S’fiso Ng­cobo: Land rights ac­tivist who was snubbed by town hall 1969-2018

Shack dwellers’ leader knew his job was risky, but stayed on be­cause he loved his com­mu­nity

Sunday Times - - Obituaries | Classified -

● S’fiso Ng­cobo, who has died at the age of 49 af­ter be­ing shot out­side his home in the in­for­mal set­tle­ment of eKukhayeni near Mar­i­annhill, west of Dur­ban, was a charis­matic land rights ac­tivist and lo­cal chair­man of the Abahlali baseMjon­dolo shack dwellers’ move­ment.

It is be­lieved this made him a tar­get. He is the fifth leader of the move­ment to be killed in the past eight months.

Ng­cobo led what he said were the looked­down-on and for­got­ten peo­ple of his com­mu­nity. The com­mu­nity has been in a five-year bat­tle with the Pine­town mu­nic­i­pal­ity and ward coun­cil­lors for the right to oc­cupy va­cant land and build ba­sic homes in eKukhayeni, to re­ceive ser­vices such as wa­ter, electricity and san­i­ta­tion, and to ac­cess school­ing for their chil­dren.

He opened a crèche be­cause he said he wanted the chil­dren of shack dwellers to learn.

Their en­treaties were ig­nored. Their struc­tures were fre­quently de­mol­ished. His own home, which he built with cor­ru­gated iron and wood, was de­mol­ished 10 times. Ng­cobo first built the shack in 2014 when he ar­rived in the area with fam­ily.

Those he rep­re­sented re­garded Ng­cobo as a strong, charis­matic but hum­ble leader. He was “a man of the peo­ple”, they said.

He al­ways had time to sit with them and lis­ten to their prob­lems. And he helped them to find a so­lu­tion.

Ng­cobo was born in Pi­eter­mar­itzburg on March 14 1969. He left school be­fore com­plet­ing ma­tric to help sup­port his fam­ily. He worked on and off in the con­struc­tion in­dus­try.

His last job was as a ma­chine op­er­a­tor at Fib­er­tex South Africa in Ham­mars­dale, Dur­ban, where he worked for four years. He left sev­eral months ago to con­cen­trate on his com­mu­nity work.

He made a liv­ing from a spaza shop he opened be­hind his one-room home and rented to a So­mali. The Abahlali move­ment has strongly con­demned xeno­pho­bic threats against for­eign­ers.

Abahlali was started in Dur­ban in 2005 and rep­re­sents thou­sands of home­less peo­ple around the coun­try. Ng­cobo joined the move­ment af­ter com­ing to its of­fices in

Dur­ban to ask for help for home­less peo­ple in his com­mu­nity who were be­ing hounded by the po­lice.

Their pos­ses­sions were be­ing de­stroyed, he said, and they had no electricity, run­ning wa­ter or ser­vices of any kind other than what they man­aged to or­gan­ise for them­selves.

The com­mu­nity elected him to speak for them. He started a lo­cal branch of Abahlali and was made chair­man by pop­u­lar con­sent.

He or­gan­ised branch meet­ings so that the peo­ple he rep­re­sented could be heard.

He made sev­eral ap­proaches to the civic cen­tre in Pine­town for ba­sic ser­vices for his com­mu­nity but was met by a wall of in­dif­fer­ence and hos­til­ity.

He com­plained that the coun­cil treated them as an op­po­si­tion party.

Although a vo­cal critic of the ANC govern­ment, he was at pains to em­pha­sise that his or­gan­i­sa­tion was not a po­lit­i­cal party nor was it aligned to one.

Ac­cused of be­ing part of the EFF, he said the only sim­i­lar­ity with the EFF was that both wore red T-shirts and talked a lot about land.

That was where it ended, he said.

“They’re a po­lit­i­cal party, we’re a move­ment,” he said.

He was at the fore­front of sev­eral land in­va­sions that put him at odds with city of­fi­cials and the mu­nic­i­pal unit tasked with halt­ing them.

He led a del­e­ga­tion to the Pine­town mu­nic­i­pal­ity ear­lier this year to re­quest ba­sic ser­vices for peo­ple liv­ing in shacks, but again noth­ing came of it.

In­stead ten­sions and hos­til­ity be­tween the com­mu­nity and au­thor­i­ties grew and Ng­cobo re­ceived death threats.

On the Sat­ur­day be­fore his death he or­gan­ised a well-at­tended meet­ing of the branch at­tended by the na­tional lead­er­ship of Abahlali.

The theme of his ad­dress was re­viv­ing “ubuh­lali”, the phi­los­o­phy of the shack dwellers’ move­ment, which deals with the kind of so­ci­ety it wants to build.

This was a so­ci­ety where the poor­est of the poor would be treated with re­spect and dig­nity, where no­body would be with­out land to build a house or have ba­sic ser­vices, which for him meant wa­ter, electricity and san­i­ta­tion.

He said shack dwellers were en­ti­tled to the same re­spect as any­one else. He dreamt and fre­quently spoke of a so­ci­ety where the is­sue of ba­sic ser­vices would be a given, a so­ci­ety, as he put it, be­yond the de­liv­ery of ba­sic ser­vices.

Ubuh­lali, as he ex­plained it, was a spirit of be­long­ing. “It says ev­ery­one counts.”

His wife, Phumzile, said his ad­vo­cacy of hous­ing rights and land oc­cu­pa­tion had put a tar­get on his back.

She had asked him to re­sign but he said he loved his com­mu­nity too much and was pre­pared to die for it if nec­es­sary.

“You can’t es­cape death. Ev­ery­one will even­tu­ally die,” he told her.

He was gunned down se­conds af­ter leav­ing his shack to go to his spaza shop for a cooldrink. His death bore all the hall­marks of an as­sas­si­na­tion.

He is sur­vived by his wife, Phumzile, and four chil­dren.

You can’t es­cape death. Ev­ery­one will even­tu­ally die. S’fiso Ng­cobo

Mem­bers of the Abahlali baseMjon­dolo move­ment. Be­low, S’fiso Ng­cobo, one of its lead­ers, who was as­sas­si­nated.

Pic­ture: Made­lene Cronje for New Frame

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