The Mercury: A revolution is building in South Africa

This article by Imraan Buccus was published in The Mercury and the Sunday Independent.

A REVOLUTION seems to be building in South Africa.

As inequality and developmental deficits persist, South Africans are standing up and demanding social justice. The “rebellion of the poor” has most often emerged from the informal settlement. But since the beginning of regular protests from informal settlements, protests have also spread to the mines and to university campuses.

But the informal settlements have been more or less constant sites of struggle. There is no doubt that shack-dwellers have often been given the short end of the stick in their attempt to carve out an existence on the fringes of the cities. Despite this, one often hears middle-class citizens talking about how frustrated they are “with these people constantly protesting”. The poor are often spoken about in truly derogatory ways. The middle-class often express prejudices that sound like they come straight from the colonial script. 

Durban is the one city where the protests by informal settlement dwellers have led to the formation of a sustained mass- based movement. Abahlali baseMjondolo is now more than a decade old and has tens of thousands of members. The movement has weathered serious repression, including assassinations and sophisticated propaganda projects. It has been in and out of the courts, often winning significant victories, and has organised numerous street pro- tests, land occupations and large rallies in footballs stadiums, like Curries Fountain.

Last Monday matters came to a head when residents of the Foreman Road informal settlement in Clare Estate organised a road blockade. After the blockade police attacked the settlement with rubber bullets and teargas. In the resulting mayhem a two-week-old baby, Jayden Khoza, died – seemingly from inhaling teargas. Residents then marched to the local police station, with the body of the baby to demand justice. This was a truly horrific day in our city, one that really dramatised the extent of the crisis of inequality.

This tragedy should never have happened. If the city authorities were willing to engage with residents of informal settlements, and work hard to solve their most urgent problems, there would have been no need for the protest. If our police were properly trained in human rights-based policing, teargas would never have been thrown into a place where families live.

If this tragedy had happened in the US, South Africans would be taking to social media in their thousands to express their outrage. If it had happened in Palestine, protests would have been organised outside the Israeli embassy. But as a society we place very little value on the lives of poor black people. In fact there is a very long list of poor black people who have been killed by the police in protests in recent years. This list is in the public domain but outside of a few activist circles it is not generally noticed very much, let alone considered as what it is – a deep crisis.

South Africa is a largely urban country and is becoming rapidly more urbanised. For most people, cities are sites of opportunity.The apartheid state could not stop urbanisation and the post-apartheid state will not be able to stop it either. It is a global feature of modern life and something that governments should support rather than try to repress. The state has failed to manage this process in an effective and human rights-based manner.

Poor people’s basic life strategies have been criminalised and their organisations have also been criminalised. It is time to open our cities, to allocate land on the basis of social need rather than profit and to accept that poor people’s organisations should, just like the residents’ organisations that represent middle-class people, be able to participate in all governance structures. If we remain on the path of criminalising poverty, the only outcome will be more social discontent, more protests and, at the end of the day, more violence.

Some of the cruder voices in the student movement, and the broader public conversation, have argued that decolonisation is simply a matter of overcoming white domination. But as the tragedy on this past Monday shows this is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for decolonisation. A largely black state, sent a largely black police force to attack a largely black community with the result that a black child was killed. If we want to build a society that is genuinely centred around human rights and social justice we need to achieve a revolution in values. A genuinely progressive state would aim to support poor people – not repress them.

At the moment we are governed by a rapacious kleptocratic regime that speaks a radical language to disguise its perfidy. Putting an end to whole- sale looting is absolutely urgent. But it is not enough. We also need a genuine commitment to social justice and human rights.

We need to build a society in which people will have no need to block roads in protest because government officials are always available to address issues that may arise. We need to build a society in which it would be un- thinkable that the police would hurl a teargas canister into a community in which families were going about their every day business. We need to build a democratic and socialist future.