The morning after a 30-year-old woman was gunned down at Glebelands hostel, an eerie silence shrouds the “hitmen’s den”. Police race into the hostel, escorting members of Parliament’s police portfolio committee who are here for an oversight visit. Residents peer out of holes in the dirty brick walls, where once there were windows.
Some had covered the gaps with black plastic bags, but the frames are mostly empty and the small beds, which take up almost all the space in the tiny rooms, can be seen from the road. Residents continue to watch the circus, but don’t make eye contact with their visitors.
Guns at the ready, the officers stand watch over the well-dressed crowd. A lieutenant guides the committee to where, just hours earlier, the 30-year-old woman was shot.
The corridors are dark and damp with foul-smelling grime. She was the fourth person to be assassinated here in the past two weeks, bringing the Glebelands body count to 92 in two years.
The notorious hostel in Umlazi is said to house hitmen, known in KwaZulu-Natal as “izinkabi”. When the police convoy rushes out of the hostel, a girl in a pink dress races back to her block, as if aware that she is no longer safe. She carries a vetkoek almost twice the size of her hand and does not look back until she reaches her destination.
On a Wednesday morning two weeks after Mtshali’s killing, there are four police vehicles at the hostel. A young boy shouts: “Look, that car is passing here for the second time.” Children, like their elders, are on high alert. “The police tell the media that Glebelands is under police watch, but you have been here for two hours now. Do you see anything?” asks a resident who is part of a group meeting City Press for an interview. “Police arrive an hour after someone has been killed and they will tell you that they were out to lunch. We call police to say we hear gunshots and they tell us, ‘no, it is a car backfiring’,” another laments.
The group of about 10 hosts the meeting in a makeshift structure of corrugated iron sheets. A number of holes allow beams of sunlight through. “Those are not holes from nails. There was a shoot-out with rifles here a few months ago,” says one. “We ran for our lives,” another says.
A number of the men in the group are armed, their guns strategically covered by their clothing. They eye passers-by with suspicion. “Anonymity is important to us. The people who die here are witnesses or know something, so don’t use our names,” says the leader of the pack.
“It is a lie that solving this problem is impossible because people of Glebelands don’t want to assist law enforcement. Witnesses go to police and the next time we see them is in a coffin at their funerals. They leave with the police and die somewhere. How can a dead person testify?”
Glebelands has been the subject of a Public Protector report, in which the lack of leadership from the municipality came under scrutiny.
In recent weeks, the Moerane Commission of Inquiry into political killings in the province heard that more than 90 people had been killed at the hostel in two years. There have been no convictions. The men admit that selling beds is one reason people get killed at the hostel.
“They chase you out and sell the beds to raise funds to hire izinkabi. This thing has escalated and gotten into the taxi industry and into family disputes. It is the worst-kept secret that, if you want to kill someone, you come and find your hitman here. If you want to take out a councillor in Harding or Izingolweni, you will come to Glebelands to get your hitman,” one resident says.
Another admits that, in earlier times, the hostel was a hotbed for tribal wars between the Zulus and Xhosas. The group insists this has been resolved. The persistent problem is ANC factionalism, they say. “If political leaders had the will to end this violence, we would not be sitting here today. But because it assists certain camps in the ANC and serves certain interests, it goes on.”
They question the reason for having private security guards stationed at Glebelands. The group blames supporters of ousted eThekwini mayor James Nxumalo and the incumbent, Zandile Gumede, for fuelling the recent violence.
A few metres from us is a camera, similar to others mounted around Glebelands. The men say nobody knows where the footage is being monitored from or what purpose it serves. People have been killed in full view of the cameras, but no arrests are made.
A fence, which allegedly cost a few million rands to build, was placed around the hostel as an additional security feature. “They say the fence is there so that people cannot escape once they have murdered someone, but no one is running out of Glebelands.
“The killers live here. We know who they are. We see when the vehicles loaded with guns arrive. A person kills you and simply walks back to their block. It is not a great mystery.”