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On Tuesday late morning three police officers arrived at the Durban offices of our movement. They arrived with Siniko Miya, a member of our movement and a resident of the eKhenena occupation, in their custody. They then arrested our Deputy President Mqapheli Bonono (who is often known as George). They said that they were arresting him on a charge of ‘conspiracy to commit murder’ following witness statements made about the content of a meeting chaired by Bonono.
This meeting was called by the Deputy President to ascertain the views and experiences of the residents of the eKhenana Occupation with regard to a murder that happened on a road in Cato Manor in March. The movement was not in a position to take an informed view of the matter without enabling all the residents of the occupation to share their views, experiences and knowledge. The meeting that Bonono called was open to all residents, and was well attended. There are numerous people who can give a credible account of the purpose of the meeting, and the content of the discussion. Of course, Bonono’s action in calling the meeting was an entirely correct response to the situation.
Bonono was not the only senior person in the movement to be present in this meeting, yet he is the only senior leader to have been targeted for arrest by the police. The claim that Bonono called an open meeting of residents to plan a murder is just bizarre. Even the izinkabi who have murdered us with impunity do not discuss their plans in well attended formal meetings open to all people interested in a particular matter. Everyone knows how the politic of blood works – murders are planned in dark corners.
We all know that for the ANC the self-organisation of the poor is always taken as a conspiracy. We have continually faced this paranoid and oppressive logic over more than fifteen years of struggle. While there is intense hostility to autonomous organisation of any kind that hostility reaches fever pitch when it is able to start to meet people’s needs outside of the state. When people occupy land, organise their own access to services, move towards using occupied land for production and build their own community infrastructure such as creches, community halls, communal kitchens and political schools, they became a direct threat to the way that the state sustains its power by simultaneously creating deprivation and dependency. When a movement builds its autonomous capacities that is also a threat to the authority of the ANC and the state. For instance, after the recent fire in Cato Manor it was Abahlali baseMjondolo – with support from our comrades in the street traders’ organisation and elsewhere – and not the ANC or the state, that provided relief to the victims of the fire.
The ANC takes this as a direct threat. When our movement was attacked in Kennedy Road in 2009 the ANC said that “Zikode is running his own authority”. Every step that you take towards reducing your dependency on the state increases the risk of repression. An occupation like eKhenana, that moved forward to begin to produce on occupied land and to become a commune, does not need the government because they are their own government. Bonono has been a key figure in the work of organising and supporting these forms of autonomy and self-management.
The recent award of the Per Anger Prize brought great and collective joy to our members. There were spontaneous celebrations of all kinds, and organised celebrations across three provinces. Bonono led the organisation of these celebrations. While congratulations came in from around the world the South African state was completely silence. These arrests have ended that joy and pushed us back into resistance against repression.
The arrest of Bonono and Miya was entirely preposterous and a grossly malicious misuse of the power of arrest granted to the police – a real murder was used to fabricate a false case. It is another crude frame-up, another political plot against the movement and one more incident in a long history of activists in our movement being arrested on entirely trumped up charges, a history that goes back over fifteen years.
These arrests do not result in convictions. Usually people are forced to return to court six or seven times and then the charges are dropped without the case ever going to trial. In the famous case of the Kennedy 12, who were arrested on trumped up charges of murder in 2009, the case did go to trial. However, in 2011 the magistrate threw the case out of court and described the witnesses for the prosecution as “belligerent”, “unreliable” and “dishonest”. Amnesty International noted that the court had found that “police had directed some witnesses to point out members of Abahlali-linked organizations at the identification parade”.
It is also important to note that since the beginning our movement has faced constant attempts at penetration by state intelligence, NGOs aiming to rule or ruin popular struggles and strategic offers of person enrichment to our members from the ANC. An early example of an effort to penetrate the movement was the failed attempt by state intelligence to recruit comrade Fazel Khan after he was forced out of his academic job at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2005 for his role in a strike. He was approached by intelligence who offered him a generous salary and a gun if he would inform on our movement. Khan is a highly principled person and of course he refused the offer even though he lost his whole career and paid a serve personal price for his political commitments.
We are currently facing a situation in which a person, previously unknown, arrived in the left spaces in Durban claiming to be on the run from political threats. No one has been able to confirm the veracity of these threats to us, or to explain what struggle he was in when these threats were supposed to have been made.
People in our movement and other left organisations have been asking questions about this person for some time now. After his suddenly arrival in the left spaces in Durban he claimed to be representing a number of organisations (at least five) that he had no mandate to represent – including our movement. Sometimes he would claim to represent a different organisation each time he came to a meeting.
He has misrepresented himself to at least one NGO in Cape Town as someone that lives in the eKhenana Occupation and as a leader in the occupation. It is true that at one point he asked to be given a space to build in eKhenena but his request was denied because he was contemptuous of democratic processes and tried to make personal deals with NGOs without any sort of democratic participation, mandate or oversight.
We do not know if this person is working alone or with other forces but it is clear that he is at the centre of a set of recent events that are cause for serious concern. We are trying to find out as much as possible about his history, his character and his role in left spaces. Our comrades in other left organisations are doing the same.
Bonono and Miya appeared in court today. The prosecutor said that at a meeting held at the Diakonia Council of Churches on 14 March Bonono and Miya had conspired to have a witness to the murder in Cato Manor killed. The meeting was in fact held on 21 March. The prosecutor also said that there could not be a discussion about bail because no evidence had been provided to support the charge. He asked for more time for the police to gather the evidence. Bonono and Miya were remanded in custody until a bail hearing set for 13 May. We know that our members are in serious danger in Westville Prison and Mr. Padayachee, the lawyer who was asked by the movement to represent Bonono and Miya, was able to secure an agreement that they would be detained in the Durban Central Police Station rather than Westville Prison until their next appearance in court on 13 May.
Mqapheli Bonono is one of the greatest organisers of his generation, a committed socialist, a courageous activist and an indefatigable comrade in the struggle for land and dignity. He is well respected in the left across South Africa, and from Brazil to Ghana. This arrest will be an international scandal and we are calling on our comrades around the country and across the world to stand in solidarity with Bonono and Miya.
Our movement has won many important victories in court, most of them defensive. But these arrests are an outrageous abuse of the justice system and the powers granted to the police by the state. The ‘case’ that Bonono and Miya are supposed to answer is a complete farce. Both comrades have our full support and solidarity. The fact that two grassroots activists remain in police custody on a joke of a charge is a disgrace to the criminal justice system and to democracy in South Africa.
If we have to walk through the fire of repression once again the ANC and the state must know that we will do so, and that we will come through that fire more determined than before. We have survived numerous periods of severe repression – including assault, organised slander, wrongful arrest, torture, the destruction of our homes by party mobs and the state, open death threats, and murder.
Each of those periods of repression was aimed at breaking us. But today we are stronger and more numerous than ever before, while the political credibility of the ANC is in tatters at home and around the world.
When Bonono and Miya climb the stairs from the holding cells to the dock on 13 May they will see a courtroom full of comrades in red. If, as we hope, the laughable charges are dropped, or they get bail, they will be escorted from the court with a red guard of honour. Bonono loves the Internationale, a song he first learned from the MST in Brazil. We will sing it for him when he returns to his family and comrades.