Business Day: Only some are free to speak their minds in South Africa

Only some are free to speak their minds in South Africa

by Steven Friedman

THE past few days have reminded us vividly that there are two South Africas, one much more democratic than the other. The democratic version we inhabit remains elusive for many in townships and shack settlements.

In the mainstream — inhabited by people with access to the national debate — some foreign journalists have battled to understand why US President Barack Obama’s visit triggered heated argument: they wanted to know why we were more anti-American than other places he visited. Some local voices joined in, denouncing some of their fellow South Africans for putting off foreign investors and sullying our name in the "civilised" world by complaining about Obama.

But the debate didn’t show that we are more or less hostile to the US than anywhere else. It showed that we are a diverse society in which many competing views vie to be heard. It also showed that, for some, disagreeing is safe and easy here and so more people do it. Contrary to those who yearn for a past in which dissent was kept under tight control, the fact that different people have differing views on Obama is a source of strength. Investors put money into many countries in which debates are heated, and there is no reason they should refuse to do it here because some people say some things others would prefer not to hear.

The debate on Obama’s visit is not unusual — challenges to government decisions are the norm here. The debate is often simplistic as it frequently reduces every problem to an attack on the government. But if its quality is open to doubt, its vigour is not.

Sadly, we were also reminded last week that a very different reality prevails where the poor live. The democratic spirit in the mainstream was of little help to Nkululeko Gwala, a housing activist and member of the shack-dweller organisation, Abahlali BaseMjondolo, who was murdered last week. According to Abahlali, the killing followed a meeting in which Gwala represented residents of the Cato Crest township, who barricaded streets while protesting against corruption, in a meeting with the local councillor. He is said to have asked "why houses were only going to party members and why ward committee members were receiving two or three houses". Abahlali says Gwala and other delegation members then asked for a meeting with the ward committee but, when they arrived, found African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party members, even though they had said that they did not want to talk to political parties. It says the ANC members insisted "that this was ANC land and that the housing project was an ANC project and that they would make all decisions in the area and about the project". Gwala, it says, reacted by walking out.

Later that day, according to Abahlali, there was a protest during which a councillor’s house was burned down — it says its members were not responsible. In response, a municipal car on which the words "Community Participation" were painted drove through Cato Crest calling residents to a meeting chaired by Durban mayor James Nxumalo, and ANC Durban chairman Sibongeseni Dhlomo. The meeting, says Abahlali, was devoted to attacks on Gwala, who was accused of "making it difficult for the ANC to operate" and was said to be introducing a new political party. Dhlomo reportedly said that Gwala must leave Durban and urged residents to "protect the area".

Since Abahlali was subject to violent assault in 2009, it assumed that this was another call to attack its members. That night, Gwala was, Abahlali says, accosted by four men and shot 12 times.

The implication is obvious — someone took the verbal attack on Gwala and Abahlali to its logical conclusion and removed the activist forever.

Gwala is not the first housing activist to be murdered, nor is this an unusual example of violence against those who challenge local power-holders. On the contrary, it is part of a pattern in which political bosses see challenges to their authority as mortal threats and seek to crush them, which is why challenging political authority is often as difficult in the townships as it is easy in the suburbs.

Democratic politics is not impossible in the townships and shack settlements. The ANC has lost key by-elections in these areas, a clear sign that it is possible to challenge it at the polls and win without risking life and limb. But the contrast between the open debate over Obama and the appalling fate of Gwala shows that the democracy freely available to some is less a reality to others.

This may change if more competitive party politics makes the votes of the poor more valuable, forcing politicians to plead rather than bully, and organisations such as Abahlali grow.

Until then, it might help democracy’s growth if some of the freedom available in the mainstream debate was used to defend the right to speak of millions at the grassroots.