The call came at about 11pm. The late night dread ringing in my ear. Richard was sobbing so hard I could scarcely understand him. “They’ve killed Commander,” he finally spat out.
Thulani Kathi – “Commander”, as the Glebe guys called him – had been tortured by police in October last year, tubed by the KwaZulu-Natal premier’s specially deployed peacekeeping units. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) was supposedly investigating, but justice came too late for Thulani who bled out in the road at the busy MegaCity taxi rank. Inconceivably there were no witnesses. No arrests. Just another victim of a well-executed Glebelands Hostel hit.
The next day I drove the guys to the crime scene to pay their respects. They were unable to walk across to MegaCity because, although less than a kilometre away, it would have meant crossing the dreaded “no go” zones, where certain death stalked those brave, or foolish enough, to play Russian Roulette with the many police-issue guns that armed the hostel killers.
Although someone had scraped sand over the area, it was hard to believe so much blood could come from two tiny bullet holes. His friends resolved to come back and clean the area properly. It wasn’t right that commuters kept walking blindly over Thulani’s remains.
It was also Richard who broke the news of Sipho Ndovela’s assassination on the doorstep of the uMlazi Magistrate’s Court on May 18. This time Richard was calmer, he only broke down later when we returned to the grim groups of men gathered again at Block R garage to discuss yet another fallen comrade.
I was worried about Richard. He had seen too much, buried too many, and the tension in his eyes betrayed the steadiness of his voice. He was strung out and too tightly wired to let go of his grief and anger. Post traumatic stress disorder has become an occupational hazard at Glebelands.
Sipho’s murder was no surprise to anyone – probably least of all to Sipho. He had been warned “You will not see court”.
His wife had been threatened and killers had hunted him to his rural Eastern Cape home. He lived just long enough to be acquitted of attempted murder – an incident which had occurred when hostel thugs had begun evicting dozens from the block of which he was formerly chairman – more seemingly malicious charges brought against block chairmen or their associates, apparently by residents coerced by thugs and thugs abetted by cops. Sipho had been wearing a purple shirt – he had dressed up for his court date.
He had been a large man in life, in death he looked huge, his barrel chest and arms flung out crucifixion-style on the paving. But again, all it took were two tiny well-placed holes for his life to ooze away.
Each time the guys go to court, it’s become a ritual to stop near the now faint marks, and with a shake of their heads, disclaim how Sipho’s killers had got away with murder right in front of the police.
Richard wasn’t around when Temba Pina took a bullet outside Chester Butcheries in Umbilo. Pina had been something of a Glebelands celebrity. He was a leading light in the local ANC, a long-standing, much respected branch member, yet his party forgot to mention his passing, forgot his years of loyal service, forgot his family in their time of need.
Highly intelligent, witty and philosophical, Pina frequently posted status pictures of his wife. He had clearly adored her. Now she arrived at the place of his death, wrapped in a blanket, businesslike and so very brave in the cold early morning wind. Other relatives assisted her, stripping off Pina’s shoes, pulling his wedding ring from his lifeless fingers, and emptying his pockets. The sight of his brother delicately collecting shards of Pina’s shattered skull from the blood-soaked pavement was both shocking and incredibly moving. There is no dignity in death, yet this simple, but awful task, performed quietly with much love by those closest to him, removed some of the horror from the terrible scene.
As the paramedics lifted his body into the morgue truck, a huge gory slick marked the spot where Pina’s bloodless killers had blown his brains out. He had received death threats the night before. He had copied similar messages to me, together with the numbers from which they came. The threats were reported to the police, but with an alleged R50 000 price on his head, nothing could stop Pina’s life from being blown out of two more tiny holes.
The butchery manager came later, after the pavement had been washed, and asked respectfully if his staff could now open the nearby takeaway cart because customers were waiting. Business as usual after Glebelands kill number 30. Soon afterwards, in a nearby shopping mall, my irritation grew as I listened to two white women whining about load shedding. It seemed surreal and somehow disrespectful that trivial daily life should continue amid so much death.
Yet there was still more. I was notified of each death by members of the community, with what had become meticulous attention to detail. The community had become their own investigators, calmly pointing out bullet holes, noting times, witnesses, police responses, recording officers’ names and providing case numbers when available. The death of every relative, friend, neighbour, or community member was dutifully recorded with detached care. Only when alone, or with trusted comrades, their pain and rage bubbled over at the authorities’ utter contempt for their lives.
Dlamini the taxi driver, whose family was too poor to bury him for nearly a month; Commander’s brother – the last breadwinner left in the family of about 11; Thandayiphi who had seemingly been targeted by both thugs and police, wrapped in a silver bag that glittered in the hard sunlight one Sunday; more names crossed off the hit list, more bloodstains scrubbed off the tarmac.
It became increasingly difficult to maintain a coherent record of events as the violence came thick and fast, like bullets from an AK-47.
I saw Richard intermittently throughout the killings. We were fighting to get police conduct investigated after the man he had known for 10 years was acquitted of Richard’s attempted murder. What should have been a straightforward, easy to solve walk-by shooting, had left Richard a stranger to justice with a semi-paralysed hand that had lost him his job. The shooter kept walking.
Soon after, gunmen followed Richard to work. He was warned – just as Sipho had been – that his days were numbered. He changed his route, his job, his address. The police were notified and protection requested – just as had been requested for Sipho and Pina.
But it was the state – members of the very same Provincial SAPS Task Team, specially deployed by the provincial commissioner to independently investigate Glebelands cases – that violated Richard’s dignity, his safety and his human rights. It was the state who dragged him off, initially on unknown charges, beat him, tubed him and threatened to kill him. It was the state who threw him into a police cell without medical attention.
It was the state that allowed a prosecutor to fight Richard’s bail with such rabid, incoherent desperation it almost seemed he had something personal to gain from the continued incarceration of a man who must remain innocent until proven guilty.
It was the state that contravened its own court ruling that Richard receive immediate medical attention on admission to prison. It had been the state, when it turned its face in silent disdain from the Glebelands killing fields, that led to 37 corpses and left hundreds traumatised and destitute.
The long arm of the lawless political hate-mongers has stretched full circle to slap itself in the face. They have spat on community safety and stability, offering up Glebelands as a rich conduit for hit men and hijackers – an aggressive cancer, indiscriminately feeding taxi wars and political power struggles. Whoever pays best, buys the biggest gun.
What may have begun with the sale of a few beds – a corrupt few following the crooked dance steps of a deeply discredited national leader – has been allowed to explode into a juggernaut of violence, growing fatter daily on the abandoned carcass of a once-stable community.
I last saw Richard as the police led him downstairs to the court holding cells to be returned to prison. His bail application had been postponed four times. His case appeared to hang on the testimony of one person. He had still not seen a doctor.
His life may be ruined by a combination of systemic injustice, torture trauma, exposure to severe and sustained emotional stress, economic hardship and the burden of a partial disability.
Yet he remained a brave and proud man despite the indignity and abuse to which he had been subjected. For how long, however, can our nation withstand the same physical, economic and social battering from a state that simply doesn’t care for its people.
(In tribute to all those killed in the Glebelands violence – from both factions – and all the invisible victims, the rural families, who, for decades to come, will continue to suffer the state’s paralysis in bringing peace to this community. And may this serve as a warning to all who turn their faces from injustice; to those who think it cannot happen to them, or affect them; to all who think the lives of poor people are somehow less worthy, less deserving, than their own; to all who ignore the conflagration in their own backyard while pouring petrol on the burning homes of others; to those so elevated and cushioned by their elite status and wealth, that the harsh daily reality of the South African majority is an undesirable bed mate; to all who see only black and white when in fact, the picture comprises so many shades of grey. This is not over. More people will die. An injury to one really does have a knock-on effect on millions. This is not just hostel violence where criminals and opposing factions are killing each other. This is not just the squalid poor, voracious parasites on our rainbow society. These are our killing fields in our backyard, the slaughter of our people, the disintegration of our democracy and breakdown of the rule of law in our South Africa. Is this our choice? Do we have the balls to change it before the dysfunction of a failed state becomes our future? Do we even care?)
* Burger is an independent writer, researcher, human rights and social justice activist, working closely with hostel dwellers’ movement, Ubunye bamaHostela Nezakhiwo Zawo.