The hostel where political hitmen kill with impunity
A group of heavily armed policemen and women manned an impromptu roadblock at the east entrance of Durban’s notorious Glebelands Hostel last Wednesday, searching people and vehicles entering the sprawling hostel.
Dozens of police vehicles including Nyalas, vans and sedans were parked outside and officers in bulletproof vests patrolled the grounds.
A satellite police station has been established at the hostel so residents can report not only the murders but other crimes taking place there. This frontline-type security presence has not eased the fears of hostel residents, as wanton killings continue.
At about 9pm on Tuesday — just hours before the roadblock — Ngobe Mbatha, a 38-year-old resident and member of the local peace committee, was shot and killed in his room at the hostel.
His death brought to 93 the number of victims killed in hostel-related violence since 2014. Most of the killings are believed to be the work of hitmen who live in the hostel. Residents and activists say these killers are known to residents but are so feared that no one dares report them to the police — or authorities refuse to take action against them.
So the killings continue, affecting men and women. A 30-year-old woman was shot dead earlier in August as she left her room to hang her clothes on the communal washing lines.
In April 2016, three months before the local government elections, ANC councillor Zodwa Sibiya was shot and killed at the hostel. Her relatives say she was on a crusade to root out warlords and corruption at the hostel at the time of her death.
KwaZulu-Natal premier Willies Mchunu recently appointed the Moerane Commission of Inquiry to probe political killings. Headed by advocate Marumo Moerane, it has held several hearings in the past three months, including on the continuing Glebelands Hostel killings. In July, members of the commission made an in loco inspection of the hostel’s Block R, Block 52 and the new family block and were shown dirty and dangerous living conditions.
Glebelands was built at the height of apartheid to accommodate male migrant workers who were allowed to live in urban areas only if they had employment. Women who were sneaked in during weekends were arrested when they were discovered on the hostel premises.
Today, Glebelands has nine blocks housing more than 20,000 people including women and children. Many are attracted to the hostel because it offers affordable accommodation near the city.
Inside the hostel blocks the fear and loathing is palpable and many residents flatly refuse to speak to journalists.
A woman, who asks to be identified only as MaCele, says she has been living with her two children at Glebelands since the mid-1990s. They endure the violence because they have nowhere else to go.
She says she moved there from the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal and makes a living selling vetkoek, cakes and other items in nearby factories.
She says the violence is between rival groups and people who do not take sides are seldom targeted.
Vusani Zweni, a leader of Abahlali baseMahostela neZakhiwo Zawo — which is campaigning for peace and improving the living conditions of hostel dwellers — says the violence has taken many forms over the past three years.
He says in 2014, the hostel was gripped by an extortion-for-accommodation scam; residents who refused to pay a protection fee were forced to flee or were attacked. This angered many residents.
Zweni says the violence started as a dispute over the allocation of beds, but grew into rivalry between ANC factions over councillor candidates, with those feeling marginalised joining the South African Communist Party in order to take on the ANC.
"Criminals took advantage of the dispute and residents were forced to pay between R50 and R100 to buy weapons and pay hitmen who would protect blocks from rivals," he says.
"We have lost many of our members who were against this. They were targeted and killed, sometimes in broad daylight," says Zweni.
He believes the violence needs a political solution.
"I strongly believe that it is only the ANC that can end the violence at the hostel. No one else can end it.
"Many people here are scared — they are scared to report the killers, they are scared to say anything. We desperately need the ANC leaders to show leadership and address this violence once and for all. So far, these leaders are taking sides in the hostel war."
A prosecutor at the Umlazi Magistrate’s Court, who asks not to be named, says the violence at the hostel is being fuelled by the impunity with which the killers operate.
"We have handled several cases of people arrested for killing people at the hostel. The problem is that no witnesses are willing to come forward.
"There was a case of a killer who killed a man in broad daylight. Witnesses admitted to being present during the killing, but they feared the suspect and wouldn’t testify against him. At the end of the day, the case was thrown out because the magistrate said there was not sufficient evidence against him."
Hostel residents have good reason to be fearful. In May 2015, Sipho Ndovela, a key witness in one of the vicious murders, was gunned down on the premises of the Umlazi Magistrate’s Court shortly after testifying.
Yavela Sibiya, the daughter of slain ANC councillor Sibiya, says she shudders when she thinks about Glebelands Hostel. "That place brings back bad memories to us as a family. We don’t have a problem with the task teams or commission of inquiries per se, but these processes will not bring back our dear mother," she says.
"We have resigned ourselves to the fact that she is gone and will not come back. Whether her killers are found or not, it will not make any difference to us," says Sibiya.
Vanessa Burger, an independent peace monitor who has recorded all the killings at the hostel, says the feeling of despondency and helplessness is rife.
She believes the hostel is a "reservoir" of hitmen who are paid to commit political murders in KwaZulu-Natal. The violence will only end if the police and other government officials do their work and ensure known perpetrators are arrested and face justice.
KwaZulu-Natal police spokesman Thulani Zwane denies that the police are not doing enough to bring an end to the violence.
He urges hostel residents to co-operate with them.
"Our officers are working day and night, doing patrols in the area. We appeal to the residents to work together with the police in fighting crime at the hostel and report any criminal activities to the police," he says.