The main hall on the campus of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein is called Equitas. Justice, in Latin.
Outside, a towering silver statue of Lady Justice — scales in one hand, a sword in the other — gazes down on everyone who uses the steps. On May 29 last year, she must have frowned, or at least wrinkled her nose, at what happened.
Thabo Manyoni gave the Chris Hani lecture inside Equitas on that day.
Manyoni, former ANC MP, former mayor of Mangaung and the deputy chairperson of the ANC in the province, was then and remains a vocal opponent of former Free State premier Ace Magashule, who has since moved on to become the ANC secretary general.
Once they were comrades in arms but more recently they have been at loggerheads, fighting for control of the province. Manyoni would later fight for Magashule’s vacated seat but last month the premiership was won by Sisi Ntombela, an ally of Manyoni’s bitter rival.
In his talk that day, Manyoni spoke about this power struggle. He referred to his opponents as “trash”.
“They steal, they loot, they rape,” he said, to murmurs of general agreement. “But they cannot define us … we are not part of that trash.”
Where was Thabo Botsane?
Manyoni’s talk was well attended; the hall was packed with ANC members, communists, municipal workers, students and activists.
Among them was Thabo Godfrey Botsane, a local activist organising the poor and unemployed in and around Bloemfontein. He was in prison for several years for an armed robbery but, since his release in 2013, he has vowed he has left his life of crime behind him.
He and his friend, Mzwandile Sam Phupha, founded the National Unemployed Voters’ Union (Nuvo) to help unemployed people find work and to provide a political platform for them. They have 30 000 active members, they say.
Earlier that day, Nuvo members had gathered at their office in Grasslands township. Botsane and his comrades sang, danced and toyi-toyed before setting off in a minibus convoy to the university to hear Manyoni speak.
Halfway through the proceedings, ANC Youth League members started singing loudly in support of Magashule and disrupted Manyoni’s address.
“Some of the people close to the entrance of the hall moved to push the youth league people out,” says Phupha, who was seated in the hall. “That led to a fight [outside].”
In his account to the police, Lehlohonolo Vaphi, a local youth league leader, claims: “Botsane … was coming after me and he just grabbed me and assaulted me with fists on my left eye and to my mouth and I fell down and he also kicked me in my back.”
Vaphi says Botsane also stole his phone and R2 000.
A security guard was called to try to end the scuffle. In his affidavit, the guard said he had seen the fight taking place but could not make out who was part of the mob. “I saw a lot of people beating another guy,” he said. He didn’t see Botsane.
But Lucky Makhubela, another youth league member, says he did. “I noticed a mob of people … being led by Mr Botsane, chasing Mr Vaphi, [who] was running for his life.”
But Botsane says he was inside the hall when the fight took place. Nevertheless, police arrested him at his home the next day for assault and the theft of a cellphone. Because this was considered a parole violation, Botsane was sent to Grootvlei Prison, outside Bloemfontein, where he remained for nearly a year.
Nothing to see here, move on
The intercom at Grootvlei’s visiting section never works. You need to lean close to the glass, trying not to touch the lipstick kisses on it, to hear.
“I used to be the treasurer of the youth league,” Botsane says from the other side of the glass partition. “Then I left and started Nuvo. I think that made them angry.”
After his arrest, it seemed as if the case would be straightened out in a matter of days. The investigating officer told Botsane he had CCTV footage that exonerated him. But, when the case came to court, the same officer told the judge he could not “access” the footage.
“The officer told me that this thing was too political,” Botsane says.
Because of a statement by a complainant and an eyewitness account, the prosecutor had a prima facie case he could not dismiss, so Botsane’s bail application was rejected — because he was a parolee and because a new case had been opened against him.
On February 8 last year, Phupha and other Nuvo members marched to Khayelitsha township in Bloemfontein, where the union claims Magashule-aligned ANC members in the area were selling plots of land, set aside for RDP houses, to their cronies.
“Nuvo didn’t support the councillor,” Phupha says. “We marched to the township and walked around the neighbourhood, inspecting the empty sites.”
There was a confrontation. The police were called but they left. The next day, Phupha, his wife, Ntsoaki Agnes Phupha, and Botsane were charged with assault, although Botsane and Phupha’s wife claim they were not in Khayelitsha at the time. All three were granted bail.
When Botsane appeared in the magistrate’s court again on March 1 this year, the supposed eyewitness, Makhubela, who claimed Botsane had assaulted Vaphi, failed to show up. But Vaphi arrived with about five other people.
“Vaphi is willing to settle,” Bertus Jacobs, Botsane’s lawyer, told his client — for R30 000. That was to pay for medical bills for injuries sustained during the assault, he said.
Botsane phoned around, frantically trying to raise money. A week later, Vaphi accepted a payout of R5 500, which Botsane had collected from friends and family.
What’s the catch?
Botsane’s story and the intimations of extortion and silencing strike a familiar chord in the Free State.
Another lawyer, who does not want to be named because he is in negotiations with the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) on behalf of clients, is involved in several similar cases.
“I’m representing approximately 20 people in six cases in Thaba ’Nchu and Botshabelo [towns near Bloemfontein] who were accused of and arrested for acts ranging from taking down ANC election posters to inciting protests and threatening to burn ANC ward councillors houses down. They have been charged but there is no evidence,” he says.
The accused are independent candidates for ward councillor positions.
Although independent candidates do not receive financial support from a political party, they can get funding from the state. But if a criminal case is opened against them, the money stops.
Then “the ANC councillors can say: ‘Don’t vote for this criminal, vote for us.’ They effectively take them out of the running,” the lawyer says.
The shift in factional power at the national level in the ANC and government has not trickled down to the Free State. Ntombela is a staunch Magashule ally.
“I can tell you now, nobody can say this, but I can say it. When we look at her, she is a conduit of Ace. She is a dwarf that will be told through the phone from Luthuli House: do this,” ANC national chairperson Gwede Mantashe said at a memorial service to honour Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in Brandfort on Monday, according to a report in The Citizen.
Meanwhile, police spokesperson Brigadier Motantsi Makhele says the Free State police “are not aware of any justice system being misused by the local ANC … Our work is to investigate … without any fear or favour, and … cases are placed before the NPA to take an informed decision.”
“The NPA is not a political organisation but a prosecuting authority,” says Phaladi Shuping, its regional spokesperson. “And therefore we do not have policy on politically motivated complaints. We don’t deal with politically motivated complaints.”
Vaphi says he does not want to say anything about the matter.
A shaken Botsane was paroled on Wednesday and went straight home to his wife and daughter. “To be poor, it is a sin,” he says. “People don’t take you seriously.”
Ruth Hopkins is a journalist with the Wits Justice Project, witsjusticeproject.co.za