according to his own eye witness account, shot him in the chest.

This is the latest in a complex sequence of events revolving around a struggle in Durban’s most dilapidated slum – Cato Crest. Shack dwellers have been barricading roads and burning tyres. Two council offices and a community hall have been torched. Two activists have been killed in what the AbM describes as “assassinations” and an innocent 17 year-old girl was gunned down at a protest. She was shot dead, in the back, running for her life. Another shack dweller was shot four times in the stomach while defending his shack from demolition.

A struggle that a few weeks back attracted the attention of some of the world’s most heavyweight academic voices, led by Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek, who penned an open letter to Jacob Zuma ominously warning: “we are watching the situation in Cato Crest very closely…” But despite their heavyweight global statement, that crackled through the news wires and social media and then faded away in a day or two, swamped by memes of cats and Miley Cyrus; the struggle for Cato Crest remains largely unreported in the local media. Just another symptom of the poor man’s burden.