South Africa: The ‘Boiketlong Four’ and the Criminalisation of Poverty and Protest

In February 2015, four community activists from Boiketlong in the Vaal, south of Johannesburg, were sentenced to 16 years in prison each following a community protest. This is a very severe sentence and the conviction was based on shaky evidence. The ‘Boiketlong Four’ were arrested for allegedly attacking the local ANC ward councillor and setting fire to her shack and two cars during a community protest. They were convicted of assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, arson and malicious injury to property. This is an example of a terrible injustice perpetrated against black working class activists and could have dangerous repercussions for future struggles of the black working class and poor in South Africa if it is not fought. People need to be aware of the facts and take action to demand justice and to fight the criminalisation of poverty and protest.

The Boiketlong Four
In February 2015, four community activists from Boiketlong in the Vaal, south of Johannesburg, were sentenced to 16 years in prison each following a community protest. This is a very severe sentence and the conviction was based on shaky evidence. The ‘Boiketlong Four’ were arrested for allegedly attacking the local ANC ward councillor and setting fire to her shack and two cars during a community protest. They were convicted of assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, arson and malicious injury to property. This is an example of a terrible injustice perpetrated against black working class activists and could have dangerous repercussions for future struggles of the black working class and poor in South Africa if it is not fought. People need to be aware of the facts and take action to demand justice and to fight the criminalisation of poverty and protest.

Evidence presented by the prosecutor in court was shaky and state witnesses either couldn’t identify the four accused or place them at the scene at the time. To convict them the state used the 1973 apartheid law of so-called ‘common purpose’, meaning they were found guilty simply because they were leaders of the community; even though no evidence conclusively connecting the four with the burning of the councillor’s house or cars was presented. At least one of the four, Dinah Makhetha, was not even present at the time.

The key witness willing to testify that Dinah was not present at the councillor’s home at the time it was razed, Papi Tobias, disappeared under mysterious circumstances in February 2016 and has not been seen since. He is believed to be dead.

In June 2015, the Boiketlong Four applied for bail and for Leave to Appeal both the conviction and the sentence. Leave to Appeal the conviction was granted, but not to appeal the severity of the sentence – meaning that if their appeal of the conviction failed they would have to serve the full 16 year term in prison. Bail was also denied.

To apply for bail and to petition for full Leave to Appeal were High Court processes which placed a huge financial and emotional burden on the poor working class families of the accused. A fundraising committee was established to raise money from within the community in order to pay for legal and related expenses.

After 9 months in prison the four activists were released on bail in October 2015.

Then, on 19 June 2017, two of the four were arrested again and thrown back in prison – where they currently remain. We urgently need to demand they be released on bail immediately and to have the conviction overturned.

Neoliberalism, corruption and the criminalisation of poverty and protest
The Boiketlong Four were leading community activists in the struggle for housing, development in the township and for what the ANC government has been promising them – and the black working class and poor across South Africa – for over 20 years. That, being poor and struggling to change their conditions and uplift themselves and their community were their only ‘crimes’. It is believed that they were targeted in a politically motivated move by the state, at the behest of the local ANC, to suppress and criminalise their activities as activists because of their role in opposing the anti-poor policies of the neoliberal ANC government and exposing and challenging the corruption of local political elites. They are not criminals, they are political/class struggle prisoners.

They were unfairly charged due to their role in community protests that are caused by unfair treatment, corruption and maladministration. The black working class in South Africa has had enough of suffering the brunt of poverty and inequality but when we take to the streets we suffer the repressive might of the state and police brutality. The politicians supposedly put in power to serve the community quickly forget about doing so because they are living the life of luxury.

Our brothers and sisters who take up the fight for justice should not be the ones punished for these actions. The 1994 tripartite regime said it would not do what the National Party did to the black working class in South Africa, but over twenty years later we are experiencing almost the same treatment. The enemy has proven to be the ruling party and the private capitalists.

Like so many townships, rural areas and poor communities across South Africa, the black working class and poor community of Boiketlong has long suffered from the broken promises of the ANC government. Since the first multiracial elections in 1994, the ANC has repeatedly been re-elected on the backs of empty promises of service delivery, job creation and to develop and upgrade townships and other underdeveloped areas that have long suffered a lack of access to decent and affordable sanitation, water, electricity and housing as well as education and health care etc. as part of the legacy of colonialism and apartheid capitalism.

Faced with increased discontent and protest in response to its own lack of political will and its inability, due to the anti-working class neoliberal policies it has adopted, to even begin to fulfill its promises and implement wide-scale development, upgrading of townships, land reform, service delivery and job creation across the country the ANC government is increasingly responding with the criminalisation of protest – and the poor – in order to suppress and contain social struggles and working class resistance.

This is because of two major processes the political elite is involved in: using the state for private accumulation and enforcing neoliberal policies designed to redirect wealth upwards, away from the black working class and poor to the ruling class – made up of white, and now black, private capitalists as well as politicians and state managers. This is in order to recover profitability and maintain profits by transferring the costs of the economic crisis onto the working class, particularly the black section. It does this through commercialisation and privatisation, the flexibilisation of labour, austerity budgeting and cuts in social spending, outsourcing and aggressive cost recovery measures etc.

At local level outsourcing has led to contracts and tenders for housing, service delivery and infrastructure development being handed out to politically connected individuals and company owners, particularly the new BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) elite, resulting in nepotism, corruption and patronage becoming widespread. In order to make as much profit as possible through these contracts these BEE ‘tenderpreneurs’ cut costs by exploiting workers, using the cheapest available materials and cutting corners in terms of safety and standards. This is why so many RDP houses are cracking and falling apart and why service delivery in black working class townships is so terrible.

The political elite at local, provincial and national levels – both ANC and, in some areas, the DA – uses its access to and control of state resources to accumulate private wealth and entrench their power and control of the state and its resources. This is what “corruption” means, and it is done at the expense of the black working class and poor – who get nothing but shoddy housing, poor service delivery and state repression if they rise up.

In the context of the global capitalist crisis and dwindling state resources there is an increasing struggle between political elites to hold onto power and access to limited resources. It is this competition for access to state power and resources for self-enrichment that has led to the factional battles that we are currently witnessing between the two main rival factions of the ANC – those around Jacob Zuma and those around Cyril Ramaphosa.

However, under the smoke and mirrors, both of these factions and the two wings of the ruling class – state managers/political elite/politicians, on the one hand, and private capitalists/economic elite/bosses, on the other – both depend on exploiting the working class and poor and on the model of cheap black labour, part of which involves massive underspending on townships.

This can only be ended by consistent and independent class struggle and resistance and that is exactly what the ruling class fears – and why the state and political elite that controls it are increasingly resorting to the criminalisation of poverty and protest to suppress working class resistance.

The ANC government wants to make an example of the Boitketlong Four in order to send a strong message to the poor, the unemployed and the marginalised youth leading and participating in struggles for land and housing, jobs and service delivery. The message is that if you dare to organise or engage in social struggles in pursuit of your rights, to expose or simply speak out against the rampant corruption of the political elite, you will be dealt with swiftly and harshly. The heavy sentences handed down to the Boiketlong Four and the denial of bail and Leave to Appeal are all intended to intimidate and deter others from independent working class resistance and protest.

It is therefore of utmost importance that class struggle militants do everything within our means to campaign to have the conviction and sentence overturned – because if we don’t the state will use this case as a precedent in order to further criminalise poverty and protest and more and more people will be thrown in prison on so-called criminal charges and slapped with harsh sentences for protesting their poverty and fighting for their rights.

Justice for Papi Tobias
On the evening of 6 February 2016, Papi Tobias left his home in Boiketlong to go watch soccer at a local tavern. He was last seen leaving the tavern in the presence of Sebokeng Police Station commander Brigadier Jan Scheepers.

Papi, a father of three, was also a leading community activist in the struggle for housing and development in the township and was often at the forefront of service delivery protests.

He was also one of the people on the committee tasked with raising funds for the Boiketlong Four’s legal expenses. Six days before his disappearance Papi had attended a heated community meeting, called by the local mayor, in which he criticised the fundraising committee for misusing the money raised for the Boiketlong Four’s defence. He also reportedly said that the community was “threatened and lied to” by the committee, that it had “in fact elected itself because it is not ours, the people’s” and that “the wrong people were arrested”.

Papi had also said to Brigadier Scheepers, to the attorney then dealing with the Boiketlong Four case, to a paralegal at the Orange Farm Human Rights Advice Centre and at public meetings that he was willing to testify that Dinah was not in the vicinity of the councillor’s house when it was set on fire and that she and the other three were wrongfully accused.

It is alleged that one of the fundraising committee members suspected of misusing the funds, a local ANC leader and member of the ANC-dominated Boiketlong Concern Group, is behind Papi’s disappearance; and that he told the family that Brigadier Scheepers knew as to Papi’s whereabouts shortly after his disappearance. It is suspected that, in addition to the committee member, Brigadier Scheepers and the Mayor of Emfuleni Local Municipality, Simon Mofokeng, are also implicated in the kidnapping.

Shortly before his disappearance Papi’s dog was killed and a member of the Boiketlong Concern Group said they had heard rumors that Papi’s life was in danger prior to his disappearance.

Papi has been missing for well over a year now and is believed to be dead. His disappearance and suspected murder are almost certainly politically motivated and linked to his role in struggling for service delivery, housing and development in the township and for exposing the mayor and fundraising committee members for alleged corruption or misusing money raised for the Boiketlong Four’s legal expenses.

The police investigators handling the case appear to have made little effort to establish Papi’s fate or whereabouts and no investigation seems to be underway. To date nobody has been arrested or charged in relation to Papi’s disappearance.

Freedom for Dinah and Sipho
Since being released on bail in October 2015 one of the accused, Pulane Mahlangu, has skipped bail and disappeared. Another, Dan Sekuti Molefe, passed away in December 2016. He had been ill prior to his arrest and it is sure that the stress of his conviction, the violence and suffering of 9 months in prison and the prospect of spending another 16 years there helped kill him.

On 6 June 2017, a Leave to Appeal hearing for the remaining two accused, Sipho Sydney Manganye and Dinah Makhetha, took place at the North Gauteng High Court to appeal the 16 year sentence. The application was dismissed and they were ordered to hand themselves over to the Sebokeng Regional Court on 19 June.

On 15 June, Dinah and Sipho met with their advocate from Legal Aid SA, who told them he was going to apply for an extension of their bail at the Sebokeng Regional Court on 19 June. However, the Magistrate refused the extension of bail because the application should have been brought at the North Gauteng High Court as that is where bail was initially granted. Dinah and Sipho were re-arrested and thrown back into prison.

Dinah and Sipho’s pro-bono legal representatives, Legal Aid SA, should have applied to the High Court to extend bail pending the petition being heard at Sebokeng but this doesn’t seem to have been done and the accused have now been languishing in prison, for the second time, for over a month.

While previously out on bail Sipho seems to have been co-opted by the local ANC elite, who gave him employment in a development project in the township – a tactic regularly used by local political elites to co-opt activists and draw them away from activism and struggle in order to neutralise the threat they pose both to the dominance of the local political elite and their opportunities for accumulating wealth through their access to state resources and tenders. Sipho, perhaps out of desperation, reportedly began singing praises for the mayor and saying that he cares for the people. He no longer seems to be interested in social struggle and community activism.

That certainly doesn’t mean he should be left to go to prison without support, though, but it seems he was fooled into thinking that the ANC and local political elite would help him if he stopped his involvement in community struggles.

Sipho’s defence, unfortunately, is also not as strong as Dinah’s and the advocate has not been able to find grounds to challenge his conviction on two of the four counts against him – assault with the intent to cause grievous bodily harm and arson. This means that, even if the advocate is successful in appealing the other two counts against him he could still face 10 years in prison.

Dinah, a long-standing community activist and former member of the now defunct Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF), however, has remained unflinching in her commitment to social justice and working class militancy and, despite what is effectively an apartheid-era banning order preventing her from attending community or political meetings, protests etc., she remained involved in community organisation and activism while out on bail.

Dinah’s defence is also very strong and the advocate has found convincing grounds on which to challenge all four of the counts she was convicted of.

It is vitally important that we do everything in our power to show immediate solidarity and support for both Dinah and Sipho and to ensure that they are granted bail while awaiting Leave to Appeal their conviction and that the charges against them are withdrawn and they are declared innocent.

Dinah and Sipho are political prisoners of the capitalist state, which wants to make an example of them. Their fate will help determine the fate of many more community activists and poor township residents that engage in social struggles and protests to come. If their conviction and sentences are not overturned more working class militants and people arrested during protests could face equally harsh sentences.

Dinah and Sipho will be appearing at the Sebokeng District Court on Wednesday 26 July to have their application for extension of bail heard. A demonstration at the court is being planned for the day and we call on our comrades, allies and all freedom and justice loving people worldwide to do whatever they can on, before and after Wednesday 26 July to show solidarity with Sipho and Dinah and to demand justice both for them and Papi. We should also demand that a date be set for their appeal of the conviction and sentence to be heard by the Supreme Court of Appeal as soon as possible and appeal to you and your organisations to organise solidarity actions and activities and show support for Dinah and Sipho leading up to and on the day of their appeal. We will communicate the date for the appeal once it has been set.


What you can do:

Picket and demonstrate outside South African Embassies abroad on and in the days and weeks following Wednesday 26 July;
Email and fax the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development demanding Sipho and Dinah be given an extension of bail on Wednesday 26 July;
Disseminate this call for solidarity on social media and in your organisations, networks and movements;
Write letters and articles about the case and publish them in alternative and, where possible, mainstream newspapers, magazines etc.;
Discuss the case and the call for solidarity on podcasts and community radio, at student/worker/community meetings, at demonstrations etc.;
Take photographs of solidarity activities and actions, or of yourself or your organisation holding placards with messages of support or demanding Sipho and Dinah be released on bail and that their conviction be overturned and publish them on social media with the hashtags and handles below;
Write letters of support to Dinah, Sipho and/or to Papi’s family and email them to zacf[at] and orangefarmadvicecentre[at] to have them given to the recipients;
Put pressure on Legal Aid SA to prioritise the case by phoning them, sending them emails and faxes to put pressure on them constantly to ensure that they are prioritising the case;
Make the South African government know that this case is in the international spotlight by phoning, emailing and faxing the Presidency and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development to demand the conviction be overturned, the charges dropped and a full scale investigation into the fate of Paps Tobias be launched.
On social media use the hashtags #Boiketlong4Solidarity #Boiketlong4 #FreedomforDinahandSipho #JusticeforPapiTobias and the Twitter handles @PresidencyZA @GovernmentZA @EmfuleniLM @DOJCD_ZA @LegalAidSA1 @ZabalazaNews


The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa
Tel: +27 12 300 5200
Fax: +27 12 323 8246
Email: president [at] presidency [dot] gov [dot] za

Office of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa
Tel: +27 12 308 5316
E-mail: Deputypresident [at] presidency [dot] gov [dot] za

Minister of Justice and Correctional Services
Tel: +27 12 406 4669
Fax: +27 12 406 4680
E-mail: ministry [at] justice [dot] gov [dot] za

Deputy Minister for Justice and Constitutional Development
Tel: +27 12 406 4854
Fax: +27 12 406 4878
E-mail: deputyminister [at] justice [dot] gov [dot] za

Legal Aid South Africa Head Office
Tel: +27 11 877 2000

Legal Aid SA Pretoria Justice Centre
Tel: +27 12 401 9200
Fax: +27 12 324 1950

Legal Aid SA Vereeniging Justice Centre
Tel: +27 16 421 3527
Fax: +27 16 421 4287