For much of this winter, communities in shack settlements across Cape Town have taken to the streets in some of the most active civil disobedience protests since 1994. In an earlier article I explained how disturbed I was at the way the political rhetoric of politicians and some NGOs seemed to create a double standard in the way they expected the protesters to act vis à vis the violence which the state and police subject them to on a daily basis. I also expressed worry about the way these bigger political players moralised the debate which then shifted the focus from the perfectly legitimate issues of service delivery and meaningful engagement raised by protesters to a soap opera in which reasoned analysis was replaced by empty electoral hyperbole.
Then, three weeks ago, I met community members from one of the protesting shack settlements that politicians were holding up as a key example of their talking points on the issue. Talking to committee members of Sweet Home Farm, an informal settlement of 15,000 people in the Philippi area, revealed a yawning chasm between what official players are saying about Sweet Home and the actual realities on the ground. I began to research Sweet Home, visiting the settlement a number of times, talking to committee members, ordinary residents, members of a rival committee and anyone who knew anything about the social and political make-up of the area.
My findings, which I’ve published in a report on Sweet Home, were shocking. Not least because it showed that Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille was wrong when she insinuated that the ANC Youth League was involved in coordinating the protests at the settlement. But also because it showed that neither the Youth League nor any other organisation affiliated with the ANC were, in any way whatsoever, participants in the protests. In fact, the community was not only protesting against the City of Cape Town and its DA representative, but they were also taking to the streets because they were angry with their ANC councillor and his relationship with a local henchman.
My discussions with people on the ground quickly revealed that the protests were not instigated or organised by any political parties but, rather, were the result of shack dwellers’ sense of indignation at politicians and government officials for the way in which their dignity is routinely affronted. Even residents who vote DA in elections were protesting and they were doing so with full knowledge of the political contradictions of such actions.
As Nobanazi, a single mother of three made clear to me when I interviewed her:
We are not fighting because we want to mess things, we are fighting because we are struggling. Inside our hearts there is no peace.
Nobanzi is not a politician, a revolutionary, an ‘anarchist’ or even a ‘hooligan’. She also does not condone the destruction of property. And yet, she participated in mass civil disobedience which blockaded roads and destroyed traffic robots because she felt that this is the only way that she and others have been able to get the attention of government.
Here is a list of some of the reasons why Sweet Home residents are struggling and feel they have been forced to protest in a manner that seeks to cause disruption by, for example, blockading roads,, burning tyres and even destroying traffic robots:
- · Their garbage is not taken away every week like in other parts of the city leaving the settlement extremely dirty, unattractive and unhygenic.
- · Most of their toilets are broken, leaking and otherwise unsanitary.
- · Only some residents have been connected to electricity.
- · Open-air sewage canals built by the city are unsanitary and unsafe for children to play in. A nearby business has blocked the canal with the result that raw sewage floods into homes when it rains.
- · The subsequent severe health issues of children, the elderly and other residents.
- · Their anger at Ward 80 Councillor Thembinkosi Pupa for not working with the residents to meet their needs and for ignoring residents when they attempt to engage on issues.
- · Their anger at the Mayor and other City of Cape Town officials for ignoring them and failing to meaningfully engage with the community on urgent development issues.
It is clear that protesters are responding to the structural violence of the state, to the structural violence of a society that hates the poor, that denies them livelihoods and leaves them landless, homeless and living in appalling conditions. South African society shoots protesters already damaged by poverty, massacres workers already victimised by their bosses, and is so unabashedly violent that it calls for yet further militarisation in our workplaces and in our communities.
As they did at Marikana, the police have surrounded Sweet Home and other hack settlements such as Barcelona, Europe, and BM Section, to deter future road blockades. Yet they cannot stop all shack-dwellers from taking to the streets all the time. In fact, just last week, shack dwellers from the small railway town of Touws River took to the streets blocking the N1 freeway for much of the day.
In Cape Town alone, there are hundreds of shack settlements fed up with the conditions in which they live. Any one of them can rise up in protest at any moment. A state that treats the most oppressed people in society as if they were some sort of internal enemy funded by a mysterious third force, is a state that is completely failing to address the gross inequalities in our society. Such an approach to governance shows that South Africa is engaging in a new kind of colonialism.
The conspiracy theories that NGOs and politicians peddle to try and explain away the rising tide of protest in Cape Town have little to do with reality and are a further affront to the dignity of the city’s poorest residents. Neo-colonial policing methods may contain protest here and there but are not capable of stopping it altogether.
Only a response by government that acknowledges the dignity of poor black South Africans and actually attempts to work with them to address their grievances can possibly stem the tide of these protests. Until then, Mayor de Lille will merely be using the police to play musical chairs with protesting shack dwellers.
• This article was first published at Mail & Guardian.