Democracy took a beating in Foreman Road


Eye on civil society

Democracy took a beating in Foreman Road

It was a march in line with the great tradition of peaceful civil disobedience, and posed no threat, writes Richard Pithouse

November 22, 2005

By Richard Pithouse

Democracy took a major beating in Durban last week. The first blow came when the eThekwini Municipality banned a march organised by the Foreman Road Development Committee. The Committee has been elected to represent the Foreman Road shack settlement. Along with 15 other settlements they had affiliated to the Abahlali base Mjondolo [shack dwellers’] movement that had organised previous marches from the Kennedy Road and Quarry Road settlements. Each of these large marches had been entirely peaceful. The Foreman Road march was planned for Monday 14 November. The Committee completed all the paper work necessary to apply for a permit to stage a legal march in good time. But three days before the scheduled march a terse fax was received from the Municipality stating that the march was "prohibited". Two reasons were given for banning the march. The first was that "Officials from the Mayor's Office have advised us that they have no feedback for your organisation". The second was that "The Mayor's Office labour is unable to assist you and there will be no representative there to meet you." City Manager Mike Sutcliffe is responsible for administering requests to hold legal marches.

The Freedom of Expression Institute issued a statement condemning Sutcliffe's ban as "a flagrant violation of the Constitution and the Regulation of Gatherings Act". The statement went on to explain that the reasons given by the Municipality for banning the march were "absurd" and without any legal basis.

On the day scheduled for the march around 3 000 people gathered in the Foreman Road settlement. People were told that the march had been banned and it was suggested that a rally be held in the settlement instead. But the majority of people decided that they could not accept this attack on their basic democratic rights and that they would stage a peaceful march in protest. This was in line with the great tradition of peaceful civil disobedience against repression and posed no threat to any person or property. The marchers, mostly women, set off singing up the steep dirt road that leads out of the settlement. They had just got onto Loon Road when they were met by the police. Without the mandatory warning the police charged the protestors and began arresting and beating people at random resulting in some serious injuries. Academics and journalists were threatened with violence if they reported what they had seen. Carvin Goldstone from The Mercury was threatened by Superintendent Glen Nayagar from the Sydenham Police Station and Raj Patel, a top UKZN academic, had his camera confiscated by Nayagar.

The gratuitous brutality of the police attack, much of which was captured on camera and video, sent shock waves around the country and around the world. The Freedom of Expression Institute issued a statement declaring that the Institute "condemns the eThekwini Muncipality's blatant disregard for the rights of marginalized communities to exercise their freedom of expression" The statement described the police action as illegal on two grounds. The first was that no warning was given to disperse before the police attacked and the second was that there was no legal justification for the degree of force used in the police attack. The intimidation of the media and confiscation of cameras was also clearly illegal.

Goldstone has laid a formal complaint against Nayagar. Patel, along with System Cele, a 19 year old girl who had her front teeth broken in the police attack, tried, without success, to lay formal complaints with the Internal Complaints Directorate (ICD). The ICD requires a case number before they will investigate a complaint. But the police simply refused to open cases of theft and assault against other SAPS officers when approached by Patel and Cele.

While the police were beating people back down the dirt road that leads into the Foreman Road settlement someone shouted "You can't do this to us. This is a democracy". Officer Swart's response was to say "There is no democracy here". He was quite right. The actions of public servants like Sutcliffe and Nayagar clearly assume that the basic democratic rights that the state guarantees to the rich and the middle and working class in our city should not be extended to the very poor living in shacks.

There is a vibrant democracy in many shack settlements. It is a democracy that people have created themselves. It is democracy in the purest form with elected committees and regular open mass meetings at which everyone can speak. This popular democracy has produced a shack dwellers' movement which is insisting that promises made to shack dwellers' must be kept. It has no electoral ambitions and exists only to try and alleviate the desperate crisis faced by shack dwellers. In many instances this crisis has been exacerbated by the eThekwini Muncipality's removal of basic services and threats of forced removal to rural ghettos far from opportunities for work.

Yet when the poor engage in peaceful protest they are treated with insult, contempt and violence. They are told that there is a 'Third Force' behind the protests or that they are being used by outsiders. In both cases the assumption is that the poor can neither think nor act for themselves. This is the same assumption, which is often a form of racism, that the apartheid government used to try and delegitimate protest. The truth is that Abahlali base Mjondolo is an entirely democratic organisation that is exclusively run by volunteers and receives no external funding. But being insulted is one thing. Having the City Manager illegally deny you a basic democratic right and being gratuitously beaten by the police for peacefully exercising that right is another thing. If Sutcliffe and Nayagar are not bought to account quickly and effectively democracy in eThekwini will have suffered a major set back. Last Monday it was business as usual in Umhlanga and Glenwood and Kloof. But in the Foreman Road settlement there was blood in the streets. It looked and felt as if we were living under Botha or Mugabe.

Richard Pithouse is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Civil Society. He writes in his personal capacity. Editor's note: The Mercury has also lodged a formal complaint with the police about the threat received by Goldstone