Who led by example
1982 – 2022
Nokuthula Mabaso was a land activist and women’s rights defender in the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement. She lived and worked in the eKhenana Commune in KwaZulu-Natal, where she also played a big part in the creation of a food sovereignty project.
Mabaso was a vocal and respected leader of the Abahlali baseMjondolo shack dwellers movement. She also played an important role in the movement’s women’s league as a gender rights activist.
Mabaso was a committed member of the eKhenana Commune in Cato Manor in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, where she lived with her four children and her husband. The commune is organised on communal principles and run as a cooperative, with shared land use, communal food gardens and kitchens and an on-site political school. As a member of the commune Mabaso was involved in all these aspects, although she had a particular love for the commune’s food sovereignty project. The commune has also been subject to many attempts to force its residents to leave by local authorities and anti-land invasion groups.
Several months before she was killed, Mabaso and several other activists were arrested on charges which, according to Abahlali baseMjondolo leadership, were entirely false. The charges were later dropped but Mabaso and many others saw this as an attempt by political forces to abuse the legal system to break up the movement and Mabaso became even more determined to continue her work as an activist.
Not long after, she was working in the gardens of the commune, alongside her fellow leader Ayanda Ngila when Ngila was attacked and killed. Mabaso then courageously chose to go to the police and share information about what she had witnessed, including the identity of the man who had shot Ngila.
The night before she was due to testify against a bail hearing of the same man accused in Ngila’s murder, she was shot seven times outside her house in eKhenana.
After her death, Abahlali leader Thapelo Mohlapi described Mabaso as “a woman like any other in South Africa. She was shot four times in the back and to show it was a hit they turned her over and shot two other bullets into her, one in the breast the other in the stomach… those who killed Mabaso knew what they were doing, they did not want to leave her alive. Her cellphone was taken by the gunmen because they wanted information from her. We have informed police but they do not listen to us… she is just a shack dweller and so her life is not as valued, her dignity does not count in the eyes of government, we understand that we are alone as Abahlali.”
On 26 July 2022, two suspects were arrested for her murder. They were both family members of the accused in Ayanda Ngila’s murder, the man who Mabaso had pledged to testify against in court.
Illustration by Sindiso Nyoni.