29-year-old Ayanda Ngila was the deputy chairperson of Abahlali baseMjondolo’s eKhenana Commune. Photo: Nomfundo Xolo via Abahlali baseMjondolo/Facebook
Over a year after the assassination of 29-year-old Ayanda Ngila, a leader of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), the socialist militant shack dwellers’ movement in South Africa, his killer was finally sentenced on Monday, July 24.
Ngila was shot by four gunmen at AbM’s eKhenana Commune in Cato Manor, Durban on March 8, 2022. On Monday, July 24, the Durban Magistrate’s Court sentenced Khaya Ngubane, who had led the attack, to 15 years in prison for the murder of Ngila. The ruling followed a week after Ngubane was convicted by the Court.
“None of these judgments will return Ayanda Ngila to us, but we are happy that justice has been served at least in this case…the road to this justice has been very long… We are grateful for the courage that we have witnessed within our organization, and there is also the solidarity from our allies, who have given us strength. We have not given up,” AbM’s president and founding member, S’bu Zikode, had told Peoples Dispatch ahead of Monday’s sentencing.
A member of the youth league of the African National Congress (ANC) in Cato Crest, Ngubane is the son of Samson Ngubane, whom AbM has described as an “ANC-aligned, Zionist Christian Church pastor”. On the day of the murder, Khaya Ngubane and the other gunmen had attempted to assassinate Lindokuhle Mnguni, the chairperson of the eKhenana Commune.
While Mnguni was able to escape, Ngila, who was the Commune’s deputy chairperson, was shot multiple times.
“Ayanda was a dedicated leader of the struggle who played a key role in building the eKhenana Commune and had a clear vision about how land must be used for the benefit of the poor…he was deeply committed to building democratic organization and power among the oppressed, to the equality of women and men and the struggle for socialism,” AbM said in a statement on July 18.
The movement has also demanded that all others who acted alongside Ngubane be arrested and prosecuted.
‘We are killed for trying to sustain ourselves’
The violence against eKhenana did not begin, or end, with the brutality of the attack on March 8. Ngila became one of four AbM leaders who were killed last year, including Siyabonga Manqele who was killed allegedly by masked policemen in the eNkanini settlement on March 11.
On May 5, 2022 40-year-old Nokuthula Mabaso, who had played a leading role in building the eKhenana Commune, was assassinated. She had been a witness in Ngila’s murder and had penned an affidavit. She was shot just a day before she was set to appear in court to oppose bail for Khaya Ngubane. The appearance was related to an incident on March 6, when Ngubane had led a violent assault on eKhenana during which one of AbM’s members, Siniko Miya, was attacked with an axe.
Khaya Ngubane’s father, Samson, and his uncle, Mhlanganyelwa, were subsequently arrested for Mabaso’s murder on July 26, 2022.
While members of the eKhenana Commune were still reeling from the killings of three of their members, 28-year-old Lindokuhle Mnguni, who had previously escaped, was assassinated on August 20. According to AbM, his killers had been part of the gunmen who had shot Ngila just months prior.
A long struggle for justice
Khaya Ngubane’s conviction and sentencing marks one of the rare occasions where the South African state has acknowledged the deadly violence that AbM has faced for over a decade. Till date, 24 activists in the movement have been killed. There have been convictions in only three cases.
“The justice system has not been serving the poor and the working class of this country, we have seen people getting away with murder, we have seen the state itself violating the laws of the country.” Zikode said.
“In a number of eviction cases you will find state institutions (municipalities) acting in full violation of court orders. In cases where we have obtained a court interdict, we have found that the state becomes law unto itself, and violates the court orders.”
Since its founding in 2018, the eKhenana Commune has been violently and illegally evicted more than 30 times. AbM leaders and members have been repeatedly arrested on trumped-up charges, including murder, and imprisoned at the notorious Westville prison, only to be released months later due to a complete lack of evidence.
Meanwhile, Samson and Mhlanganyelwa Ngubane were later released after the postmortem report “disappeared”, AbM’s General Secretary, Thapelo Mohapi, told Peoples Dispatch. Both men were present in court during Khaya Ngubane’s hearing on July 24.
During the trial against Khaya Ngubane, the Durban Magistrate’s Court also found that he and his witnesses had lied under oath. Meanwhile, it had further become clear that Ngubane had planned to kill other witnesses, Mohapi added. An attempt by Ngubane’s lawyer to seek leave to appeal the ruling was rejected by the court.
Building and defending socialism
In the context of mass impoverishment, unemployment, and hunger in South Africa, the eKhenana Commune has embodied AbM’s socialist politics and core organizing principles of providing “Land, Housing, Dignity” for the poor and working class. “We are killed for our own organizing of the impoverished, we are killed for trying to sustain ourselves, and because the ANC government sees us as a threat,” Mohapi said.
“The price for land and dignity has been paid in blood…[The ANC and the state] know that as we build our power from below…their power to oppress us is reduced…they know that if the impoverished continue to suffer in their millions the day will come when their anger will turn the country upside down,” AbM’s statement read.
AbM has repeatedly warned of attempts to drag the eKhenana Commune’s land into the commercial land market, also pointing to the complicity of the state, the local ANC in ward 101, and the police in the violence that the movement has faced.
“There has been an alliance in waging this war against AbM. The killings, particularly in eKhenana are what some people have called “constructive eviction” — they want people to leave so they can profit off the land. We know that it is not just a small group of people that were behind this [the killings], we know there were big business interests,” Zikode said.
“We were once told that there were people who wanted that land to build properties, [implying] that the land was too good for the people of eKhenana so they needed to be chased out”. When the eviction proceedings brought by the eThekwini municipality, or the “legal way” to evict people failed, “they resorted to violence”, Zikode added. This violence was carried out by private security guards, anti-land invasion units, the metropolitan police, and even the South African Police Service (SAPS).
“Many of the comrades in eKhenana have scars on their backs, they are living with bullets. Ultimate sacrifices have been made to defend this piece of land.” “Socialism or Death”, Mnguni and Ngila had declared.
As Zikode highlighted, the violence against AbM “is part of a bigger political agenda that is facing the working class today— that we have no place in our countries, in our own continent, in our own world. We are told that the poor have no place in our society, so we must be confined in dark corners without any freedom to live, nor to have pieces of land, and this is clear in the war that has been waged on eKhenana”.
Despite the relentless violence, the members of AbM have remained steadfast in their commitment to eKhenana, maintaining its projects including a vegetable garden and kitchen which feed the members of the Commune—“they have insisted that if we were to leave the Commune, it would be betraying the struggle of the fallen heroes,” Zikode said.
As the movement has vowed to continue its fight to achieve justice for those who have been killed, it has fought equally as hard to realize their vision for AbM.
Lindokuhle Mnguni was buried on the piece of land that had been purchased together with his mother. “When we went to the place to bury Lindokuhle we found that it was only a [bare] site, so we had to build a shack so there was at least a home”, Mohapi said. The movement then started to reach out to their allies in an effort to build a proper home on the land.
In welcome news, construction on the house began last week. “We felt that we owed it to Lindokuhle to build him the house that he had long fought for, the dream that he had for his family,” Mohapi said.
“He [Mnguni] said to us, ‘socialism or death’ and we are prepared to do that because it was his life that he sacrificed, it was not simply rhetoric. He lived socialism until he was assassinated.”