Marikana residents blocking the road. Photo: Lulama Zenzile

“We’ll die for this land”: when slum dwellers revolt

  • August 24, 2015

City & Commons

South African media often depict poor black protesters as angry and irrational. Supporting their struggle requires challenging this discursive trope.

Put your shoes into my shows
and wear me like a human being
would wear another human being.

Conway Payn of the Symphony Way Pavement Dwellers

In the aftermath of deadly communal violence that rocked the Cape Town township of Philippi East, where dozens of homes were destroyed and four killed, I meet a young man named Raymond in the new shack settlement of Old Marikana.

On this cold winter day amongst the corrugated zinc shacks, Raymond dons the popular K-Way branded beanie and a typical blue South African construction worker onesie – dirty, old and with plenty of holes. He wears his anger on his sleeve – a bit intense, crazed. Full of unruly energy both physically and verbally, he jumps from one topic to the next, rarely transitioning with explicit conceptual links.

Raymond’s mannerism offends Makhulu (‘Grandma’) Judith, the settlement’s assertive elder activist and ardent churchgoer. Yet standing amongst the makeshift plywood fencing that surrounds each home, I find him intriguing because he seems to exemplify the typical caricature of angry black youth in the South African media.

Raymond’s rational anger

His brother, Justice, relating to me Raymond’s particular intelligence, laments that he is “not right in the head” because of ‘tik’, the favored local variant of crystal meth. He complains that his brother, who does not have a formal job, recently stole his TV and destroyed his previous home in aid of his habit.

Yet Raymond’s stories of shepherding cows on the empty land that became Marikana and his persistent conflicts with police, arouse my curiosity. While it is difficult to discern which aspects of his stories are real and which are imagined, the stories themselves complicate the simplistic youth narrative.

“The anger of the poor can go in many directions,” explains shackdweller leader, S’bu Zikode.

In his engagement with me, Raymond knows that he is playacting the embodiment of the angry black youth. He is implying through his range of emotions what can happen to those who are mistreated and cornered into despairing ghettos — their righteous anger turning inwards onto their own community.

As a resident of Old Marikana, Raymond was not party to the protests and subsequent violence which began after electricity disconnections in New Marikana. He kept away knowing his vulnerability at confronting the ensuing mob from Lower Crossroads: “They have guns… I used to have a gun but it was taken away by police.”

But his anger at almost everyone around him is immediately visible. He indicates that if he still had a gun and lived in New Marikana, he would have been forced to return fire to defend himself.

In a recent article on Donald Trump, journalist Oliver Burkeman notes that “nobody ever does ‘crazy things’; every behavior in which we engage makes some kind of sense, once you ‘understand the emotional premise’.”

This is true of Raymond as well.

One cannot understand the destruction nor the African National Congress (ANC) factional fights in the area, without comprehending how people like Raymond think and are situated emotionally. Raymond’s anger is powerful — in the way it unsettles people like Makhulu, in the way it has the potential for horrific violence, but also in its productive force. He is able to, politically speaking, cut straight to its underlying cause.

He interrupts my conversation with Makhulu about the destruction that had ensued a few weeks earlier exclaiming: “They treat us like dogs here!”, referring to the wealthy elite and the state forces who have forced him into this township ghetto. He is acutely aware of the structural onslaught against his humanity.

Discursive trope

It is a common discursive trope in South Africa — as elsewhere — to present poor black people, especially youth, as irrational.

This is not merely an expression of individual prejudice, but also a rhetorical device perfected in the colonial era to justify the domination of black civilization. As a crude social construct, it has been extended to further subjugate the female gender and oppress the poor.

South Africa is not an exceptional place in this regard. Apartheid, as Mahmood Mamdani points out in Citizen and Subject, was merely the deepening of racist colonialism on the African continent. Post-1994, in the most crucial ways, apartheid remains. Its ideology is stronger than ever, presenting blacks — i.e., all non-white South Africans, including those characterized as Indian and colored — as uncivilized and lacking reason.

During expressions of violence that emanate from oppressed communities, this trope is strutted out publicly by politicians, police, lawyers and media to justify repression. Recently, the most prominent example is mainstream media obsession, following the 2012 Marikana Massacre, with the use of Muti (traditional medicine) by striking miners in their struggle against Lonmin and the police. The racist vilification was even legitimated at the Farlam Commission as evidence that the miners had “lust for murder.”

Delving into the complexity of local community politics to show a hidden order and logic even in seemly incoherent situations helps challenge this mode of thought. The Symphony Way Corridor, as the site of continuous occupations since 2007, is an important example that allows us to understand this community rationality.

The pavement dwellers and other occupiers

During the 2007 Christmas holidays there was a massive occupation of over 1,000 newly built government houses along Symphony Way in Delft. After thousands were evicted two months later, the Democratic Alliance (DA) councilor who opportunistically supported the occupation, turned his back on the occupiers, instead advocating their removal to the “the human dumping ground” of Blikkiesdorp (Tin Can Town).

Those who resisted the political party machinations of the DA and the ANC staged a second occupation in February 2008 and became known as the Symphony Way Pavement Dwellers — one of the most inspiring intentional communities I have ever encountered. Following their 21-month blockade of the Symphony Way thoroughfare, they were forcibly removed to Blikkiesdorp where they are again in the news fighting expansion plans for Cape Town International Airport.

On the other side of the busy N2 Freeway along Symphony Way lies Philippi East. What was once poor farmland (sold to private investors who left it unused for decades), has now become a massive shack settlement of over 10,000 people.

This began in 2011 with the occupation of ‘Zone 14’. Two years later backyard dwellers from across the road in Lower Crossroads attempted to occupy adjacent land. They called their new home Marikana, they said, “because like the 34 miners shot by police, we are willing to die for this land.”

After months of evictions, reoccupations and protests, a small steadfast group of the original occupiers were able to gain a long-term foothold and challenged their eviction in court.

Then in July last year, some desperate families approached the Marikana community hoping to join their settlement. As often happens when struggles take legal routes, Marikana residents refused to let them build on the occupied land for fear that this could affect their eviction case.

However, there was a massive expanse of fallow land next-door and residents encouraged these families to settle there instead. The new occupation, ‘Rolihlahla’, after the lesser known Xhosa name of Nelson Mandela, consisted of only a dozen or so families during its first few weeks.

Yet in August 2014, word of their successful occupation suddenly spread. Thousands turned up and, in the space of only two weeks, the 10,000-strong ‘New Marikana’ land occupation was born.

The militancy of the ‘poo protestors’

Most shack settlements in South Africa are organized along a continuum from democratically-elected to autocratically-appointed committees typical of communist-inspired anti-apartheid organizing. These committees are rarely at one or another end of the spectrum — usually put forward by local politicians with top-down sway but given tacit operating approval by residents. On the other hand, sometimes these committees are elected, but lose their democratic character as they are co-opted into existing local political structures.

New Marikana and Rolihlahla took such forms. The former affiliated with the ANC-aligned Ses’khona social movement and the later associated with another ANC faction that backed the local councilor. Old Marikana, on the other hand, retained a committee unaffiliated with party politics. Though it was militant for some time, its leadership and mobilization soon diminished as the threat of evictions faded.

However, New Marikana under the banner of Ses’khona, referred to disparagingly in local media as the “poo protesters” after they dumped bucket toilets in front of government buildings, has staged a number of large marches on the city government demanding basic services. Unsuccessful at compelling the DA-led City of Cape Town to acquiesce to their demands, New Marikana’s tactics, soon became more aggressive.

Rank-and-file were frustrated with queuing in long lines for water and not having their refuse removed. However, militant action was also stoked by top-level Ses’khona leadership looking to one-up the opposing ANC faction in nearby New Crossroads.

A community unmade by destruction

In late May, the New Marikana community’s electricity was cut. Jolene Henn, Western Cape spokesperson for the energy para-statal Eskom, responded to my questioning by blaming the outage in the area on “illegal electricity connections” by residents. She categorically denied any role in the disconnections.

However, reports coming from New Marikana indicate that electrical workers from either the City of Cape Town or Eskom had disconnected the settlement from the power grid.

Whatever the truth, it was this perception of forced disconnections which put hundreds of angry people on the streets. The police met the consequent road blockade of Symphony Way with a violent response employing semi-lethal means to disperse the crowds.

As frustration increased, the protests escalated. A small group of Marikana residents burned down the house of the local ANC councilor. An indignant old lady complaining about tire smoke had her Lower Crossroads house set alight as well. The last straw was the attempted incineration of a local school. In response, a group from Lower Crossroads struck back with the explicit aim of driving out all of Marikana’s 10,000 residents.

For a month following the violent clashes between groups from Marikana and Lower Crossroads, Symphony Way remained strewn with garbage, rocks, massive cement blocks and burned metal wiring that was once an assemblage of blazing Dunlop tires. Sections of the roads remained dug up and armored police Nyala APCs straddled the road with trailers of barbed wire previously used to separate the communities.

In Lower Crossroads, about a dozen formal “RDP” houses, including that of the local councilor, were burned down. In New Marikana and Rolihlahla, homes made from zinc sheeting were also scorched, demolished or abandoned. Approximately 40 burned-out shacks were visible from Symphony Way and many more homes were destroyed deep within the settlements. It took about a month before families who fled as refugees returned.

The media and the problem of reporting on violence

Generally, South Africa’s mainstream media descend like a pack of vultures at the slightest smell of large-scale violence — a well known performance act starring various groups of protesters, police and journalists. This is generally the only time many newspapers bother to report on the lives of poor people.

However, the violence in Philippi East barely registered on the media’s radar except via the nonprofit news service GroundUp. This inattention was despite the massive destruction and week-long blockades impacting hundreds of thousands in the area, the dozens of families who lost their livelihoods, and the murder of four people in cold blood.

The coverage that did take place neither problematized the violence nor bothered to try to understand it. The media discourse remained simple: uncivilized and angry poor black youth are once again fighting one another. The irrational violence has something vaguely to do with the (depoliticized category) ‘service delivery’.

Yet, much was happening behind the scenes showing an introspective and thriving group of communities attempting to remake the fabric of a township in which they have little control over their own lives.

Meeting and rebuilding

Within the context of the massive violence, communities led a counter-movement to rebuild social relations. Mass meetings were called, negotiations began and people sought to quell the tension through various collective acts. New Marikana leadership held meetings to decry the violence and extort its residents to stand down. They also went to meetings in Lower Crossroads to officially apologize and make amends.

Next-door, Rolihlahla held public meetings to address these issues. While they had not joined the protests, they were still targeted when residents of Lower Crossroads attacked. When I attended one of the meetings, at the invitation of their now deceased pro-bono lawyer and aspiring politician, Gcinikhaya Nqaqu, the main item on the agenda was restoring their relationship with Lower Crossroads.

In poor communities where residents lack home insurance and money to rebuild, the idea of collective reconciliation and restorative justice is not just an airy-fairy philosophy, but a practical way of ensuring the reconstruction of social relations after conflict.

Despite the fact that an individual community member had joined the New Marikana protests and was responsible for burning the house of the old lady across the road, a committee member named Thuliswa suggests that they collect 50 rand from each resident to fix it. After intense discussion and vacillation, residents collectively committed to both raising this money and volunteering their skills as builders, carpenters and electricians. This is what the rationale of the collective looks like in practice.

Directing anger

Back in Old Marikana, residents discussed the importance of heading off such violence in future. Makhulu lamented to me that “they [the residents of Lower Crossroads] are poor people like you; they are also staying in shacks before they get houses.” She wants people to direct their wrath at the government rather than at one another.

Makhulu’s words reminded me of a message that Conway Payn of the Symphony Way Pavement Dwellers narrated to me six years ago as part of the innovative anthology: No Land! No House! No Vote!

It was a message about a dog, backed into a corner, hurt, hungry, angry, and with no other way out than through the person who had trapped it. In his poetic tale of his own anger and resistance, Payn assures us that the dog will eventually develop the courage to pass through its jailer, and — if necessary — kill him in the process.

Directing his anger is something that Raymond, given his fractious situation, is unable to do despite being politically aware of where his oppression comes from. Ultimately, this is the primary difference between Conway and Makhulu’s ire and that of Raymond. It is also the key divergence between the mob-like violence that upended Philippi East and the original rebellion against electricity disconnections a few days earlier.

One of the recurring themes I have encountered where communities organize themselves is the importance of directing anger vertically, at those in power, rather than horizontally, at those who are suffering right beside you. It is this process and the subsequent tension with authority that creates space for maintaining strong social relationships and engaging in horizontal forms of organizing.

The collective struggle of the Symphony Way Pavement Dwellers recognized this and it was through this tension-laden process that they were able to virtually stamp out crime, ensure all of their children went to school, and build a vibrant and semi-autonomous community during their 21 months of occupation.

Yet this form of transformation remains beyond the current struggle in Marikana. There are many forces at hand using anger as a divide and rule tactic of governance. For instance, Ses’khona’s factional fights with the local ANC councilor are couched in a militant language of resistance hence easily fuel the misdirected violence.

While Marikana is a “community in movement,” to reword Raul Zibechi’s notion of Latin American movement organizing, it is difficult to predict whether that motion will be able to build autonomous forms of resistance from below, or if violence will continue to eat away at the social structure of these communities. However, for such struggles, it seems that one of the keys to achieving the former is the necessity of working with youth similar to Raymond to produce more enabling social environments that direct anger vertically.

For those of us who are on the outside, who may come from a privileged, middle-class background and often fall prey to the propaganda that present poor black people as irrational, our support for autonomous organizing must also include challenging this discursive trope. This begins with “wearing” the lives of people like Raymond.

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