Glebelands widows: the silent survivors

1. The eThekwini Municipality has spent millions of rands on almost entirely ineffectual ‘safety measures’ (such as 67 surveillance cameras, footage from which have yet to yield a single conviction), while the inhumane and degraded living conditions that contribute to increased levels of violence and crime, remain unaddressed. Pic by Vanessa Burger

The women of Glebelands bear the brunt of violence and they are left to fend for themselves after their husbands are killed. To date 93 people have lost their lives to Glebelands hitmen.

glebelands hostel, Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

She had done crying by the time she got to the scene of her husband’s murder. Glebelands killers had, after all been tracking him. It was only a matter of time. Something they had apparently discussed often but agreed he should stand by his principles.

Her husband had been a popular leader, well respected, charismatic and honest. He had mobilized the community to demand better service delivery and raised concerns about corruption. He had also been trying to work with the police to bring an end to the slaughter. But threats regarding his imminent death were disregarded by the former Umlazi SAPS Cluster Commander, who has since filled one of the Deputy Provincial Commissioner positions.

Dignified and composed, she had arrived flanked by her brother-in-law and an elder sister. They had removed his shoes and the ammunition belt he had taken to wearing. The police already had his licensed firearm and cellphone.

This had been a particularly gruesome murder. Bullets to the brain are never a pretty sight. Most of the back of her husband’s head was missing and when the paramedics loaded his body into the mortuary van a large portion of his brain slid out onto the pavement with a sucking sound. It seemed inconceivable that so much blood could be contained inside the human body.

She bent, and with her brother-in-law, slowly began to collect the shattered fragments of his skull. Her face showed little emotion except resignation, yet she exuded strength and a supreme will to continue. Not so her eldest son, who, on hearing of his father’s assassination had tried to throw himself from the second-floor window of the block in which they had been living. This was in 2015 and he had been 13-years-old at the time. Months later, with dead eyes, he had vowed to stay alive only to avenge his father’s killers.

“He is much better now,” says his mother, “he is doing okay at school, but he still misses his father. It’s very hard for him. It’s hard for all of us.” Her voice trailed off and she looked away.

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This woman, one of Glebelands’ silent victims – the unsung heroes of the hostel slaughter – now sells chips, airtime and vetkoek to ensure her 3 children and 2 grandchildren get an education. Her husband, who had only just before his death got a job after ten months of unemployment, had started building a home in the rural areas for his family.

“Now everything stuck,” she said, bitterness flushing momentarily through her voice.

Her husband had openly adored his wife. His Whatsapp profile pictures and the inspired snatches of poetry that often accompanied them bore testimony to his claim that, “she is my backbone.”

She does not like to speak about the day her husband died but her silence eventually gives way to anger.

“He was killed because he was a leader, he asked too many questions. When there was development, the new units were given to people from outside – not residents – not the people who had been living in crowded rooms for years.”

She counted off a long list of names – all mostly friends of her late husband, all former community leaders or outspoken mobilizers of the people, all now dead. Referring to former community divisions and local government’s widely reported support for mourners and sometimes families of hitmen killed during internecine violence, the flame of her husband’s love blazed again in her eyes as she spat out, “If someone dies this side, it’s like a dog has died!”

Not much has changed

Today she has a young child on her back, one of her grandchildren. She has taken him to the doctor because he has a skin complaint.

“This is not a good environment for children,” she says, rocking the child gently back and forth. “There is sewerage and leaking pipes, it affects their health. They get rashes and running stomachs and at night they cough because of the damp. They are often getting flu so I am always at the doctor. Each time I must find taxi fare, transport is so expensive.”

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“That was what my husband was fighting for. The conditions in some of the blocks here are terrible. They [the eThekwini Municipality] must make all the blocks into family units.”

She does not mention the extreme violence to which most Glebelands children have been exposed to or its psychological fall-out. Another longstanding hostel resident – a minister – had described how, a few days previously, when a wooden plank had been dropped several stories to men loading a bakkie, a nearby group of young children, on hearing the loud bang, had immediately flattened themselves on the ground. Their first thought was that the shooting had begun, again, and they had reacted instantaneously – instinctively – as they have become accustomed to from traumatic past experience.

The woman is compelled to stay at Glebelands because after the loss of their breadwinner, her family is now solely reliant on her late husband’s relatives and friends for whatever support they can provide. It’s clearly not a situation this brave, independent mother relishes.

But she has no time to talk further. She is a busy woman, baking, selling small things to survive, raising her kids, cleaning and trying to make a home around the big empty space her husband once occupied. She has precious little time – and even less money – for herself. Her relatively reasonable standard of living (by hostel standards anyway) caved in the day the killers took her husband. She says she regrets that she never got a good education which might have enabled her to get a job now that she has so many mouths to feed.

“Ja, it’s tough,” she sighed as she hitched the baby further up her back. But she is getting through each day. She is one of Glebelands survivors and walks straight-backed to the decaying block she calls home. She has a family to feed.

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