||It is a time when local police brutality is a national scandal, with more than 50 extra-judicial executions (including many innocent bystanders) traced to a hit squad operating from the Cato Manor station. It is also a time when service delivery protests forced South African President Jacob Zuma to proclaim the need for ‘radical’ changes at last week’s African National Congress policy conference so as to redress blatant economic injustice – though this appears to be merely career-lengthening rhetoric.
So it is time for a South Durban community in the huge Umlazi township to stand up bravely in spite of extreme intimidation by the cops and ruling party.
Facing down police harassment and threats from people they claim are ruling-party political thugs, residents of Umlazi’s Ward 88 continue to demand that the eThekwini Municipal leadership dismiss Councillor Nomzamo Mkhize. She has long failed to respond to constituent demands, including that she hold a public meeting to discuss community problems.
Located in the vicinity of the Mangosuthu University of Technology, Ward 88 is like hundreds of other township settlements where poor people suffer. Members of the local Crisis Committee claim Mkhize works selectively with her friends, causing division and failing to deliver basic services. She ignores popular calls for return of land to the people, including the old airport nearby which is slated for development as a new shipping port at an exorbitant cost of more than R100 billion.
The Ward 88 community further demands respect for women’s rights in a township notorious for patriarchy and rape, and an end to discrimination, xenophobia, tribalism, racism, internecine political warfare and economic injustice.
When asking nicely doesn’t work, the activists hit the streets. For almost two weeks, they have periodically occupied the Mangosuthu Highway, occasionally burning tires, that symbol of resistance that dates back decades. Last week, in response to a sit-in occupation at Mkhize’s office across the highway from the municipal court and police station, the cops evicted Ward 88 activists and arrested 18.
The police initially used tear gas against 3000 protesters, but later, at midnight, people believed to be the ruling party’s thugs went searching for leaders with guns and live ammunition. Two people, Mkanyi Simelani and Noxolo Mkwayi, were shot and hospitalised.
I have spent many hours in Umlazi investigating these problems, and it is hard to dispute community arguments that violence by the police and politicians is a crude attempt to intimidate people from further non-violent protest.
The arrests were meant to lock up leaders and foil the community’s plans to occupy Mkhize’s office tomorrow. According to the Crisis Committee, “Ward 88 community activists have been threatened by a group known to be the Councillor’s hit squad. But we have had enough of the struggle of the poor being politicized. It is high time we unite for justice.”
The group statement continues, “We have lived years in poverty, silenced by law; we will use our power outside court for our voices to be heard. It’s time the government takes the people seriously.”
Just as Zuma finally comprehended popular anger and called for a ‘second transition’ to deliver economic freedom, the KwaZulu-Natal provincial ruling-party leadership belatedly noticed Umlazi’s anger, agreeing to have a meeting in Ward 88 last Saturday. But Zakhele residents arrived to find only the ANC Branch Executive Committee, not even the Mayor and other officials who have received memoranda at various protests.
Because of Umlazi’s notorious housing corruption, residents demand that lead municipal housing manager Nigel Gumede explain the housing situation. Willies Mchunu was requested to come, to discuss violence by the police and the local political mafia. This meeting has been scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.
If they still cannot get inside, make their voices heard and achieve a dramatic change in their circumstances, the Ward 88 community has another strategy. They have been preparing ground near the Councillor’s office for the kind of Occupation we have seen spring up in cities across the world.
In downtown New York last September, the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ idea sparked a movement of idealistic youth fed up with corrupt politicians, banks and corporations. In January, an ‘Occupy Nigeria’ movement linking poor, working and middle-class people succeeded in reversing a petrol price hike that the International Monetary Fund and its local allies had imposed.
The same rising fury and creative protest capacity appear to make Zakheleni residents and their allies like the Abahlali baseMjondolo shackdwellers movement and the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance fearless against even Durban’s fascistic cops and a ruling party that in Umlazi believes it must act like some kind of paramilitary.
But after last week’s attacks, a peaceful ‘Occupy Umlazi’ is an event many hope can return power to the people.
China Ngubane is a Dennis Brutus Community Scholar at the UKZN Centre for Civil Society and is active in the Democratic Left Front and Right2Know.