CounterPunch: No Easy Path Through the Embers

No Easy Path Through the Embers


In Texaco, his novel about the history of a shack settlement in Martinique, Patrick Chamoiseau writes of a “proletariat without factories, workshops, and work, and without bosses, in the muddle of odd jobs, drowning in survival and leading an existence like a path through embers.” But Texaco is also a novel of struggle, of struggle with the “persistence of Sisyphus”- struggle to hold a soul together in the face of relentless destruction amidst a “disaster of asbestos, tin sheets crates, mud tears, blood, police”. Texaco is a novel of barricades, police and fire, a struggle to “call forth the poet in the urban planner”, a struggle to “enter City”. It's about the need to “hold on, hold on, and moor the bottom of the your heart in the sand of deep freedom.”

The shacks that ring the towns and cities of the global South are a concrete instantiation of both the long catastrophe of colonialism and neocolonial 'development' and the human will to survive and to hope to overcome. To step into the shack settlement is often to step into the void. This is not, as is so often assumed, because a different type of person finds that the tides of history have washed her into a shack settlement. It is because the shack settlement does not fully belong to society as it is authorised by the law, the media and civil society. It is therefore an unstable element of the situation. It’s meaning is not entirely fixed.

The crack in the settled order of things and the official allocation of people to space created by the shack settlement has often enabled the politics of clientalism, violent state repression and criminal organisation that make any emancipatory politics impossible. It has also enabled the outright fascism of the Shiv Sena in India. But that is not the whole story. The shack settlement has also enabled what has been called the quiet encroachment of the poor in Iran and a set of insurgent political experiments in places like Haiti, Venezuela and Boliva.

In South Africa the shack settlement has emerged as the central site in the wave of popular protest that began at the turn of century and gathered real momentum since 2004. A number of the poor people's movements that have emerged from this popular political ferment have had a considerable part of their base in shack settlements. The largest of these movements is Abahlali baseMjondolo [People who live in the shacks] which was formed in 2005 and has opposed evictions, organised around issues like school fees and shack fires, challenged the state's attempt to roll back legal gains for the urban poor and become a compelling presence in the national debate.

The intensity of the shack settlement as a political site – be it of an assertion of equal humanity, a demand for the right to the city or xenophobic or homophobic violence – has made it a highly contested space. This is not a new phenomenon. On the contrary it was also the case in the 1980s, the 1950s and the 1930s. The difference is that in the past when a certain political intensity cohered around the shack settlement it could always be read, even if a little gingerly, as the bubbling base of a national struggle, as its urban spearhead. That's no longer the case. These days the struggle for the cities, the struggle for inclusion, is, plainly, ranged against national elites and their version of nationalism as much as the older enemies of urban planning as a poetry for all.

The illegality with which the state has routinely acted against the shack settlement in post-apartheid South Africa is well documented. The violence, the brute physical violence, mobilised against the shack settlement by the formal armed forces available to the state – the police, land invasion units and municipal and private security guards – is equally well documented. What has been a lot less well documented is the turn by the ANC toward the mobilisation of state sanctioned horizontal violence against independent popular organisation. It has happened to the Landless People's Movement on the Eastern fringes of Johannesburg and it has happened in Durban, a port city on the country's East coast.

At around 10:30 on the evening of the 26th of September 2009 a group of armed men, around a hundred, many of them clearly drunk, began moving through the thousands of shacks in the Kennedy Road shack settlement in Durban. They knocked on some doors and kicked others in. They identified themselves as ANC supporters and as Zulus and made it plain that their enemies were leading members of Abahlali baseMjondolo who they described as Pondos, a Xhosa speaking ethnic minority in the city. They demanded that some men join them and assaulted others. Those who refused to join them were also assaulted. The entirely false conflation of Abahlali baseMjondolo, an organisation that is admirably diverse at all levels, with an ethnic minority emerged out of an attempt to cast the organisation as a front for COPE, the political party formed by a walk out from the ANC when Jacob Zuma replaced Thabo Mbeki as the organisation's President. In Durban this split was often read in ethnic terms. Zuma has to take some responsibility for this himself. His campaign for the Presidency of the ANC and then the country was often presented in crudely ethnic terms

As the attackers continued their rampage through the settlement the conflation of Abahlali baseMjondolo with an ethnic minority resulted in violence that was both politically and ethnically organised. The police, usually ready to swoop on shack dwellers in spectacular fashion at a moment's notice, failed to respond to numerous, constant and desperate calls for help. Most of the people under immediate threat hid or fled but as the night wore on some people tried to defend themselves. At times this was organised in terms of a defensive ethnic solidarity. By the next morning two people were dead and others were seriously injured. One, who died with his gun in his hands, had been one of the leaders of the attack. The homes of the elected local committee, affiliated to Abahlali baseMjondolo, and a number of other prominent people had been destroyed and looted.

The ANC, which usually responds to the crisis of urban poverty with an unconscionable lethargy, moved into action with remarkable swiftness. The local ANC sized control of the settlement from the elected structures that had governed it. The provincial ANC organised an Orwellian media circus in the settlement where ANC members from elsewhere pretended to be 'the community'. Wild and patently untrue allegations were made about Abahlali baseMjondolo. The Provincial Minister for Safety and Security, Willies Mchunu, and the Provincial Police Commissioner, Hamilton Ngidi, issued a statement declaring that the settlement had been 'liberated'. People without ANC cards were excluded from public life in the settlement and death threats were openly made against a number of activists with the result that Abahlali baseMjondolo was effectively banned in the settlement. Thirteen people, all Xhosa speaking and all linked, in various ways, to Abahlali baseMjondolo were pointed out by the local ANC as being responsible for the violence and were arrested and charged with an astonishing array of crimes including murder.

At least a thousand people had to flee the settlement. More than fifty people and the previously public activities of a whole movement with more than 10 000 paid up members had to go underground. Abahlali baseMjondolo issued a widely supported call for a judicial commission of inquiry that would carefully examine all aspects of the violence in the settlement but this was ignored. Instead the provincial government set up a high level task team to investigate what it called 'criminality'. In a series of thundering press statements Willies Mchunu sought to present Abahlali baseMjondolo as a criminal organisation. “Let us not”, he insisted, “give crime fancy names, criminals are exactly that criminals – and they must be treated as such.” He declared that “I hate criminals” and called for communities to compile lists of 'criminals'. Mchunu's task team began its work by summarily announcing that “The structure that is called Abahlali Base Mjondolo be dissolved” and then proceeded to invest its energies in trying to frame the men that had been arrested after the attack while allowing the open demolition and looting of the homes of Abahlali baseMjondolo activists to continue for months without consequence.

At the bail hearings of the men arrested after the attack ANC supporters, some armed, came to court hearings where public death threats were openly issued. The bail hearings were carried out in a way that was patently politicised and patently illegal. The accused, who became known as the 'Kennedy 12' after charges were withdrawn against one of them, were severely assaulted in prison.

The attack on Abahlali baseMjondolo didn't come out of nowhere. There had been an ANC meeting at the settlement at which it was said that S'bu Zikode, the national President of Abahlali baseMjondolo, had to be 'chased from the area' because 'the ANC couldn't perform as it wanted'. At the ANC Regional General Conference, a week before the attack, the chairperson of the ANC in Durban, the late and deservedly notorious John Mchunu, warned against “Counter revolutionaries…colluding with one mission to weaken the ANC and its Alliance”. Under the heading of “CRIMINAL” his speech referred to Abahlali baseMjondolo as: “The element of these NGO who are funded by the West to destabilise us, these elements use all forms of media and poor people [sic].” Before that there had been extremely violent assaults on S'bu Zikode and Lindela Figlan, the chairperson of the Kennedy Road Development Committee. Mzonke Poni, the chairperson of the movement in Cape Town, had also been attacked.

State hostility to the movement had ebbed and flowed over the years but had always been present and had always taken the form of paranoid delusions about conspiracy and external manipulation.

The entirely prejudicial assumption that poor people could not possibly organise themselves or think and speak for themselves was endemic. Activists were regularly arrested on plainly spurious grounds, marches were unlawfully banned and savagely attacked by the police. There was systemic misuse of the criminal justice system to harass activists and divert the movement's attention to endless court cases. More than a hundred people were arrested over the years on plainly trumped up charges which were then dropped just before the cases were scheduled to go to trial. The sole conviction achieved by the state after all these arrests was when Philani Zungu admitted to having illegally connected shacks to the electricity grid.

There is currently an Amnesty International supported civil case pending against the police after S'bu Zikode, the President of Abahlali baseMjondolo, and Philani Zungu, the then Deputy President of the movement, were arrested while on their way to a radio interview in 2006 and severely beaten in police custody. In some settlements local ANC leaders deployed armed force to prevent Abahlali baseMjondolo from organising and it was not uncommon for people to have to show ANC party cards, and to publicly affirm their loyalty to the party, to access what development was available in the shacks.

A degree of popular hostility to the movement first emerged in Durban during Jacob Zuma's election campaign for the Presidency of the ANC during which the movement was criticised for its cosmopolitan nature and, in particular, for having Indian and Xhosa speaking members in prominent positions. The movement, which had long been attacked as an ANC front in areas controlled by the Zulu nationalist party, the IFP, and which has always refused party politics and boycotted elections, was declared to be a front for COPE. In the lead up to the attacks ethnic sentiment was tied to the interests of the business class in the settlement and both were channelled through the local ANC. The ANC habitually channels development through the networks of patronage organised through local party structures and some of the local business class people had an eye on the coming upgrade of the settlement negotiated by Abahlali baseMjondolo after years of struggle. Others were angered by the decision, reached democratically, to regulate the opening hours of the bars in the settlement.

The attack on Kennedy Road was not the end of the repression confronted by the movement. On the 14th of November that year the police attacked the nearby Pemary Ridge settlement, also affiliated to Abahlali baseMjondolo, kicking in doors, beating people and firing live rounds into the home of Philani Zungu. Thirteen people were arrested and fifteen were left injured. All charges were eventually dropped against the thirteen. The police have never had to account for the injuries to the fifteen.

On the 18th of July, which is Nelson Mandela's birthday, an event in which the state and corporate power invest with equal enthusiasm, the case against the Kennedy 12 was thrown out of court. No credible evidence had been brought against any of the accused on any charge and crystal clear evidence had emerged of the state's attempt to frame the men. Witnesses contradicted their original statements and each other and some freely admitted that the police had told them who to point out in the line-up. Credible testimony was given that statements to the police had been concocted by the police. One witness admitted that she was lying and others were obviously lying. One witness said that she had been told to give false evidence but that she would not do so. She was subject to death threats and was attacked in her home and only saved by the quick reaction of her neighbours. Another witness, a police officer, gave credible testimony that confirmed, in important respects, the Abahlali baseMjondolo account of events including the fact that the violence in the settlement was an attack on Abahlali baseMjondolo by the ANC and not, as the state had claimed, that other way around. The state could not find, with both bribery and intimidation in its arsenal, a single witnesses to credibly attest to the veracity of the avalanche of propaganda issued by the ANC in the wake of the attacks. The judge made some very strong comments from the bench about the extremely dubious manner in which the case had been investigated and the obvious dishonesty on the part of the witnesses that stuck to the ANC line.

The ANC continues to deny, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that its members organised the attack. Hopefully the civil case that Abahlali baseMjondolo is bringing against the police will allow some of that evidence to be tested in court. But the ANC cannot deny that violence was used to drive key activists from their homes, that their homes were openly destroyed and looted, and that death threats were openly issued against activists without any sanction from the police. There is now a court record that shows clearly that the police investigation into the attack was a failed attempt to frame people linked to a social movement rather than an attempt to mount a fair investigation into the violence that began to occur in the Kennedy Road shack settlement in September 2009. The ANC is also in no position to deny that its leading officials presented the largest social movement in the country as a criminal organisation without a shred of evidence to this effect, issued no statement of opposition to the violence and extreme intimidation directed against the leading activists in the movement and sought to summarily disband it by decree. The time when it made sense to consider the ANC as a democratic organisation has, clearly, passed. The path through the embers will not be an easy one in South Africa. It is time for all of us committed to the idea that democracy must be for all of us to moor ourselves, firmly, in the sands of freedom.