A Quiet Coup: South Africa’s largest social movement under attack


A Quiet Coup
South Africa’s largest social movement under attack

by Toussaint Losier

Originally published in Spanish at Desinformémonos
An earlier version of this article appeared in Left Turn Magazine

At roughly 11:30pm on September 26th, a group of 30 to 40 men – survivors are still unsure about the actual numbers –surrounded the community hall in Kennedy Road shack settlement in Durban, South Africa. Brandishing sticks, machetes, and automatic weapons and echoing the language of the state-sponsored internecine political conflict that tore through South Africa during the last years of apartheid, the mob launched an attack on a meeting of the Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) Youth League taking place inside the hall. In the melee that followed, over a dozen people were injured, with four people left dead [two people initially thought dead were later found in hospital – there were two deaths] and the attackers left in control of the hall.

When called to the scene, the local police only took statements from those who now held the hall and arrested eight members of the settlement’s representative governing body, the Kennedy Road Development Committee (KRDC), regardless of whether or not they had been in the settlement the night of the attack. The next morning, the mob that had attacked the community hall returned to the settlement with police and African National Congress (ANC) officials and proceeded to destroy and loot over two dozen shacks, all of them belonging to the elected members of the KRDC.

“We are under attack,” offered a press statement jointly released by the KRDC and AbM a week later. “We have been attacked physically with all kinds of weapons – guns and knives, even a sword. We have been driven from our homes and our community. The police did nothing to stop the attacks despite our calls for help.”

The statement continued: “What happened in Kennedy Road was a coup – a violent replacement of a democratically elected community organization. The ANC have taken over everything that we built in Kennedy Road. We always allowed free political activity in Kennedy and all settlements in which AbM candidates have been elected to leadership. Now we are banned.”

Neoliberal policy

With the African continent’s largest economy and one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, South Africa is considered by most to be a model middle-income developing country. Yet, it is nation wracked by a series of interlocking crises, from the epidemics of rape and HIV/AIDS to those of landlessness and poverty. Much of this has worsened since the mid-1990s, when then President Nelson Mandela voluntarily adopted neoliberal economic policies, in contrast to the ANC’s long held goals of nationalization and socialism. While these macroeconomic policies helped to create a small black middle class, they also contributed to ever growing inequality, with the average black citizen earning an eighth of their white compatriot in 2007. Today, South Africa is considered the most unequal country in the world, ranking lower than Occupied Palestine on the UN’s Human Development Index.

At the same time, South Africa, with its rich history of political struggle and labor militancy, also has one of the world’s highest per capita protest rates. Over the past several years, the country’s largest social movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo (Zulu for “people based in shacks”) has led it fair share of these actions. Emerging in 2005 in the Kennedy Road settlement during the course of a dispute over housing with the local ANC city councilor, the shackdwellers movement has grown to include over 10,000 paid up members in more than thirty informal settlements throughout the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

For the first two years of its existence, AbM’s mobilization efforts were met with state violence and political repression. In 2005, for example, police illegally banned their permitted demonstration and then attacked residents of the Foreman Road when they took to the streets. A year later, police arrested the movement’s President and Vice President on their way to a radio interview, beating and torturing them while in custody. In 2007, police shot at their peaceful marches. Later, the Kennedy Road Six, five of whom were elected members of the KRDC, won their release from jail after their hunger strike (all charges against them were later dropped for lack of evidence). Yet, in spite of these obstacles, some of the South Africa’s poorest citizens have built a democratic and non-partisan organization, impressive as much for its grassroots accountability and internal democracy, as its success in ensuring the participation of shackdwellers in the upgrading of their settlements.

Several weeks after the attack in Kennedy Road, this success continued when the South African Constitutional Court ruled in AbM’s favor in striking down the KwaZulu-Natal Slums Act. Passed by the province in late 2007, the bill gave the provincial minister the power to compel municipalities and private landowners to evict shackdwellers from occupied land and set the time frame in which these actions would occur. If allowed to stand, the act would have served as a template across the country. While the court only found the section giving the provincial housing minister wide latitude in initiating eviction proceeding against shack settlements [to be unconstitutional], the decision remains a major victory in the poor people’s struggle for land and housing. Still in hiding, AbM’s President S’bu Zikode said the court decision “had far-reaching consequences for all the poor people in the country.”

State impunity

In the weeks that followed this attack, Kennedy Road residents reported that those who carried them out had been left to patrol the settlements, intimidating them and threatening their leaders. ANC Branch Executive Committee officials replaced the KRDC with their own local governing body. Fearing further violence, key leaders of AbM fled the settlement and went into hiding. In the following months, AbM members who did not leave Kennedy Road have been intimidated and assaulted for not coming to ANC meetings. Few have been able to open cases against ANC members because of the support of the police and senior ANC officials. Several of these officials have publicly spoken of the government’s move to liberate’ the community from AbM and their willingness to “jail people to get development going.” There are now allegations that those who participated in the attack have not only received positions in settlement committee formed after the attacks, but were also rewarded with cash from the ANC.

Following this logic, police would continue to target KRDC members, arresting 13 in total and charging them with murder and aggravated assault. At each of their bail hearings, the local ANC officials have mobilized busloads of their members, who physically threatening AbM’s supporters and demand that the ‘Kennedy Road 13’ not get bail. For more than two months, the ‘13’ had their bail hearing postponed for lack of evidence. It was only after, the Bishop of Rubin Phillip of the local Anglican diocese and other church leaders denounced their continued detention as a “complete travesty of justice” that all but five were released from prison on bail. It was only on May 14th, roughly eight months since the arrest, that the court gave the case docket to the defense attorney for the accused, including the five members still in prison, political prisoners awaiting a political trial. The trail is set to begin on July 12, a day after the 2010 World Cup tournament ends in South Africa.

While ANC officials have sought to criminalize their actions, AbM has consistently identified violence, assaults and harassment directed against them as politically motivated. This perspective has proved even more prescient as the ANC recent success in the April 2009 KwaZulu-Natal provincial elections have made it possible for local ANC officials to eliminate what they have long taken to be a potential political threat. With many of their leaders now prison or still in hiding, AbM members can still not operate openly in Kennedy Road, but continue to organize in secret inside and meet every Sunday outside of it. AbM President S’bu Zikode, who was made homeless by the attacks on Kennedy Road, offered these thoughts during a university lecture entitled “Democracy on Brink of Collapse” given in October 2009: “To some leaders democracy means that they are the only ones who must exercise authority over others. For some government officials democracy means accepting anything that is said about ordinary men and women.”

“With the attack on Abahlali baseMjondolo in Kennedy Road,” he maintained, “we have now seen that this technocratic thinking will be supported with violence when ordinary men and women insist on their right to speak and to be heard on the matters that concern their daily lives. On the one side there is a consultant with a laptop. On the other side there is a drunk young man with a bush knife or a gun. As much as they might look very different they serve the same system – a system in which ordinary men and women must be good boys and girls and know that their place is not to think and speak for themselves.”

This need for ordinary men and women to think and speak for themselves is ever more pressing as South Africa prepares for the 2010 World Cup. Across the country, the government has spent millions constructing or refurbishing sports stadiums for the matches that will be played in June and July, while millions remain without access to adequate housing, potable water, and other basic services. Rather than fulfilling the promise of employment and equitable development, the World Cup has thus far provided a shot in the arm of city planners and real estate speculators who have sought to bar informal trading from Central Business Districts and clear ever-growing shack settlements to the peripheries of the city. Yet AbM has maintained its opposition to this version of democracy. In spite of a heavy police presence, several thousand members and their supporters marched in downtown Durban on March 22nd, calling not only for housing, but also human rights and justice. On May 14, as a delegation from the London Coalition Against Poverty delivered a message of solidarity to the South Africa High Commission, echoing AbM’s calls the outstanding charges against its members to be dropped and for an independent commission to investigate the attacks in Kennedy Road. Having already built up international solidarity through trips to Britain and the United States, AbM members travelled to Italy in late May to meet with other social movements, draw attention to the plight of African migrants workers in Italy, and to explain what the World Cup means for the poor in South Africa.

To make good on this goal, a branch of AbM in the Western Cape province (AbM WC) recently announced the launch of their ‘Right to the City’ campaign to develop a program of action for the World Cup. Already the province has a backlog of over 400,000 people in need of housing. In May 2009, members of this branch assisted backyard dwellers, those renting a shack on someone else’s property, to occupy prime government land in Cape Town. In response, the city’s Anti-Land Invasion police unit illegally evicted them from the land, confiscating their materials, and assaulted and arrested those it perceived to be leading the occupation. It was only after filing a court injunction against further evictions and launching other protests, including a road blockade, were those in need able to claim the land.

In the days leading up to the World Cup, AbM WC is once again demanding that the government provide quality houses for the poor inside the city, rather than tin shacks on the city’s outskirts, as has become the norm in the province’s capital of Cape Town. In addition to boycotting the World Cup, AbM WC has vowed to build shacks outside the city’s soccer stadium just before cup’s first match to draw the attention of the rest of country and the international community of needs of the poor. Unlike the attacks in Kennedy Road, how the government responds to the actions of South Africa’s militant poor will be on display for the world to see.

For more information, visit the websites of Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign. Together with the Rural Network and the Landless Peoples Movement, these organizations make up the Poor Peoples Alliance.