'Marikana' UnFreedom Day land occupation ends in violent Workers’ Day eviction
I found myself among a community of homeless and backyard-dwellers on Sunday through connections with the shackdwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, which held its controversial UnFreedom Day rally on 27 April in the settlement of Sweet Home Farm in Philippi, Cape Town. What follows is a personal account of the beginnings of the 'Marikana' land occupation. By JARED SACKS.
Zowi Zulu berates the police after they threw her and her new born child out of their shack
These residents of Philippi East, a growing township sandwiched between Nyanga, Mitchell’s Plain, Khayelitsha and Philippi, had just been evicted the week before from another parcel of land which they found out was actually a deserted privately owned farm. Desperate as they were, they contacted Abahlali baseMjondolo activist Cindy Ketani, in the hope that she could help them in their struggle. By Thursday, Ketani said that 150 of them had paid the standard R10 fee to become members of the movement and were looking for another piece of land since they had nowhere else to go.
Some of them began building their new homes on unused council-owned land along Symphony Way near Stock Road. Six homes were fully occupied by Friday morning with another 15 or so built and occupied on UnFreedom Day. Those who did not have their own building material, spent the day helping fellow abahlali (residents) finish building their homes. This was solidarity: the community was helping pull one-another up by their collective bootstraps. According to chairperson Sandile Ngoxolo, abahlali christened their new settlement 'Marikana' in honour of the workers who died in their struggle for a just and living wage and because “we too are organising ourselves peacefully and are willing to die for our struggle”.
When I arrived on Sunday morning with Ketani and Boitumelo “Tumi” Ramahlele, who live in Langa Temporary Relocation Area (shacks built by the Housing Development Agency), the city’s Law Enforcement had just arrived and marked off with spray-paint a red “X” on about 20 homes. They said they were to be evicted later that day. People were worried and didn’t know what to do and soon a crowd grew to discuss the way forward.
The City’s Law Enforcement, with its substantially funded Anti-Land Invasions Unit, had not produced a court order or any type of written documentation as to why the settlement was to be evicted. Being a witness to these kinds of struggles for a long time, I knew that any eviction without a court order was not only an illegal act, but also criminal, as the city was ignoring provisions in South Africa’s Constitution and the Prevention of Illegal Evictions Act. Explained a different way, the Anti-Land Invasions Unit is usurping the authority of a high court judge who is tasked to decide on the legality of land and property related issues. There is no way to prove that those living on a particular piece of land are there illegally without a legal judgment. (See also lawyer Sheldon Magardie’s legal explanation).
A call was sent out by Abahlali baseMjondolo for activists and media to come and witness and protect residents during the illegal evictions – only a New Age reporter showed in time to see the evictions take place. A lawyer working pro-bono with Abahlali baseMjondolo arrived and explained the need for a court order to the city officials, but he was rebuffed.
And they did exactly that. At 13:15 a mass contingent of the Anti-Land Invasions Unit and dozens of day labourers, picked up only hours earlier, arrived, backed up by Law Enforcement and SAPS vehicles. They were ready for confrontation and a Casspir and a Nyala ensured that this would be a one-sided war against about 50 residents (mostly women and children).
Law Enforcement went into the homes often beating residents who refused to leave. The Anti-Land Invasions Unit then went on to destroy people’s property: their beds, their cupboards and their general livelihoods.
I tried to photograph Kemelo Mosaku when I saw him being beaten inside his home but Law Enforcement personnel stood in line attempting to block my view. I was, though, able to get a few photos of him being manhandled once he was removed and then arrested. Ramahlele was also arrested after being beaten for refusing to leave a resident’s home. He claims to have been severely beaten by Law Enforcement inside the Casspir after being arrested. Ketane, who has hemiparesis and walks with a limp because of a recent stroke, was filming the abuse on her phone which was subsequently stolen by Law Enforcement. She was then pepper-sprayed and shoved away from the scene. Another lady was inexplicably shot twice at close range with rubber bullets. At many points during the eviction, I was also shoved and pushed and now have a few minor bruises to show for it.
Watching the violence meted out by state officials, hundreds of residents began gathering on both sides of the street singing various freedom songs and hurling verbal abuse at police. The community of Philippi East was turning out in full support of the 'Marikana' occupiers. Then, about 45 minutes into the eviction, some young boys, frustrated at the obvious one-sided violence and the perceived injustice of the eviction, began throwing stones at police who, realising that they were outnumbered by nearly 1,000 angry residents, left a few “X”ed homes standing and quickly retreated down the road.
Residents remained defiant. Hundreds marched to Philippi East police station to secure the release of their “political prisoner” comrades while another group remained behind to rebuild their homes. The peaceful group demonstrated outside the station while leadership attempted to negotiate with the station commissioner inside.
However, after about an hour of protest, the station commissioner, Colonel Vuyane Mdimbaza, refused to release Ramahlele and Mosaku and insisted they be charged with public violence (the typical charge against protesters used to cover up police violence, which the judge almost always throws out of court). He then went on a diatribe about anarchy, development and democracy, blaming protesters for not consulting with government, and accusing a sinister third force of being behind the occupations. (In other words, he was saying that poor people are too stupid to do anything themselves!) 'Marikana' leadership answered these accusations by asserting that their numerous attempts to consult with government had consistently been ignored; their land occupation was a last resort.
Protesters responded to the commissioner with civil disobedience: they closed off Stock Road, Ngqwangi Drive and Symphony Way with rocks and burned tyres. The furious colonel eventually became more conciliatory: he began promising the release of the two. After four hours of protest – effectively shutting down the station during that time – the state prosecutor finally agreed to come into the station and negotiate bail. The protesters immediately dispersed and Ramahlele and Mosaku were finally released at 21:00.
On Sunday evening, the Marikana community, resolute and unwavering, rebuilt their homes. They were not going away without a fight.
Still, on Tuesday and then once again on Workers' Day the Anti-Land Invasions Unit returned, this time with even more police backup: Casspirs, Nyalas, and even water cannons. On both days, there were about 50 shacks built. On Tuesday they destroyed almost all of them and arrested another person, who is said to be an innocent passerby.
On Workers' Day, I witnessed them destroy every last shack. Once again, Law Enforcement used physical violence and in some cases assaulted residents. Zowi Zulu, a young mother with a newborn baby strapped to her back, was violently removed from her home and nearly assaulted – that is, until journalists from the New Age, Die Burger and a few other newspapers finally showed up.
The Anti-Land Invasions Unit destroyed people’s property while taking apart their homes. A large flatbed truck then confiscated a significant portion of the building material with officials refusing to tell residents where it would be taken. No one is sure if they will ever get their zinc sheets and wooden poles, worth thousands of rands, back. As I write this, Mzwandondo Figxa has become the fourth person arrested in only a few days and also the fourth person charged with “public violence”. He will also most likely be the fourth person to have his case thrown out of court while the 'Marikana' community wastes more time and money on legal support.
This game of cat-and-mouse continues, with abahlali, once again, vowing to rebuild their homes or at least sleep on the site where their homes once stood. As they sleep under the stars (but in the freezing cold), what will be running through their minds? Do they still doubt that they remain unfree? Do they wonder how many houses the city could build if all the money being spent on this Anti-Land Invasions Unit was redirected towards housing? Who do they imagine they will vote for next year if the city (under the DA) is evicting them and the SAPS of the ANC-led government is backing up these evictions.
Meanwhile, the SAPS will continue to patrol along Symphony Way in their Nyalas, firing rubber bullets at the protesting community and re-gathering their forces to ensure that abahlali remain landless until the authorities eventually build another Blikkiesdorp in which to dump them once and for all.