The Nomzamo Eviction: A Potential Turning Point?

The Nomzamo Eviction: A Potential Turning Point?

Richard Pithouse

The destruction of the Nomzamo settlement in Lwandle, Cape Town, has received an extraordinary degree of political and media attention, much of it noting the illegality and brutality of the eviction, and much of it sympathetic to the occupiers.

Evictions, generally illegal and frequently violent, have been an everyday part of actually existing modes of urban governance in post-apartheid South Africa. Most of the major cities have units maintained for the sole purpose of mobilising state violence, usually unlawfully, to combat land occupations. But despite the routine violence and illegality of these actions, as well as their striking resonance with images from the past, they have, in practice, been broadly accepted as necessary and legitimate actions by both the ANC and the DA, as well as much of the media and civil society.

There are a number of reasons why the destruction of the Nomzamo settlement received an usual degree of attention. They include the fact that a lot of people were affected and that it happened in winter and shortly before a storm. But a key reason for the attention given to these evictions is that the ANC saw an opportunity to exploit them to delegitimate the DA.

Helen Zille is not wrong to note this, but her hypocrisy is egregious. She rails against Lindiwe Sisulu for not confronting the “ANC's Ses'Khona storm troopers” on the grounds that land occupations should not be condoned. Yet days before the recent election Zille was perfectly willing to accept a tactical vote from Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban, an organisation that actively and openly supports land occupations in that city, and which, on a much smaller scale, has previously supported land occupations in Cape Town too.

The DA and the ANC both condemn land occupations in their own territory, but are both willing to tacitly endorse land occupations in each other’s territory. The DA in Cape Town and the ANC in Durban both have leaders who have, explicitly or implicitly, suggested that people from the Eastern Cape do not have a full and equal right to their respective cities. And both parties tend to imagine land occupations in their own territories, as well as the struggles to defend them, as consequent to malevolent conspiracies organised with the aim of weakening their ability to govern rather than recognising them as a popular response to a radically exclusionary urban order.

Party politics is an inherently filthy business. In view of the mutual hypocrisy of the ANC and the DA on this matter, as well as their mutual willingness to try and contain the urban crisis via the gun rather than to seek to resolve it via negotiation, it is tempting to just declare a plague on both their houses and be done with it. But the shared hypocrisy of the ANC and the DA is going to have a real impact on how our cities are governed, and the compromises that are forged between occupiers and the local state, and we need to take its political consequences seriously.

The time when political parties felt able to ignore popular urban struggles in their contestation for votes is now over. The ANC and the DA, now joined by the EFF, are all seeking to use these struggles to win votes and to delegitimate their rivals. This development is consequent to the tenacity of these struggles, especially over the last decade. Large numbers of people have participated in these struggles via land occupations, sustaining homes in extraordinarily difficult circumstances and enduring mass protest, whether formally organised or not, and the creation of various kinds of links from the shack settlement to other parts of society ranging from political parties, to universities, the media and civil society. From Marikana to cities and towns across the country the shack settlement has become a key factor in popular protest and a central site for popular protest. The urban land question has become one of the main issues around which popular protest is often organised.

The various attempts by national government to contain the escalating urban crisis from above have all failed. Under Thabo Mbeki it was first announced that shacks would be eradicated by 2010. The date was then shifted to 2014. But despite the confidence of many figures in government at the time about the imminent eradication of shacks, the fact is that there are now more people living in shacks than in any other point in our history. The Slums Act, which sought to roll back some of the legal rights won for occupiers after apartheid, was defeated in court. Lindiwe Sisulu, whose first term as Minister was marked by a distinct move towards a more authoritarian response to the urban crisis, invested considerable money and energy in the trans-national NGO Shack Dwellers International hoping, it seems, that it would provide a more pliable alternative to more political, and in some cases democratic, modes of popular organisation. This strategy failed for the simple reason that local party bosses would not allow development to be channelled through an organisation that they didn’t control. The transit camp, essentially a government built and run shack settlement, in which, in some cases, local party structures have a formal or informal financial stake, is a particularly pernicious legacy of Sisulu’s first term as Minister.

But all the attention given to the destruction of the Nomzamo settlement in Lwandle seems to indicate that intra-party rivalry may raise the political costs of evictions, and that it may come to do so for all parties in office. If this happens it is not impossible that this could enable a new window of opportunity for sustaining and perhaps even organising land occupations. In so far as this would enable a greater degree of access to our cities, and in some cases a degree of spatial desegregation from below, this would be a positive development.

In recent years, the DA and the ANC have both sought to capture grassroots struggles, or to at least win over their leading figures, in ways that have frequently damaged these struggles. No doubt the EFF will try to do the same. This process can open opportunities for grassroots actors to make astute deals with political parties to win or secure concrete gains, but it can also result in parties successfully instrumentalising grassroots struggles in a manner that narrows their scope and reduces their power.

Moreover in the ANC there is an increasingly powerful group of people, largely organised through local or metropolitan party structures, for whom the state rather than capital offers the most accessible and effective vehicle for the accumulation of wealth and power. For many of these people the primary question is who gets to control development. This question can be allied to a concern to align development to the interests of capital but it can also trump that concern. Under Zuma’s leadership there has been a marked gain in the power of this constituency within the structures of the ruling party. The forms of leftism that misread this as a step towards the subordination of capital to society have been fundamentally mistaken. It is a predatory force, sometimes shading into outright gangsterism that, as with the worst excesses of teachers’ union, SADTU, is plainly anti-social.

In Durban the local party structures are increasingly trying to take over occupations, of flats as well as land, from autonomously organised structures. They have two trump cards in every hand. One is a capacity to exercise violence or threats of violence with impunity. The other is a capacity to mediate the access to the goods and services, as well as freedom from eviction, that the state can provide. In cases where land occupations undo segregation organised on the basis of class, a form of social organisation that is never innocent of race, this can result in the more secure attainment of a degree of spatial inclusion. But it comes at the cost of making democratic forms of organisation that are independent of party politics enormously difficult and dangerous projects. They are at constant risk of repression when they are struggling for land against the state and capital and, when they have won it, at constant risk of having local party structures take over what they have won.

As political parties increasingly look to popular urban struggles for support, spatial insurgency, in the form of organising or holding land occupations, may become increasingly possible. But at the same time democratic forms of popular politics grounded in spatial insurgency are likely to become increasingly difficult to sustain.