A group of women from Colenso’s Inkanyezi township near Ladysmith were held in custody without bail for more than two months after a peaceful service delivery protest.
They were released this week after pleading guilty to public violence charges. But according to family members, the 16 women pleaded guilty in a desperate bid to get out of prison and back to their families after they were repeatedly denied bail.
The women, who are to appear in the regional court in Estcourt for sentencing on November 16, are considering their legal options, family members said.
Sibongile Mahlaba (46) and 15 other women, aged between 19 and 54, were arrested for blocking the R103 between Colenso and Ladysmith on August 30. The one-hour blockade was peaceful, but when they appeared in the Colenso magistrate’s court, magistrate Pieter Dyson refused them bail, saying they were a danger to the safety of the investigating officer.
The same court had granted bail to 28 participants in two earlier service delivery protests in the area. In the first, municipal tractors and bulldozers were burnt and the R103 itself, the alternative route for truck traffic between Ladysmith and Mpumalanga, was also damaged.
Inkanyezi residents have been protesting for the past two years about the poor condition of roads and have demanded the removal of ANC ward councillor Thuli Radebe for allegedly allocating resources to ANC-supporting areas only.
The protesters were held in the women’s section of the Newcastle prison, about 140km from their homes, while awaiting trial.
After two failed bail hearings, they requested their case be moved to another court and assigned another prosecutor. The matter was transferred to the regional court in Escourt. Their lawyer, Ignatius van Rooyen, confirmed his clients had been released after pleading guilty before chief magistrate Estelle Goosen. The magistrate was not considering a custodial sentence for 15 of the 16 women, he said.
“They forcibly blocked the road with a truck and caused public disturbance, which falls under the definition of public violence. There was no way out. The faster they could plead, the faster they could get out of prison,’’ Van Rooyen said.
But Mahlaba’s son, Lindelani, said: “I was in court. They pleaded guilty purely because they had spent so much time in jail under such terrible conditions. They didn’t want to spend another day there. Things were very tough for them in prison. They had thin mattresses that were full of lice. We had to buy them blankets and Dettol to kill the lice.
“Before they started the case on Tuesday my mom said to me that, if she didn’t go home, she thought she might kill herself,’’ Mahlaba added.
He said it was strange the original magistrate had been so harsh in refusing bail.
National Prosecuting Authority KwaZulu-Natal spokesperson Natasha Kara did not respond to calls at the time of writing.