The Zwelihle protests and Bheki Cele’s missing gun

In the small township of Zwelihle in Hermanus, the streets are filled with cops. They have raided homes, arrested protest leaders, and been accused of serious violence. Somewhere in the township, Minister of Police Bheki Cele believes, is a gun — a stolen gun that has led the police to go as far as blockading the township.

The gun is a 9mm handgun and its owner — a police officer who was brutally attacked last week Thursday — remains in hospital. The police allege a group of Zwelihle community members attacked the policeman, stealing a shotgun and the 9mm firearm.

Later that evening, the shotgun surfaced. A 32-year-old man was arrested after the shotgun and police ammunition were found in his possession.

At around the time of the arrest on Thursday evening, Ntombizikhona Mbovane, a Zwelihle resident, was sitting with her neighbour watching Uzalo, the popular South African soapie. The 21-year-old was stunned when police barged into the house, raiding it for the stolen weapons.

“We were watching TV when the police came in. They didn’t ask anything, they just beat us,” Mbovane says.

As the police shut down the township in search of the missing firearms, Mbovane says she was pistol-whipped by a cop.

“They used the back of the gun to beat me on my head,” she says.

“It happened on Thursday and we had to stay the whole night because there were no cars allowed to come in and out. We could only go to hospital on Friday.”

At the hospital, Mbovane received 5 stitches to close the wound.

She stood at the sidelines of the Zwelihle sports field on Tuesday afternoon with a scarf wrapped around her head. She and her mother listened as Cele addressed the thousands who had gathered there. The minister, who ordered police to raid homes in search of the guns, said that he would call the cops out of the community, but he wanted his gun back first.

“My best present here would be to go away [and] to take my police away,” Cele said.

“We can make a week assessment, just one week. If you give us reasons to go, we will go. But one reason is to bring back my gun. I want my gun back.”

As the minister spoke, Sivuyisiwe Dyani, 29, sat in front of the large crowd. His small frame seemed even slimmer in an oversized grey hoodie. A white gauze patch was taped over his left eye, and his right eye cannot open. For all his life, Dyani could see the world in front of him, but after a police assault last week, he says he has been left blind.

“I got shot by the police. I was at my place and I got the sound that people were moving fast. I tried to raise up my hand to show that I am not armed but they continued shooting at me,” said Dyani. “Then I had no option, I had to run away. I didn’t see my house because by then I was already blind.”

“The police said they were looking for guns,” he said.

Dyani said that doctors at Tygerberg hospital had to remove his left eye because the damage was severe. His right eye, which was bleeding after a rubber bullet went into his left eye, had also been left permanently damaged, he said.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate has been asked to step in to investigate police brutality in the township.

The protesters and the land

The Zwelihle protests began in March as a land protest. A group of people occupied land in a demand for better services and housing from the Overstrand municipality. A 48 hectare site, known as Schulpoek, was identified by the protesters as ideal for housing.

But Schulpoek had been sold by the municipality to the Rabie Property Group and the Cavcor Group for a luxury development. The protesters, some accused of public violence, had pulled down a fence surrounding the property and swept the Hermanus area up in a wave of protest action. In May, under pressure from protesters, the developers sold Schulpoek back to the municipality, but the local government has yet to commit the site for affordable housing.

Since then, sporadic protests have erupted in the area, and led to Hermanus being shut down. Land and services have been at the centre of protesters’ demands, under the banner of the 13 protester leaders, known as Zwelihle Renewal.

But over the past two weeks, the demands have been re-prioritised. Prior to the violent attack on the police officer, who was struck in the face with an axe, one leader of the movement were arrested. Gcobani Ndzongana, an officer at the department of correctional services, was arrested on charges of inciting violence and malicious damage to property.

It was then last week that Theron Mqhu, another leader and spokesperson for the group, was arrested on charges of robbery with aggravating circumstances, attempted murder and public violence. Mqhu’s arrest is related to the attack on the police officer.

Now, protesters are demanding that their leaders be released.

“We start again the protests because we said we want Gcobani back. He is our leader. We can’t start anything without him,” said Nyameka Matikinca, 29, who is community member and protester. “We want Theron back.”

Cele promised on Tuesday that he would visit Mqhu and he would also see Ndzongana in the week. But, he said it was not within his control to have the two leaders released. In total, around 60 people have been arrested on charges related to the protest action.

“The issue is no longer in police hands. It’s in correctional services and the courts,” Cele told residents gathered on Tuesday. “I can’t say people must not be arrested, but the police must follow the right procedure,” he said.

The protesters claim that their violence is in retaliation to police brutality and the lack of concern from the municipality for their well-being.

“We want land, we want service delivery, but the white people in the municipality don’t care about us. They only care about the white people,” said Nonesi Nomapelana, 36, a community member.

Accusations that there are a handful of protesters who have managed to hold the rest of their community hostage have begun to permeate, with allegations of threats and intimidation to make residents stay away from work until protesters’ demands are met. But those gathered at the sportsfield to meet with Cele denied the claims.

While protest action has abated for now, the Overstrand municipality remains under pressure to provide adequate housing.

The police are still gunning for their stolen firearm. 

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Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

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