The ANC needs to accept that the nation exceeds the party and that people have a right to organise independently and take positions of their own choosing, writes Richard Pithouse.
Durban – In the great anti-colonial poem of his youth, Notebook of Return to my Native Land, written on the eve of World War II, Aimé Césaire wrote a profound optimism into the world.
He offers a marvellous image of the arrival of a moment of celebration that, “with a purple rustle of its great joyous wings” will make “the shack life burst like an overripe pomegranate”.
But in South Africa today, as in much of the world, an explosion in a shack settlement is more likely to be a gas stove erupting into a ball of flame, or a stun grenade.
On Monday this week the Tshwane Municipality sent out its men with guns to evict people occupying land in Suurman, outside Hammanskraal. The squatters fought back and at the end of the battle two of the “Red Ants”, the men sent out to break down the shacks, were dead.
Usually it’s the people who are being disconnected from electricity or water, or whose homes are being destroyed, who don’t make it out of these everyday skirmishes. In October 2013 nine people were shot, and two killed, when the eThekwini Municipality sent out its security guards to disconnect people from electricity in the New Germany settlement in Reservoir Hills.
When the law, and the ways that it is enforced, assume that we all have money, and criminalise attempts to make a life amid impoverishment, rule by violence is inevitable. So too, in the end, are violent responses to violent forms of rule.
But political violence is not solely a matter of what the police and land invasion units do to impoverished people as an everyday practice. It’s also a matter of political repression. When leading people in the ANC continue to make sense of the world via the categories developed during the armed struggle, the party is conflated with the nation and dissent, including democratic forms of dissent, with betrayal or conspiracy.
Students, miners and squatters have all been read as agents of malicious and illicit conspiracies, often imagined as foreign, and subject to violent repression. This will not stop until the ANC accepts that the nation exceeds the party and that people have a right to organise independently and to take positions and make alliances of their own choosing.
The police kill protesters all over the country and vulnerable groups like prisoners, sex workers, street traders and squatters are ruled with violence all over the country.
But while the most egregious single incident of rule by violence was the massacre of striking workers at Marikana, there are two respects in which the problem of political violence is particularly acute in KwaZulu-Natal.
One is that police killings happen at a significantly higher rate here than anywhere else. These killings are largely directed at people deemed to be criminal. But when political dissent is read as illegitimate, the line between the criminal and the political often becomes blurred.
There have been many cases in which the police have killed unarmed protesters. The first high -profile case was in 2000 when the police killed Michael Makabane, a student at the then University of Durban-Westville, during a protest.
They killed Monica Ngcobo, 22, in E-Section, Umlazi, the day after the 2006 local government elections. And they killed Nqobile Nzuza, 17, in Cato Crest in 2013.
But it is political assassinations that are a particular feature of political life in KwaZulu-Natal. It has been estimated that up to 90% of all political killings since the end of apartheid have happened in this province.
In 2013 David Bruce published an academic paper that recorded 450 political murders in KwaZulu-Natal more than anywhere else.
The political killings in this province are often related to rivalries within the ruling party. These rivalries can be solely a matter of power and patronage. But they can also be related to broader political divisions within the ruling party and its alliance partners.
In August last year three Numsa leaders, Njabulo Ndebele, Sibonelo “John-John” Ntuli and Ntobeko Maphumulo, were murdered in Isithebe. And in January this year two SACP members, Bongani Hlatshwayo and Phillip Dlamini, were murdered in Inchanga.
There have also been a number of assassinations of people organising outside of the party. In 2006 Sinethemba Myeni and Mazwi “Komi” Zulu, both former SACP members, were killed in E-Section, Umlazi, after supporting an independent candidate in the local government elections that year.
Thembinkosi Qumbelo, an activist in Cato Crest with a number of organisations, was assassinated in 2013. Nkululeko Gwala, also from Cato Crest and a member of Abahlali baseMjondolo, was assassinated the same year.
Thuli Ndlovu, the chairperson of the Abahlali baseMjondolo branch in KwaNdengezi, was assassinated the following year. A few weeks later Mobeni Khwela, an SACP activist, was also assassinated in KwaNdengezi.
Last Friday two ANC councilors, Mduduzi Ngcobo and Velile Lutsheko, along with their hit man Mlungisi Ndlovu, were found guilty of the murder of Thuli Ndlovu. They were given life sentences.
There is often impunity for political killings and convictions are important bulwarks against this impunity. In this case a proper investigation, resulting in a conviction, was possible because of sustained organisation and struggle in KwaNdengezi by both Abahlali baseMjondolo and the SACP, often working together in a tactical alliance against repression; and because senior politicians with SACP links were willing to intervene after the murder of Khwela.
In 1956, in an altogether less optimistic poem, Césaire wrote that “When the world shall be a tower of silence, we shall be the prey and the vulture”. This has all too often been the fate of the “post-colony”. What Abahlali baseMjondolo have called the “politic of blood” – a phenomenon that includes the mobilisation of xenophobic and ethnic violence – is not solely the responsibility of the state and the ruling party.
Much of the media, civil society, academia and religious formations has operated on the basis that democracy is doing fine for as long as the safety and freedoms of elites are secure. It is often implicitly assumed that politics is, or should be, an engagement between elites.
The general lack of regard within elite society for the lives of people who are poor and black has enabled political violence to fester in the zones of domination and exclusion, and to entrench itself deep within the circuits of patronage that flow from the state.
In Discourse on Colonialism, his famous anti-colonial pamphlet, Césaire shows that in the colonial imagination the category of the human, or the fully human, is reserved for people rendered as white.
After confronting the reader with a gathering flood of images of colonial degradation and abuse he offers an equation: “colonisation = thingification “.
If we take this seriously, a genuinely anti-colonial politics must recover the human, not as another abstraction, but as a concrete point of departure for political discourse and practice.
“A prospect,” Frantz Fanon insisted in his exploration of the crisis of the post-colony, “is human because conscious and sovereign persons dwell within.”
We will not be able to step off the path that we are on, a path that winds into ever tighter circles of violence, if we don’t find a way to affirm, in principle and in practice, that democracy must mean that everyone counts and that everyone has the same right to intervene in the political.
Every political murder must be understood as crisis. The justice won for Thuli Ndlovu must be extended to everyone else cut down in the increasingly bloody underside of our democracy.