On the Arrest and Assault of Mzonke Poni

On the Arrest and Assault of Mzonke Poni

Mark Butler, 2 June 2009

“Mzonke Poni is under arrest and is currently being assaulted in the Macassar Village Police Station. … Early this afternoon there was a vibrant protest by the occupiers. During the protest the police pointed out Mzonke Poni, chairperson of the AbM Western Cape, and threatened to arrest him. Some time after the protest, and well away from the scene of the protest, the police accosted Mzonke and threw him into the van. He was handcuffed, pepper sprayed in the eyes at point blank rage and badly assaulted. He is now in the Macassar Village Police Station”. (Emergency Press Release, 1 June 2009, Abahlali baseMjondolo of the Western Cape).

Jacques Ranciere says:

police intervention in public spaces does not consist primarily in the interpellation of demonstrators, but in the breaking up of demonstrations. The police is not that law interpellating individuals… It is, first of all, a reminder of the obviousness of what there is, or rather, of what there isn’t: “Move along! There is nothing to see here!” The police says that there is nothing to see on a road, that there is nothing to do but move along. … Politics, in contrast, consists in transforming this space of ‘moving-along’ into a space for the appearance of a subject: i.e., the people, the workers, the citizens: It consists in refiguring the space, of what there is to do there, what is to be seen or named therein.
(Jacques Ranciere, “Ten Theses on Politics”, translated by Rachel Bowlby & Davide Panagia, Theory & Event, 2001).

So the police react to shacks of Macassar by smashing them down, day after day, and stealing the materials, day after day; so the police react to the people’s court interdict against this destruction and theft day after day, by taking the people’s leader, Mzonke in to their cells and beating him there, telling the world “Move along! There is nothing to see here”. So, after I tell my ten-year old son why I am angry and upset tonight, I hear him singing an old song in the kitchen – the song he’s singing is “Weeping”. Written in the mid-1980s by Dan Heymann, an unwilling conscript into the apartheid army, Weeping diagnoses elite violence against the people as the product of fear, fear of the demon that cannot be faced by the oppressors. Heymann says of the lyrics:

I’ve been asked many times about the symbolism in the Weeping lyrics… The man referred to in the Weeping lyrics is the late P. W. Botha, one of the last white leaders of South Africa before the end of the Apartheid regime; The demon he could never face in the Weeping lyrics refers to the aspirations of the oppressed majority, while the Weeping lyrics also refer to the neighbours, literally the journalists from other countries who were monitoring the situation in South Africa. That pretty much sums up the metaphorical content of the Weeping lyrics” (see http://www.weeping.info/index.html).

So I find a recording I have of the song – the original 1987 release by Bright Blue. I am shaken as the music, rooted in quintessentially South African traditions and featuring snatches of ‘Nkosi Sikelele iAfrika, resonates as powerfully with this awful, beautiful, place that is my home as it did back then at the height of State of Emergency.

Written by Dan Heymann
(Copyright Bright Blue)
I knew a man who lived in fear
It was huge, it was angry, it was drawing near
Behind his house, a secret place
Was the shadow of the demon he could never face
He built a wall of steel and flame
And men with guns, to keep it tame
Then standing back, he made it plain
That the nightmare would never ever rise again
But the fear and the fire and the guns remain

It doesn’t matter now
It’s over anyhow
He tells the world that it’s sleeping
But as the night came round
I heard its lonely sound
It wasn’t roaring, it was weeping

And then one day the neighbours came
They were curious to know about the smoke and flame
They stood around outside the wall
But of course there was nothing to be heard at all
“My friends,” he said, “We’ve reached our goal
The threat is under firm control
As long as peace and order reign
I’ll be damned if I can see a reason to explain
Why the fear and the fire and the guns remain”