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
● 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.