Richard Pithouse discusses state-sanctioned repression of the popular movements rooted in the shack settlements of post-apartheid South Africa.

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 – 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 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 the long catastrophe of colonialism and neo-colonial ‘development’. But they also embody the human will to survive and 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. Its 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 Bolivia.

South Africa: shack settlements and popular protest

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 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]. Formed in 2005, it 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 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 brute physical violence mobilised against the shack settlement by the formal armed forces of the state – the police, land invasion units and municipal and private security guards – is equally well documented.

What has been 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 the port city of Durban on the country’s East Coast.

Kennedy Road, Durban, November 2009: violence and repression in a shack settlement

At around 10:30pm on 26 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. They made it plain that their enemies were leading members of AbM, who they described as Pondos (a Xhosa speaking ethnic minority in the city).

They demanded that some men join them. Those who refused to join them were assaulted. The entirely false conflation of AbM, an organisation that is admirably diverse at all levels in terms of ethnicity and race, 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 AbM 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. 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 AbM 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 seized control of the settlement from the elected structures that had governed it. The provincial ANC organised an Orwellian media circus in the settlement, with ANC members from elsewhere pretending to be ‘the community’.

Wild allegations were made about AbM. People without ANC cards were excluded from public life in the settlement. Death threats were openly made against a large number of activists, with the result that AbM was effectively banned in the settlement.

At least a thousand people fled. A movement with more than 10,000 paid-up members was forced underground.

Thirteen people, all Xhosa speaking and all linked to AbM, were alleged by the local ANC to be responsible for the violence. They were arrested and charged with an astonishing array of crimes including murder.

AbM 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’.

The wider struggle for justice and political rights

The task team began its work by summarily announcing that “The structure that is called Abahlali Base Mjondolo be dissolved”. It then invested 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 AbM 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, known as the ‘Kennedy 12’ after charges were withdrawn against one of them, were severely assaulted in prison.

The attack on AbM didn’t come out of nowhere. In the weeks preceding the attack there had been virulent denunciations of its leaders by ANC representatives. There had also 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 was endemic. Activists were regularly arrested on 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 AbM, and Philani Zungu, the then Deputy President, 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 AbM from organising. It was not uncommon for people to have to show ANC party cards – and 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 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. The ANC habitually channels development through the networks of patronage organised through local party structures. Some of the local business class people had an eye on the coming upgrade of the settlement negotiated by AbM 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 14 November 2009 the police attacked the nearby Pemary Ridge settlement, also affiliated to AbM, 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 who were injured.

Failures of the ANC

On 18 July 2011 – Nelson Mandela’s birthday, an occasion 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 the accused – and clear evidence had emerged of the state’s attempt to frame the men. Witnesses contradicted their original statements and each other; 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.

The state could not find, with both bribery and intimidation in its arsenal, a single witness 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 AbM 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 more than forty key activists from their homes, which were openly destroyed and looted, or 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 unable 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.

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.

Tagged under: