Democracy Takes a Beating in Durban

Democracy Takes a Beating in Durban

Richard Pithouse, Sunday Tribune, 3 September 2006

Abahlali baseMjondolo is the shackdwellers’ movement that grew out of a protest organised from the Kennedy Road settlement in Clare Estate on Saturday 19 March 2005. The protest was organised after a piece of nearby land long promised for housing was suddenly sold off to a developer. On that day Alfred Mdletshe told Fred Kockott, the first journalist on the scene, that ‘We are tired of living and walking in shit. The council must allocate land for housing us. Instead they are giving it to property developers to make money’. The movement that grew out of this first protest quickly spread to nearby settlements, and then across Durban and on to Pinetown and Pietermaritzburg. Abahlali now have members in more than 30 settlements.

Their highly democratic mode of organising, the deeply humanistic statements of the elected President S’bu Zikode and their thoughtful use of legal marches, negotiations and other tactics has won them major attention from community media to Al Jazeera and the New York Times. Recently leading figures in society like Bishop Reuben Philip and poet Dennis Brutus have lent their credibility to Abahlali’s struggle for genuinely democratic governance, access to services and decent housing in the city. But the local state has responded with consistent repression, most of it patently illegal. This has included the illegal banning of marches and severe police violence. More than 100 Bahlali have been arrested since March last year but in every instance charges have later been dropped as there has been no evidence to go to take to trial. The power of arrest is being systematically misused as a form of political intimidation.

On Monday 4 September Abahlali used the Promotion of Access to Information Act to demand that City Manager Sutcliffe tell them, in concrete detail, what the city’s plans are for them. The next day Mxolisi Nkosi, the HOD in the Dept of Housing, called Abahlali in to berate them and demand that they cease speaking to the media. Abahlali asserted their refusal to be silenced all over the media spectacularly out arguing Departmental Spokesperson Lennox Mabaso in two major radio debates. Nonhlanhla Mzobe, a key Abahlali activist, found that her boss had received a letter from the local councillor, Yakoob Baig, demanding that she be fired for supporting the ‘red shirts’. The following Monday Abahlali, together with community organisations from the Municipal flats in Wentworth and Chatsworth, protested outside the Housing Summit at the ICC wearing t-shirts demanding “Talk to Us, Not For Us.” Again this put them all over the newspapers, radio and TV.

On Tuesday Abahlali were invited to be on Gagasi FM from 18:00 to 19:00. They had recently raised some money via a 16 team football tournament to help with the transport between the settlements. Some of this money was used to hire a small car, a Tazz, to help with all the getting round for radio interviews, meetings and so on in the hours after taxis have stopped running. At around 17:40 S’bu Zikode (President), Philani Zungu (Deputy President) and Mnikelo Ndabanakulu (PRO) got into the car to leave for the radio interview. While the car was still stationary, officers from the Sydenham police station, notorious in the settlements for its corruption, brutality and anti-African racism, pounced. They thrust guns into the faces of the Bahlali and accused them, in a highly racialised manner, of driving a stolen vehicle. The police ordered the three men out of the car. When they saw that Ndanankulu was wearing one of the famous red Abahlali T-shirts they pulled it off him, insulted him, pushed him around, threw the shirt into the mud, made a great show of standing and spitting on it and announced that ‘there will be no more red shirts here’.

Philani Zungu politely but firmly told them that they had no right to act like this and suggested that this was racist political intolerance. He was assaulted. Zikode was also assaulted as the two were bundled into the van. The police picked up Ndabankulu’s red shirt and said they were taking it ‘to use as a mop in the station’.

Ndabankulu, Zikode’s wife Sindi, Zungu’s mother, Ma Zungu, and a handful of others soon got to the nearby Sydenham police station. They were denied entrance, sworn at and racially abused. Someone sent an SMS to P4 radio explaining that their guests were under arrest. This was announced on air. Within minutes Bahlali started arriving from all over Durban and Pinetown. There was soon a crowd of around 40 people outside the station. Access to the prisoners and medical attention for Zungu was asked for, but denied. The police refused to say what the charge was.

In the nearby Kennedy Road settlement an emergency mass meeting was being held in the hall. More than 500 people squeezed in and more waited outside. An SMS was sent to people at the police station to see if bail was possible. The police said that there would be no bail. When this was conveyed to the meeting a group of women in the front decided to march on the police station.

Within minutes of people getting onto the road the police arrived. They gave no warnings to disperse and began shooting with rubber bullets and live ammunition. Anyone on the road or even moving between the shacks was shot at. A women in her 40s, known as Zinovia, was shot in both legs.

Back at the police station there was a glimpse of Zikode and Zungu lying face down on the floor handcuffed and bound at the feet. Ndabankulu’s red shirt was lying on the floor next to them. In the Charge Office there was a whiteboard headed ‘Suspicious Behaviour’ that listed ‘3 Black Men Driving a Tazz’ at the top. It was announced that Zikode and Zungu were to be charged with assaulting a police officer.

Word was received that the police were continuing to shoot in the settlement and that there had been some attempt at a fight back with stones and bricks. Zikode got access to his cell phone and sent out two messages “Please look after Sindi!” and “Nayager has satisfied himself with us. Too tough with Philani.” (Glen Nayagar is the notorious station commander with a record of racist violence towards Abahlali. He has also been accused of intimidating journalists who have witnessed police violence against Abahali.) Zikode was assured that Sindi was ok and asked if he wanted people to protest outside the police station, as they were determined to do, or to make a tactical retreat in the hope of calming the police down. He replied “Up to them!! I am fighting for them. Not for myself.”

Suddenly a group of men in camouflage arrived all pumped up with adrenalin and a will to violence. They declared the collection of about 40 people an illegal gathering and began herding people off using their guns like cattle prods and threatening to shoot. One of the Sydenham policemen shouted, in Fanakalo, ‘Hamba inja! Hamba!’ Another, a notoriously racist and violent local police reservist told anyone who’d listen that ‘The Red Shirts must go back where they came from’.

Kennedy Road was still occupied by the police. But around Clare Estate small groups of Bahlali were meeting in settlements or in safe places like the forecourt of the BP in Clare Road where community activists Des D’sa from the Wentworth and Orlean and Pinky Naidoo from Chatsworth arrived to offer solidarity to Ndabankulu, still shirtless, and three Bahlali looking for a late taxi to get back to Pinetown. A march of 20 000 on the Sydenham Police Station was suggested.

The next morning there were hundreds of Bahlali in the Durban magistrates’ court. The Magistrate released Zikode and Zungu without asking for bail. They were joyously carried out of the court on the shoulders of their comrades. Both men had visible wounds and explained that they had been personally assaulted by Nayager who had hurled political abuse on them as he bashed their heads against the wall. A group of policemen had enthusiastically photographed Nayager’s assault which only ended when Zungu was knocked unconscious and could not be revived. After the celebration in the court gardens was over they went straight to the District Surgeon to have their injuries recorded with a view to laying charges against the police.

Another red shirt will be sewn for Mnikelo Ndanankulu on a rented pedal power sewing machine. But the city’s democratic credentials are in tatters that will not be sewn together by more empty pomposity at the ICC or wasting billions of rand on another airport and stadium. This assault on two men trying to get to a radio interview was an assault on democracy. If the rulers of this city do not learn to accept that the poor have a right to disagree with the powerful then our future will be as ugly as the Sydenham Police station.