Urban land question is also urgent

by Richard Pithouse,

The opening pages of Frantz Fanon’s The Damned of the Earth offer a searing account of the city under settler colonialism. It is “a world divided into compartments”, “a world cut in two”, a world “of barbed wire entanglements”, “a narrow world strewn with violence”.

Fanon provided a clear and spatial measure for decolonisation. He argued that the ordering of the colonial world, its violent coincidence of race and space, must be examined to “reveal the lines of force it implies” so that we can “mark out the lines on which a decolonised society will be reorganised”.

His description of the settler colonial city, written in Tunis in 1961, remains all too resonant in contemporary South Africa. The racial distribution of urban land, the violence that sustains it and the ideologies that mask this violence and naturalise its results have mutated into the new order.

In an overwhelmingly urbanised country that is rapidly becoming more urbanised, the new willingness to confront the racial dimensions of the rural land question has not been equalled by a willingness to confront the urban land question. This elision is enabled by the elitism that fundamentally shapes how the history of struggle has often come to be imagined, and how the public sphere in which the question of land is contested is frequently understood.

There are influential circles in which the understanding of the history of struggle that centres the leadership of the ANC at every turn is rapidly giving way to a focus on the leadership of the Black Consciousness movement and the Pan Africanist Congress. But it remains unusual to encounter a historical imagination that is genuinely popular or democratic.

We seldom seriously consider how the struggles of members and supporters of organisations such as the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) in Durban or the Sofasonke Party in Johannesburg contested the order of the colonial city. We seldom seriously consider how people whose names have not gone down in history, often women, established and sustained homes against the order of the colonial city, homes from which many of our writers, intellectuals, musicians and political leaders emerged.

The elite public sphere may be fractious but it is not unusual for all its protagonists to share a complete disregard for the strivings and struggles, and in some cases the lives, of impoverished people contesting the colonial order of the city from below. Violent and unlawful attacks on people’s already precarious homes, as well as assault, torture and murder at the hands of armed men in the employ of the state or local party structures, can all pass without recognition or comment.

This is true even in a place like Cato Manor in Durban, which became pivotal in the ANC acquiring a popular character and that became, for a while anyway, an iconic site of black life and struggle.

The first shack settlements began to be constructed in Cato Manor in the 1870s following the destruction of the Zulu kingdom and the simultaneous movement into the city of Indian workers who had completed their periods of indenture on sugar plantations. This urban space, forged from below, was connected to international currents of struggle as well as rural life in the hinterland. There were visits, often mediated by workers on the docks, by black sailors from the United States and the Caribbean. In 1906, large numbers of workers in Durban, including many living Cato Manor, returned to their homesteads to join the Bhambatha Rebellion.

By 1928, the ICU, which derided the ANC as “AmaRespectables” and sometimes closed down its meetings, had 27 000 paid-up members in Durban, many of them living in Cato Manor, and could call meetings 5 000 strong. The ICU opposed various aspects of the colonial urban order, using the courts, occupation, protest, night schools and cultural events.

In May the following year, large marches were held from the ICU Hall at 117 Prince Edward Street, accompanied by a brass band and led by a man holding a red flag emblazoned with the hammer and sickle. On June 16 1929, JT Gumede, who had visited the Soviet Union in 1927, told a meeting of thousands to “combine and take our freedom”.

Tensions rapidly escalated. By the following evening, 2 000 white people, some armed, besieged the ICU Hall, where they were confronted by 6 000 Africans, many of them workers living in hostels. When the sun came up, there were eight bodies in the street, six Africans and two white people. The next day a white mob ransacked the ICU hall.

As popular militancy began to exceed the leadership of the ICU, its strength gave way to the emerging power of the Communist Party of South Africa and its young leader, Johannes Nkosi. A campaign against the pass laws, a direct challenge to the colonial urban order, came to a head on December 16 1929 when passbooks were burnt. Nkosi died after being subjected to a brutal and public police assault.

In 1937, African and Indian workers struck together in a series of strikes beginning at the Falkirk Foundry. But, by 1949, the tremendous spatial constraints on black life in the city resulted in violent contestation over the land in Cato Manor as African workers in hostels sought to displace Indian control over the relatively more autonomous shacklands.

A new class of African landlords emerged, some committed to reactionary forms of nationalism in accommodation with the state. But, at the same time, Cato Manor became a cosmopolitan space with significant cultural innovation and a thriving gay community, which included respected stick fighters and where impressive wedding ceremonies were held.

Albert Luthuli stayed in Cato Manor when he visited Durban and the ANC made significant attempts to win support through alliances with male landlords. It is widely accepted, though, that during the early 1950s, the ANC had little support in Cato Manor and the branches that were established were often dysfunctional.

But, as the 1950s wore on, the ANC Women’s League, despite serious internal conflicts, become an increasingly powerful force.

In March 1958, the state began a “slum clearance project”. On June  17 1959, a group of about 50 women began to attack the municipal beerhall. The next morning, more than 1 000 women gathered. Some, led by Dorothy Nyembe and Florence Mkhize, went to attack targets in town. The crowd that remained swelled to about 3 000.

After they were attacked by the police, there was a riot, which continued through the night. A bugler played kwela as shots were fired and buildings set alight. The number of people who died that night may have been in the 20s.

As the ashes cooled, the ANC won widespread support. In an interview held many years later, Albertina Mnguni recalled: “All you could talk about was ANC, ANC! It was everywhere.” The women’s riot in Cato Manor was the moment at which popular aspirations began to embrace the authority of the ANC in Durban.

Further protest stopped the evictions three times. On January  24 1960, nine police officers were killed. By 1965, Cato Manor, as a site of relative black autonomy in the city, had been destroyed. But the ANC was now an established vehicle for popular black aspirations.

Today, Cato Manor remains an acutely contested space. Last Sunday, residents of two land occupations in the area, named Marikana and eNkanini, joined residents of other land occupations elsewhere in Durban, and across the country, to discuss the land question under the banner of Abahlali baseMjondolo. They met at the Surat Hindu Association Hall, at number 137 on the road that used to be known as Prince Edward Street. Like the ICU, almost 100 years ago, they were dressed in red. Most of them were women.

The Marikana land occupation was carried out in 2013. The land has been held, despite repeated, unlawful and violent attacks, which have cost three lives. Thembinkosi Qumbelo was assassinated on March  13 that year. Nkululeko Gwala was assassinated on June  25. On September  30, Nqobile Nzuza, an unarmed 17-year-old, was shot dead by the police at a road blockade organised in opposition to violent and unlawful evictions. There have also been assaults, arrests and torture in the local police station.

The eNkanini land occupation, carried out early last year, has also been subject to serious repression, including armed and violent evictions, during which building materials have been burnt and property seized or destroyed. Mlungisi Mokoena, an 18-year-old, was shot in both legs during an eviction.

Death threats have been reported from men driving metro police vehicles. On December  17 last year, Soyiso Nkqayini and Smanga Mkhize, activists in the occupation, were shot by unknown men. Mkhize was seriously injured and Nkqayini died.

Key figures in both factions in the ANC have lent their support to the repression of these land occupations.

The discussions about the land question, following recent events in Parliament, a key site in elite politics, have seldom made any mention of the ongoing popular struggles for land in our cities, or of their frequently brutal repression by the ANC.

If we are going to deal with the land question democratically, we need to take its urban dimension, and popular experience, organisation and thinking, seriously.

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