Democracy Under Assault in Durban (16 June 2006)

Democracy Under Assault in Durban

One of the many lessons of history is that the mere fact of having ascended to power via democracy does not necessarily make one a democrat. The meaningful test of democratic commitment is the willingness to accept the legitimacy of dissent. We can only determine the seriousness of an elected representatives’ commitment to democracy when we see how they respond to meaningful challenges to their own power and authority. And we can only determine the seriousness of the commitment to democracy by civil society, the media, the academy and so on when we see how they respond to attacks on democracy. Recent events do not give much cause for optimism in Durban.

In the March local government elections there were two primary challenges to the ANC from within the poor and working class African constituencies that it claims as its own. In the shack settlements nestled into the valleys in the suburbs of Clare Estate and Reservoir Hills longstanding ANC supporters were unhappy with their councillors. They felt that the nomination process had been rigged and decided to boycott the election under the slogan ‘No Land, No House, No Vote’. Across town in Umlazi township a group of longstanding ANC and SACP activists were unhappy with their councillor, Bhekisasa Xulu, and claimed that he had withheld ANC membership cards to engineer his renomination despite widespread unhappiness with his conduct. They decided to put up an independent candidate, Zamani Mthethwa, to oppose Xulu. In both instances the response to these expressions of open dissent was swift, brutal and clearly illegal.

The shackdwellers were effectively banned from undertaking any meaningful political activity outside of the settlements in the lead up to the election. City Manager Mike Sutcliffe first banned a shack dwellers’ march on 14 November 2005 and while he continued to ban marches the shack dwellers’ were subject to various incidents of illegal police assault and detention and the police were even used to physically prevent them from taking up an invitation to appear on the SABC talk show Asikhulume. The shack dwellers were finally able to garner the resources to take Sutcliffe to the High Court on 27 February 2005. The widely respected Freedom of Expression Institute had repeatedly described Sutcliffe’s bannings as both ‘illegal and unconstitutional’ and the judge quickly issued an interdict against the City and the police preventing them from interfering with the shack dwellers right to march. After their dramatic court victory thousands of waiting shack dwellers immediately left their settlements and marched into the city.

In Umlazi supporters of the Mthethwa campaign claimed that there was widespread intimidation in the lead up to the election including death threats, assaults and whippings. They also alleged that there had been blatant fraud during the election.

On the day after the election they staged a small protest against the alleged electoral fraud. The Public Order Policing Unit shot dead a young woman, Monica Ngcobo, and seriously wounded S’busiso Mthethwa, the independent candidate’s brother. Numerous witnesses have stated that Ngcobo was just passing by on her way to catch a bus to work and that Mthethwa was shot in his house. The police claimed that Ngcobo had been shot in the stomach with a rubber bullet but autopsy evidence showed that she had been shot in the back with live ammunition.

An organisation called Women of Umlazi organised a large march on 31 March in protest at these attacks. Two of the organisers of the march, Komi Zulu and Sinethembe Myeni, were later assassinated in separate carefully planned attacks and others survived assassination attempts. An associate of Xulu, Bheki Magubane, was later killed in a fight that developed from an argument in a tavern. MEC for Safety and Security, Bheki Cele, insisted that aside from the police shooting of Ngcobo none of the attacks were in any way political. Women of Umlazi responded by organising weekly mass meetings attended by hundreds of residents to which the Umlazi SAPS were invited. On 1 June, the Umlazi SAPS entered Councillor Xulu’s compound and arrested two men, Xulu’s bodyguard and driver, for the murder of Komi Zulu. Thousands of residents of E-Section are now organising to ensure that there is a fair trail and to push for the arrest and prosecution for Xulu.

The police beatings of the shack dwellers and the drama of their court victory over Sutcliffe and triumphant march into the city received considerable press coverage. This was probably because the drama unfolded in an elite suburb and then in the city centre. But there has been no sustained reflection of what the blatant suppression of their basic constitutional rights means for democracy. There has been no action against Sutcliffe or the police.

The shootings and murders in Umlazi have happened far from elite eyes and have received very little media attention. No newspaper has seen fit to investigate the story or run an editorial on these events. No Human Rights NGO has issued a statement. None of the academic experts who like to comment on democracy have bothered to go and spend some time in Umlazi and see what is happening. Aside from Bheki Cele’s now infamous comment there has been no statement on the Umlazi shootings from any politician. The scandal is that there is no scandal. Imagine the outcry if these political assassinations had happened in a rich white or Indian suburb like Westville or Reservoir Hills. Imagine the outcry if senior members of the ANC or business elite were being shot on a regular basis. It is clear that in South Africa the lives of ordinary people continue to count for very little in elite circles. On Youth Day we are asked to gather in stadiums to hear big men celebrate what democracy offers to ordinary people. But the fact is that in eThekwini our democracy does not in practice offer to everyone what it claims in principle – the right to freely express open dissent. Attempts are still made to resolve some political disputes, and in particular those in which ordinary people have a real stake, by men with guns. For as long as we remain collectively complicit in the general failure to take this fact seriously we fail to take our democracy seriously.