President Jacob Zuma’s continued disregard for the constitution, rule of law, independence of the judiciary and authority of independent institutions is increasingly translating into the lawlessness currently dominating KwaZulu Natal, where the police, courts and state security are used to protect political interests and suppress valid public discontent; where state torture and police criminality are endemic.
I do not usually give much credence to government officials’ whitewashing, excuses or blame games. However, when such statements border on defamation, are wildly and persistently inaccurate, deeply damaging to the safety and security of a traumatised community who continue to live under daily threat of death, and appear to be made in conjunction with certain elements within civil society, it is time to take note of what is being said, by whom, and to what ends.
Since early 2015, accusations have been made regarding the motivation for my involvement with the Glebelands Hostel community. Although I am seldom named, it is clear to whom the powers that be are referring, as I am the only individual who visits the community on a regular basis – sometimes several times a week – as well as most of the crime scenes. Sadly, although 22 years have passed since the fall of apartheid, the presence of a white female in a hostel still seems to be viewed with suspicion and hostility – not by the community themselves – but by those who clearly have something to hide.
Recently the KwaZulu Natal Provincial Commissioner, Lieutenant General Mmamonnye Ngobeni, claimed that, “We are disturbed by the wild and unfounded allegations from people who have no clue of what is going on in the Glebelands hostel. Unfortunately their propaganda campaign through the media will only benefit them, not the residents of the hostel.” She went further to state that, “criticism of the police… [is] ‘unjustified’.”
South African Police Service (SAPS) spokesperson Col Jay Naicker’s utterances in mid-2015 that: “We are extremely concerned that organisations desperate for funding are peddling information to the media in desperation to get media coverage for their funding, rather than having a genuine interest in solving the problems that exist in Glebelands. This is a serious hindrance to our investigations and only serves to fuel further violence, as such individuals are aligning themselves with a certain group in the hostel,” led respected human rights defender and violence monitor, Mary de Haas, to demand a full retraction and public apology from the Provincial Commissioner – a request that was – along with the copious other communications about the Glebelands violence - ignored.
The ANC’s controversial KZN chairperson, Sihle Zikalala, has been a little more straightforward in his deployment of disinformation and last October directly attributed my involvement at Glebelands as, “nothing but a well calculated attempt to popularize [my] lesser known NGO.”
Such insinuations took a more sinister turn recently when KZN MEC [member of the executive committee] for Transport, Community Safety and Liaison, Willies Mchunu, suggested during a SAFM After Eight Debate on the Glebelands violence, that, despite having been invited, I had no right to visit Glebelands and that my presence or actions may be deemed “not legal” – whatever that means in a supposedly free, democratic country.
All this is to be anticipated when one considers the pro-Zuma factional background of these players and the context of Ward 76 Councillor Robert Mzobe’s rumoured relationship with the seat of power. Our president’s continued disregard for the constitution, rule of law, independence of the judiciary and authority of Chapter Nine institutions such as the Public Protector, will increasingly translate into the lawlessness which currently dominates KZN, where the police, the courts and state security are used as pawns to protect political interests and suppress valid public discontent, where state torture and police criminality is endemic and condemnation thereof deemed “unjustified” by a Provincial Commissioner who has herself been under investigation for the past six years.
To defend and tacitly approve law enforcement’s wrongdoing will lead us down the slippery slope to anarchy – accountability and justice especially for the poor, having long since fallen victim to this corrupt regime’s greed and utter devaluation of human life. Ngobeni must be reminded that by failing to acknowledge and discipline criminality with the SAPS, she undermines the hard work of honest, dedicated officers who continue to struggle against overwhelming odds to plot their way through the political minefield that has become our criminal justice system. Similarly, for provincial SAPS management to discount as “propaganda” credible research, independent information and sworn statements provided to police, currently being used in several investigations and by the courts, and scoff at human rights, undermines the very basis of our constitutional democracy and the rule of law. But then Ngobeni has clearly learned well from her lawless leader.
I have never claimed to have all the answers regarding the Glebelands crisis, but I can only conclude Ngobeni’s often misleading public statements regarding conditions on the ground at the hostel stem from her glaring absence in the field. I have not once bumped into her, or any of the other so-called leaders who speak so eloquently of the situation, during my many visits to ground zero of KZN’s killing fields.
However, what is far more insidious is the apparent manipulation of certain sectors of civil society to mimic the disinformation disseminated by these individuals. When so-called ‘independent’ journalists utilize credible media outlets such as the Daily Maverick to spread wildly inaccurate and damaging statements, it is time for concern.
Cyril Madlala’s subtly crafted piece (“Death Stalks Glebelands: Plea to UN to stop the hostel killings” Daily Maverick 20 April 2016) steers a carefully worded path between lies and confusion while maintaining the ANC’s creative use of the truth. Certain claims made in this piece must be corrected. For example, Madlala’s description of the circumstances surrounding Sipho Ndovela’s assassination last year at the Umlazi Magistrate’s Court perpetuates the myth that Ndovela was “a state witness under protection” of the police. The police were present and had transported Ndovela to court, but he was not under any form of special protection. Ndovela, members of the community, de Haas and I, had begged police for seven weeks prior to his murder that he be placed in witness protection, yet our pleas were persistently ignored by the very same provincial commissioner who now claims I benefit in some way from the deaths of people I have grown to respect and care about.
And Ndovela was not shot seven times, but three – I saw his wounds when I arrived at the scene fifteen minutes after he had been killed. I had arranged to take Ndovela to make a supplementary statement after his court appearance (he had just been acquitted of seemingly fabricated attempted murder charges) regarding information the investigating officer had instructed him to omit from his earlier statement regarding Fikile Siyephu’s murder – information which implicated the late hostel warlord and police in the ongoing killing at Glebelands. Only senior police members and a few trusted community leaders knew of Ndovela’s intention to make that statement. I have provided my information to the police, the IPID and the Public Protector. It is up to them to investigate thoroughly, not criticize and slander those who do their civic duty to advance accountability in the interests of justice and ultimately, peace.
Madlala’s statements attributed to hostel dwellers’ organization, Ubunye bamaHostela’s (UbH) spokesperson and deputy chairperson, Mthembiseni Thusi, regarding the Glebelands violence victims’ recent appeal to the UNHRC are also deeply misleading and inaccurate. Whether this is the result of shoddy research, or perhaps the influence of Madlala’s former employer, the KZN Premier, or something more malignant, remains to be seen. Statements such as “the cause of organisations such as Thusi’s Ubunye bamaHostela is undermined in the view of the authorities by the hand of ‘community activists’ who are perceived to drive agendas not necessarily in the best interests of the people on the ground” can cause divisions and create suspicion where formerly none existed.
For the record, I first visited Glebelands in March 2014 at the invitation of UbH leaders to assist the family of a man tortured to death by police during interrogation. My relationship with UbH has spanned the best part of a decade during which time I have assisted with other issues as at Dalton, Umlazi T-Section and Thokoza Womens’ Hostel. I have always counted Thusi and his family amongst my closest personal friends.
It does not concern me that Madlala has incorrectly attributed the origination of the UNHRC appeal to UbH (which was actually authored independently under direction of Glebelands Hostel leaders) when we are all working to the same ends, but merely suggest that Madlala undertakes better research before tackling his next topic. When communities are under threat of state violence as is the case at Glebelands, unity is vital and all attempts to divide, undermine and sew seeds of suspicion and distrust must be rejected in the strongest possible terms to prevent further bloodshed.
The most disturbing aspect to all this, came, however, from a call I received from esteemed church leader, Cardinal Wilfred Napier, the day before the Glebelands community announced their UNHRC appeal to the media. During this unsettling conversation, the voice of state influence echoed disturbingly loud and clear behind the good cardinal’s accusations. The purpose of the call was apparently to object to the “inflammatory” and “hostile” tone used in the press invitation. Cardinal Napier suggested I consider the police’s feelings (I presume the ‘feelings’ of those tortured by police – including a young woman - are of no consequence) when making, what he termed, “allegations” about their conduct. Sadly, he too seemed to consider sworn statements, years of in-depth independent research and current investigations as irrelevant when weighed against the greater need for ‘peace at all costs’ – even if such so-called ‘peace’ will exist in name only and will lead to the utter disregard for justice, human rights, the rule of law, due process and restitution for victims.
I was somewhat gobsmacked when Cardinal Napier suggested that my adherence to the truth was actually furthering the violence, as well as “undermining all the good work the churches have been doing”.
I had first requested spiritual intervention at Glebelands after the March 2014 torture incident, as I could see then that this violence was not going to be easily resolved. From the outset, religious intervention has been disappointingly absent from the Glebelands killing zone (5 visits in 26 months and one public statement) and what there has been has shown scant concern for the horrific abuse of human rights and loss of democratic freedoms. I was therefore somewhat astounded to be blamed for undermining something that does not appear to exist.
Cardinal Napier also did not seem to grasp the incongruity, or sheer danger, attached to engaging in ‘peace negotiations’ with hit-men, hijackers and politically protected thugs, or the need for the law to remove such criminal elements BEFORE any peace engagement could begin. Perhaps this is because he still labours under the misconception that these are “warring factions” – just like the old apartheid “black on black violence” myth used to conceal Nationalist Party orchestration of violence between the IFP and ANC.
In conclusion and for the record: yes, I freely admit to bias in favour of the victims of the Glebelands violence – the women and children abused by thugs and evicted illegally; the men brutally tortured and maimed by the police; all, including families in the rural areas, who have lost breadwinners, lost income, their possessions, their health, even their sanity, at the hands of those against whom the police still appear reluctant to act. I am an ‘independent’ community activist – for want of a better description – I only go where I am requested and take my mandate only from those who have asked for my assistance. I answer to no one else. I have no ‘organisation’ and fund my community advocacy work from my personal income. A few fundraising efforts have been undertaken via officially registered organisations to assist the affected community with legal costs, funeral, transport and other expenses, funds which have been channeled directly to community leaders tasked with organization. I have no active bank account and take exception to allegations that I am ‘benefiting’ somehow from the deaths of those for whom I am working around the clock to try to keep alive.
And if anyone can find some material reward or reason that I would want to perpetuate the violence – to continue receiving calls in the middle of the night when grown men break down as they try to tell me of the latest slaughter; or photographing horrific injuries inflicted by police; or visiting scenes of unspeakable violence; taking detailed statements from torture victims; the bonus of receiving threats, watching your back, taking no chances, trusting no one; the joy in the overwhelming frustration of trying to help poor people access their increasingly elusive right to justice, health care and social support in a state that no longer cares; maintaining records of the deceased – many I knew - no longer with us; or the benefit in the sleepless nights when the dead come back… I can assure you, no one wants peace more than I do. But if that ‘peace’ means oppression of human rights, subjugation of democratic freedoms, acquiescence to torture and criminality, suppression of the truth and perversion of justice, I’m damned if I want any part of it and will fight on for as long as my involvement is wanted at Glebelands.
This is my ‘agenda’ and my ‘propaganda’ is the truth as I have experienced it at Glebelands. If you do not like the reflection in the mirror I hold to your actions, you know what to do.
* Vanessa Burger is an independent community activist for human rights and social justice in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Cell: 082 847 7766 / Email: [email protected]
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR/S AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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