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Civil silence, selective indignation and indifference mirrors state injustice
eNCA / Francois Grobler

Yet another activist has been killed in South Africa. It is the 58th assassination in the Glebelands Hostel community, where state sponsored violence silences organizing and uprisings systematically. Why is there no media coverage, no civil society outrage or demands for investigation?

Our country’s battered human rights record was dealt another blow on the evening of 22 March, when anti-mining activist and Amadiba Crisis Committee Chairperson, Sikhosiphi Bazooka Rhadebe, was gunned down in another seemingly state-sponsored hit. The Xolobeni community’s struggle against ruthless capitalism has been well documented over the years and the plight of the community and the Amadiba Crisis Committee’s principled opposition, in the face of divide-and-rule tactics, constant intimidation and dirty tricks has been an inspiration to us all, especially other poor, mostly rural communities who battle to access their rights, protect their interests and make their voices heard. The Committee’s David and Goliath-type struggle against big mining and their politically connected friends, suspected use of police in the community’s persecution and the modus operandi of the hit itself, were disturbingly similar to the nearly sixty political assassinations and unrelenting carnage that has plunged the Glebelands Hostel community into a state of crisis for the past two years.

Familiar too, was the reported existence of a hitlist, topped allegedly by Rhadebe’s name. At Glebelands, a second hitlist is in circulation, believed to contain twenty one names – no doubt the survivors from the first list. The only person to provide a description of the hitlist was Thulani Kati, who saw it clutched by the officer who tubed him in October 2014. Kati was assassinated in April 2015. He described the list as a double column of handwritten names that covered both sides of a foolscap page. There are thirty one lines on a sheet of foolscap sheet. As fifty eight people have now been killed, it would seem the target – give or take a few – has been met. Fifty eight assassinations, killed mostly by a bullet to the brain, just like Rhadebe. In two years there have been no convictions and overwhelming circumstantial evidence points to police and high-level political complicity.

Within hours of Rhadebe’s killing, the Right2Know Campaign issued a strongly worded condemnation which all progressive civil society organisations were urged to endorse. Over 150 local and international organisations did. A support fund and Twitter account was set up, meetings convened for further solidarity action and the public was urged to write in protest to the mining minister – email groups buzzed with outrage.

Parallels in rising state oppression were drawn between recent attacks on the Helen Suzman Foundation offices and shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo. Yet Glebelands, that has the highest state-sponsored kill rate in the country, where almost double the number have been killed than those that died at Marikana (which generated international condemnation, support campaigns and a national – albeit sham - inquiry) seems to remain a mostly silent stain on our national consciousness.

For me, the most depressing aspect to this has not been Rhadebe’s assassination itself, or the fifty eight Glebelands dead. Certainly, the heartless, cynical cruelty wrought by those in positions of power on those with the least means of defending themselves, is horrific and must be fought to our last breath. But South Africa, in its protracted war against apartheid has a proud tradition of struggle against the iron fist of mindless, hate-filled authority and its greedy corporate henchmen. What I am struggling to come to terms with, however, is civil society’s response to this latest tragedy.

Where was all this solidarity and outrage when victim number fifty eight was gunned down exactly a week before Rhadebe’s murder? It happened just two days after the police brutally tortured – tubed (suffocated with a plastic bag to the point of asphyxiation) - the brother of another Glebelands man who was shot in the head in November last year, allegedly by a police officer..

Indeed, the systematic persecution of the anti-mining lobby worldwide is an international outrage. Our hearts go out to Rhadebe’s family, the Amadiba community and all impoverished communities who take a brave stand against the violence and greed of our vampire state. Rhadebe’s family, especially his son, will never recover from what they saw and will fear the police for the rest of their lives. Another community has been damaged. Many Glebelands residents who hail from the Mbizana area stand in solidarity with the Xolobeni community’s loss and mourned Rhadebe’s killing as “another sad day for us all”. Glebelands should know how it feels, having buried fifty eight comrades in carbon-copy hits.

Glebelands – 58; Xolobeni – 1, and 150 organisations vent their anguish. For me, these harsh statistics raise very painful questions. The extermination of fifty eight Glebelands breadwinners and the violent mass evictions of mainly vulnerable women and children have left vast swathes of the Eastern Cape and southern KwaZulu-Natal deeply traumatised and destitute. I Tens of thousands of Glebelands residents are directly affected. But the crisis in our own backyard seems to have scarcely registered on civil society’s outrage barometer. The very few concerned individuals who have commented occasionally on the Glebelands situation have mostly limited their criticism to service delivery issues, NOT the killings, NOT the rapes, NOT the forced evictions, NOT the socioeconomic impact, and certainly NOT the community’s collective pain. I do not understand this.

Is it because Rhadebe was well-known to most of the civil groups that endorsed R2K’s spontaneous solidarity drive, while the majority of Glebelands dead were just faceless, often nameless, hostel corpses? Is it because the Xolobeni struggle has received wider, more coherent, long term media coverage while the eThekwini Municipality and ANC leaders’ obfuscation has resulted in the ongoing hostel violence being portrayed, disingenuously, as ‘faction fighting’, ‘the selling of beds’ or ‘political’? These flimsy justifications for state orchestrated violence have as much relevance to the Glebelands struggle as the racist terminology - ‘black-on-black’ violence – used to whitewash the early nineties political killings in KZN.  

Is it easier (and currently seemingly more politically glamorous) to condemn big mining ventures, than to take a direct stand against the ruling party – the still much-beloved ANC?  The Glebelands community took a stand when it passed a vote of no confidence in the branch executive committee in 2012. Is it because there are many environmental organisations in South Africa, yet precious few actively involved with human rights? This may sound cynical, but at a time when South Africa has fallen prey to state capture on a scale never before experienced, is this tragedy perhaps seen as an opportunity by some organisations that appear to be struggling to remain relevant and thus justify their continued existence to international funders by mouthing off about injustice?

Is it because Rhadebe’s death offers a safe and convenient ‘clicktivist’ outlet to moral outrage – to be seen to be ‘doing something’ – while the Glebelands crisis needs actual hands-on, practical and material solutions, and a lot of dangerous hard work? Is it because a few poorly resourced individuals and not an officially recognised organisation have assisted the hostel violence victims? Do individuals no longer have a role to play on the fiercely contested social justice terrain, dominated by territorial civic groups who appear to spend a disproportionate amount of time and resources attracting and appeasing funders as opposed to actually working amongst the communities they claim to serve?

The racial / class profile of most of the 150 organisations that have so far endorsed the Right2Know Amadiba Solidarity Campaign also cannot be ignored. They are mostly middle to upper class ‘whitey’ groups with little real grassroots representation. Do poor black anonymous hostel dwellers lives really count in the scheme of anything? They certainly don’t matter to our government. It would seem these lives matter little to mainstream civil society, too.

I am trying hard to understand why some ‘causes’ generate so much hype when other, far more insidious horrors are ignored and allowed to spread until the monster engulfs us all; then, the same merry bunch of ‘clicktvists’ seem genuinely surprised and hurt when things go horribly wrong and grassroots rage explodes in their faces. Yes, one state-sponsored assassination is indeed an outrage, but fifty eight is genocide – or ethnic cleansing. As we see a disturbing rise in so-called Zulu nationalism, a Glebelands community leader who watched in disbelief as the moral storm over the Amadiba killing grew on Facebook: “Maybe no one wants to help us because our struggle is different. This is the province of the president and most of the people being killed are from another province, another tribe.”

The victims of Glebelands violence have consistently struggled to access and enforce their rights. Government agency has simply refused them. The Legal Resources Centre, after initially agreeing to represent those whose violent evictions by politically-connected thugs has covertly and consistently been permitted by municipal officials, suddenly dropped the case on the grounds that the issues were ‘political’ and therefore “the LRC cannot be seen to be supporting any political parties…” Since when did human rights abuses, by whoever they are committed, become legally acceptable? It must also be noted that the affected community overwhelmingly supported the same political party as the ward councilor and his thugs, the majority of eThekwini Municipality officials and provincial government leaders. The reason for their persecution is solely because they have, for the past four years, raised service delivery concerns, voiced dissatisfaction with their ward councilor and had the temerity to ask difficult questions about suspected corruption and tender procurement. And they are not alone. Residents of nearby informal settlement’s frustration boiled over after the same councilor – allegedly with the help of heavily armed thugs - disregarded his party’s constitutional obligations and orchestrated his re-nomination for a third term. Does one’s desire to exercise one’s political preference now justify seemingly legally endorsed abuse of ones human rights in our ‘democratic’ South Africa?

The LRC also suggested that: “once the Public Protector’s report is released [it] will provide insight into exactly what the issues are at the hostel, and [it] will be an excellent starting point on the way forward.” The office of the Public Protector has indicated their investigation will be concluded in three months. During a three month period in 2014, fourteen lives were lost and hundreds were violently evicted. Must we now sit back and wait for a Chapter Nine institution to explain to us that which we already know while the carnage continues unabated? We must remember that, although revered by a nation sickened by corruption, like other oversight institutions, the Public Protector is under fire from predatory government intent of concealing its rampant malfeasance. It has limited powers and much-reduced resources. And how many will be killed and evicted while we wait for a “starting point”. But we have come to realise, in times of war, the law does indeed fall silent.

The SA Human Rights Commission has maintained a seemingly politically complicit absence from the Glebelands killing fields, despite having received complaints lodged by the Commission for Gender Equality on behalf of the community. World-renowned human rights champions, Amnesty International, apparently maintains that “research is needed” before they can act on the Glebelands slaughter. It would seem fifty-eight corpses and eleven incidents of police torture are sufficient evidence that something is seriously wrong at Glebelands, but worldwide this organization appears to be in disarray. Church leaders have maintained their distance, seemingly in deference to event funding they received from the very same government offices that are suspected of orchestrating the violence – or at least condoning it. Even organisations supposedly representing the interests of hostel dwellers, have consistently employed politically correct, inoffensive doublespeak to comment on the killing; while other formerly militant, progressive voices seem to have been coopted by academic aspiration and international acclaim. Admittedly, Right2Know has featured Glebelands-related press releases on their website and called – quietly - for assistance with legal and funeral costs, but a coordinated support strategy of the nature of that which has mushroomed around Rhadebe’s assassination has been lacking. Disappointingly, in two years, local coordinators have yet to visit or directly engage the affected community.

From Honduras to Nigeria – the lethal symbiosis between capitalist corporate venture and corrupt governance increasingly threaten the lives of activists and communities at the coalface of unequal conflicts. Yet while civic solidarity and media focus remains selective, often purely symbolic and sadly, at times, opportunistic – progressive change will be difficult. Those who continue to struggle without support will become increasingly isolated, marginalized, divided and disillusioned – ultimately weakening the movement for long term, positive, societal change.

United we stand. Divided, ignored and demoralized, we fall quickly and silently to state-issue bullets. Remember this the next time you turn the page on another Glebelands death. The next police bullet could have your name on it…

In one way, civil society’s storm over Rhadebe’s assassination has been deeply heartening as it has shown that much can be achieved by concerted, collective action. It has shown perpetrators of state violence an unequivocal, albeit so far, symbolic, finger. It also shines a painfully harsh light on what is missing from a cohesive, coherent and universally caring movement for social change and justice. It is said the most important thing in understanding is hearing what is not being said. Much has not been said about the fifty eight killed in Glebelands-related violence. 

It is also said that the opposite of life is not death - it is indifference. Some say that indifference is the most powerful force in the universe as it renders everything it touches – good or bad - utterly meaningless. Indifference permits monstrous injustice to go unchecked. It doesn’t act, it allows, and that is where its power lies. Civil silence in the face of suffering and gross injustice can break hearts and crush communities. 

But we shall not despair. Recently a Glebelands resident, when faced with yet another failed attempt to bring food aid to the starving community, said: “it doesn’t matter, the more they ignore us, the more we learn and the stronger we get because we know we have the moral high ground.”

Aluta continua!

* Vanessa Burger is an independent community activist for Human Rights & Social Justice. Email: [email protected]



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