eKhenana: A background provided in the context of the arrest of Mqapheli Bonono

10 May 2021
Abahlali baseMjondolo Press Statement

eKhenana: A background provided in the context of the arrest of Mqapheli Bonono

The arrest of our Deputy President, Mqapheli (George) Bonono, on trumped up charges is related to the longstanding attempts by the ANC to crush the eKhenena Occupation in Cato Manor, an occupation that is now a working commune. These attempts have been formally organised through the armed force of the eThekwini Municipality, and informally organised through local political actors connected to the networks of patronage and accumulation around ANC politics at the ward level, some of them with criminal connections.

The achievements of the eKhenana Occupation have been extraordinary. There is a community hall, a farm with vegetables and poultry, a political school that is used by the movement as a whole, self-organised access to services such as water and electricity, a place specially built for young people to relax and socialise, a self-built road, and more. The next building project is a creche.

The occupation is run on a democratic basis with a co-operative managing the farming. The labour required to sustain the work of the commune is shared, as militant work, following the model of the MST in Brazil. All residents commit to share two meals together a week.

The commune has extensive political links outwards, including to other branches of our movement, other progressive organisations of the oppressed, and comrades and movements elsewhere in the world. As we have noted before the seeds that were used to start the vegetable farm were a gift from the MST in Brazil.

The community received a tractor in solidarity from church leaders who are friends of Abahlali. This is after they visited the community and saw the lovely work where the community lives. They were impressed that the residents have been building a life that does not only rely on state provisions. Many times when the City has failed to evict people despite repeated violence and unlawful attacks, they then refuse to provide basic services and infrastructure to these people as a punishment to communities that have occupied land for living. This community has defied the City, created its own commune, provided its own services and infrastructure and used the land to produce food. This has angered many in the ANC, including in the Provincial Committee. It has clearly been decided that an effective way to attack the commune is to trump up carefully targeted criminal charges to undermine and delegitimate the occupation.

Bonono has played a very significant role in supporting the occupation to become such a remarkable space and for it to move towards democratic self-management, develop a capacity for production and resist constant attacks.

The ANC has seen eKhenena as a direct threat because it is a site of autonomy from their local authority and networks of patronage and accumulation, and because it has effectively resisted repeated violent and illegal attempts by the municipality to crush the occupation. The commitment to not allow land to be bought and sold, or shacks to be rented, is also a threat to other local actors that try to profit from impoverishment. Some of these people have a dangerous capacity for violence and direct criminal connections are not unusual. Land to build a shack is sold from between R15 000 to R17 000, and land with a completed shack can sell for up to R22 000. A lot of money can be made this way. This is a key reason why opposition to autonomy and decommodification comes on horizontal as well as vertical axes.

It is important to stress that the eKhenena Occupation has not been an easy occupation and that the road to its current achievements was very difficult. The land was initially occupied in August 2018 by people who were made homeless when a corrupt housing development happened nearby. Some were backyarders and there were also some young people who needed to have their own homes after years of living with their parents. The occupation was not organised by or in consultation with our movement. The people who occupied did so quickly, and in conditions of crisis, and had not worked out a clear system of self-management and a clear set of political commitments around which to organise the new occupation.

From the beginning the occupation faced regular state violence and repeated illegal evictions. The local ANC councillor Mzi Ngiba was usually present when the occupation was attacked, homes destroyed and burnt and the residents beaten, tear gassed and shot at with rubber bullets and, at times, with live ammunition. Many people were seriously injured in these attacks. For instance, on 8 November 2019 Lando Tshazi was hospitalised after being shot with live ammunition during an attack on the occupation by more than two hundred armed men from the Anti-Land Invasion Unit, private security and metro police. They arrived as if for a war. In eKhenena and elsewhere in Durban autonomous initiative by the oppressed has routinely been met with militarised force by the local state.

On 16 November, there was a brutal state attack on the nearby eNkanini land occupation. The attackers used a helicopter and brought police from as far away as Bloemfontein. As individual homes were raided numerous people were severely beaten by the police. Teargas was thrown into homes without regard for who was inside and many children were affected. Nonhlanhla Nzama, a resident in the occupation who was seven months pregnant, collapsed and was admitted to hospital for five days after inhaling the teargas. While she was in hospital her child was stillborn. The eNkanini occupation was targeted for this kind of militarised brutality because of its strong support for the eKhanana Occupation.

After the eKhanana occupiers approached the movement for support we worked with them to approach the court and on 13 February 2019 the Durban High Court granted us an interdict against the eThekwini Municipality’s repeated violent and illegal attacks on the eKhenana Occupation. The local ANC, led by Ngiba, the ward councillor, responded to the interdict by organising their own occupation, carried out in ANC t-shirts, on 19 February. This has been a common tactic by local ANC structures in recent years. If an occupation cannot be destroyed through violent action by the various armed forces available to the municipality they try to take it over or undermine its political strength by either moving their own people into the space or supporting local thugs to invade the space with the aim of appropriating the space to sell or rent land and shacks.

The occupation organised by Ngiba caused a lot of anger from nearby middle-class residents. In response the municipality got a court order to evict Ngiba’s people and then went ahead and evicted them. During this eviction they left the homes of the Abahlali members which were protected by the interdict. This is the first time in Durban that the municipality has evicted through the law. The eviction of Ngiba’s people resulted in huge protests against him in Cato Manor, and more violent attacks on the eNkanini and eKhenena occupations from the state. It humiliated and deeply angered the local ANC structures and was a direct threat to their monopoly over the distribution and commodification of land.

After this the municipality returned to ignoring the interdict that we had won – something that has been common for years now – and continued to regularly attack the occupation with armed force in an attempt to physically destroy it. On 24 April we returned to court and won an interdict against the Municipality preventing them from continuing to carry out illegal evictions in this community in violation of both the law and the interdict obtained on 13 February.

Immediately after we secured the interdict against the eThekwini Municipality on 24 April, Mr. Mkhize, the leader of the city’s notorious Land Invasion Unit went to eKhenana to continue his attack on the community. Mkhize went wild in anger at Abahlali winning in court and fired live ammunition at the community seriously injuring one person. This is not the first time that we have been violently attacked after winning in court. Mkhize was never suspended or disciplined for firing live ammunition at unarmed people.

On 14 April the Abahlali baseMjondolo eKhenena branch was launched, and a cow was slaughtered in celebration. The night before the launch Siyabonga Mngadi, one of the residents, was shot dead by an unknown person who just arrived and started shooting wildly at our members while the tent that would be used for the launch was being erected. Another resident was murdered, also by unknown people, two weeks before the launch. We do not know who was responsible for this murder, and if it was political. It is certainly possible that it was political but we have no information on who was behind the murder, or what the motive was.

Division emerged in the branch. Any occupation that chooses to affiliate to our movement has to accept certain principles. Four of these principles became horizontal lines of conflict within the occupation.

As noted above one of these principles is that there can be no commodification of land – land and shacks cannot be sold and shacks cannot be rented. Another is that all positions must be determined via annual public election and that all people who are elected to office must be subject to the right of recall. Decision making must be organised via public meetings open to all at which all participants are encouraged to speak and the person chairing the meeting runs the process with a view towards achieving maximum inclusion in the discussions, ensuing that everyone is engaged respectfully, and the aim of slowly and carefully moving towards achieving consensus. A third principle is that if there are incidents of violence against women, sexual harassment or rape they must be dealt with swiftly and effectively. A fourth is that everyone must contribute equally to militant work such as, in eKhenena, working in the gardens and the poultry project. The same principle is intended to apply with regard to childcare when the planned creche is built.

There was a small group, around five people, who did not want to accept that land would not be bought and sold, and that shacks would not be built to be sold or rented. They wanted to profit from the occupation of the land. These same people did not want to participate in the consensus-based meetings that were being used to organise the occupation as a democratic project – to turn an occupation into a working commune. They refused to share meals and to participate in militant work. It was said that there were links to criminal networks. Matters came to a head when around twenty women, who had been up all-night discussing the situation, came to the movement’s office in central Durban the next morning to complain about repeated abuse and harassment from these five. There was an allegation that there had been rapes.

As a result of the failure of the branch to address these issues swiftly and effectively it was shut down and the membership of all the residents was terminated. The residents were advised to organise an assembly open to all to discuss the issues, to work to resolve the issues, and then work towards relaunching the branch. The assembly was held, the allegation of rape and other abuses was discussed. Following the assembly, the five were asked to leave the community. Women took the leading role in this process but were supported by male leaders.

When the national Covid-19 lockdown was imposed on 27 March 2020 there was a clear moratorium on evictions. However, during the initial hard lockdown eKhenena came under relentless violent attack from the local state in violation of that moratorium. The lockdown was cynically exploited by the municipality to try and crush the occupation. Under lockdown conditions it was difficult to gain legal support and for solidarity to be organised from other occupations. Large meetings and all protests were temporarily illegal. But, due to extraordinary collective courage and determination – inkani – the residents held the land and the occupation survived the regular attacks, attacks that were all violent and illegal.

On 5 October 2020 the branch was relaunched, and a new committee elected. There was now general commitment to all the principles that must adhered to in Abahlali occupations. Since then the branch has made inspirational progress and, as noted above, developed an occupation into a commune, begun to use land for production as well as housing, and undertaken all kinds of other initiatives – such as building a political school that is used by the movement and other progressive organisations as a general resource. The branch has become a model for the political strategy of building a network of linked communes on occupied land, working from the communes to support and build solidarity with other progressive organisations of the oppressed, and developing relationships with the established formations of the working class in the form of trade unions.

The part of Cato Manor where the occupation holds decommodified land is not easy terrain on which to organise. There is regular violence perpetrated from within the communities in the area – including violence in homes and on the streets. It is rare for a weekend to pass without the sun rising over a body. Some of this violence is directly linked to contestation over opportunities to make money within Cato Manor via the commodification of land and housing, the taxi business and so on. Most of this violence is not political. This reality has been extensively covered in the isiZulu media.

In mid-March Vusi Shezi was murdered on a road at the edge of Cato Crest. He had been part of the group of five that had been expelled from the occupation following the women led process organised via the open assembly. He had many enemies. Because of this, because murders are so common in the area, and because he was not murdered in the occupation nobody saw any connection between eKhenena and the murder.

Two days later Lindokuhle Mnguni, an elected leader in the occupation, was arrested in connection with the murder. A second person, Lando Tshazi (the same person who was shot by the police in 2019), was also arrested. He suffered a broken leg during the arrest and was taken to hospital. Later on Ayanda Ngila was arrested when he attended Mnguni’s appearance in court.

The three have been detained in the notorious Westville Prison for close to two months. They have faced such severe harassment, violence and threats from ANC thugs that the prison decided to place them in isolation.

These arrests were a complete shock to the residents and to movement. The residents supported the three who were arrested and have collected money for them to survive in the prison. The position of the movement on the arrests was as follows:

  1. We condemned the killing of any person by any person. We made and continued to make strenuous arguments for building a culture of peace in the area. This is a matter of public record.
  2. While we knew that the eKhenana occupation has been under attack from both the City and ANC since its formation we assumed that because the murder was committed outside the settlement and against a person with many enemies this was a criminal rather than a political matter – and that justice must be served. We took the view that because the murder was a purely criminal matter the police needed to be assisted with any relevant information that could be found in order apprehend those responsible. Our members were asked to bring any relevant information forward. Although we had no information on who was responsible for the murder we were clear that if it was true that our own members were involved then all the facts must be brought to light, a fair judicial process held and justice delivered. We were crystal clear that this was our position irrespective of whether or not the people involved in the murder were our members.
  3. We do not just rush to defend people because they happen to be our members, or leaders. We always take time to carefully find the truth for ourselves before we take a stand and speak out. In such a serious matter it is imperative to be as slow, careful and inclusive as possible while ascertaining all the facts before taking any position.

As part of the work of trying to find out happened Bonono called an open meeting of residents on 21 March to try and establish the facts of the matter. We have still not been able to establish the facts of the matter. As of today, we have no credible information as to who committed the murder, or why.

The police claim that they have a witness or witnesses to the murder. If they do have a witness statement or statements we have no knowledge of the content of that statement, or statements, and cannot, therefore, assess the credibility of any evidence that the police may present to the prosecution.

However, we have been told that each time that the three have appeared in court for a bail application there has been a postponement because the prosecution say that they don’t yet have any evidence from the police. If this is correct then it is not clear that there is credible evidence implicating the three.

There is, though, a person who is claiming to have witnessed the murder and has been trying to mobilise others to his side. He has been pointing out people that he says are suspects to the police. We do not know if he has made a statement to the police. However, what we can say is that he is the same person that, as we noted in our previous statement, has been acting in a very strange way – in a way that many people have started to think is typical of an intelligence agent.

We must be clear that we cannot confirm that he is in fact an intelligence agent, but he has certainly behaved like one. We are exploring this matter carefully, as are all the other organisations on the left with which we work. We are rapidly receiving reports from other organisations and, so far, they have all reported strange behaviour on the part of this person, and a tendency to make false claims about belonging to and having a right to represent a long list of organisations.

Another point to note is that his girlfriend’s brother is a notorious hitman for the taxi industry. The hitman appeared at our Unfreedom Day event.

But it is also important to keep in mind that a lot of money can be made when occupied land is bought and sold and that this can easily persuade people to oppose a decommodified and democratic occupation, especially if the local ANC offer to support a takeover. It may be that this person who has behaved so strangely is only motivated by the possibility of financial gain and is willing to work with the local ANC to achieve control of the occupation. At this point we cannot be certain.

However, if this person is a witness implicating our members then it seems that there is clearly a possibility that their arrest was in fact political, and part of the attack on the occupation.

The ANC have been very, very angered and humiliated by the eKhenena Occupation. They have tried to crush it with the armed force of the state, with a counter occupation and with informal forms of violence. But this small occupation has survived everything, and has done amazing things and won world-wide respect for the commune that it has developed. The ANC won’t rest until they have dealt with eKhenana, and that means dealing with Bonono as well as the residents on the occupation because Bonono has done so much work to support this occupation.

When Bonono was arrested at our office on Tuesday the police arrived with Siniko Miya in their custody. Miya is a member of our movement. At the time we had no idea why they had arrested Miya. We were completely perplexed because he was not at the open meeting chaired by Bonono on 21 March with the aim of establishing the facts related to the murder and arrests. As noted the police have made the ludicrous claim that a conspiracy to murder a witness to the murder of Shezi was planned at this meeting. The fact that they have the wrong date for this meeting shows that their grasp of the basic facts is very poor.

Conspiracy is defined as a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful. Now in the case of Bonono, though he chaired a meeting of eKhenena residents he is arrested alone and charged alone. In this case we have a list of state witnesses, received from the police. Bonono does not know these people. You cannot conspire with people that you do not know.

On Thursday night, 6 May, we were able to speak to Bonono in the Durban Central Police Station. He is detained in the same cell as Miya and he was able to explain to us that Miya had been arrested in court, where he was appearing for another very serious matter – a murder. There are no claims that the alleged murder has any political connections. Immediately after arresting Miya at court the police came with him to arrest Bonono at our offices. It now seems to us that Miya was brought into this solely because he has another case pending and that the police and whomever they are taking direction from thought that this could delegitimate Bonono, and our movement, by association.

Our position is that the original charge against Miya must be fairly and thoroughly investigated and that the law must then proceed according to the evidence. It is also our position, though, that the second charge bought against Miya, the same charge that has been bought against Bonono, is part of a political frame-up and must be withdrawn immediately.

We stand with Bonono, and we do so with great pride. We will offer him our full solidarity until this frame-up is thrown out of court and he can return to the care of his family, friends and comrades. He, his family and our movement and its supporters deeply appreciate the wonderful solidarity that has been expressed by people and organisations all over the world.

S’bu Zikode 083 547 0474
Thapelo Mohapi 074 774 4219