On Saturday 19 March 750 people from the Kennedy Road informal settlement in Clare Estate, Durban, blockaded Kennedy Road with burning tires and mattresses for four hours. Fourteen people, including two juveniles, were arrested. On the following Monday, Human Rights Day, 1 200 people tried to march to the Sydenham police station to demand that that either the Kennedy Road 14 be released or else the entire community be arrested because "If they are criminal then we are all criminal". The march was dispersed with dogs and tear gas.
Five weeks later, on Freedom Day, hundreds of people from the Cato Manor informal settlement on the other side of Durban attempted to deliver a memorandum to Thabo Mbeki, who was marking the occasion by speaking at King's Park Stadium. They made it as far as Mayville before there was a confrontation with police and ten arrests.
Similar revolts have been happening all over the country * most recently in Port Elizabeth and most notoriously in Harrismith where 17 year old Teboho Mkonza was shot dead by the police. The increasing frequency of these protests suggests that they're not idiosyncratic events but more systemic, and although they're effectively contained by swift police action, they're clearly getting to the president. At an imbizo last week, President Mbeki went out of his way to note that "We must stop this business of people going into the street to demonstrate about lack of delivery. These are the things that the youth used to do in the struggle against apartheid."
The president is correct to note that at these events, protesters often rail against the failure of service delivery. More precisely, protesters cite not only the failure of service delivery, but the fact that they have constantly been promised delivery, and been betrayed. The agents of this betrayal are often seen to be local councillors, who receive the lion's share of resentment. Yet while portrayed as atavistic outbursts, on closer examination these marches and protests turn out to be rational, democratic engagements given the structures of power within which South Africa's poor live.
The Clare Estate protests are a fine case in point. Residents in the informal settlement had been promised for more than a decade that a small spit of land in nearby Elf Road would be made available to them for the development of housing. They were participating in discussions about the development of this housing when bulldozers began clearing the land. A few people went to see what was happening and were shocked to be told that a brick factory was being built. They explained their concerns to the people working on the site and work stopped, but the next day it resumed.
"So", as local community leader S'bu Zikode explains, "on Saturday morning the people woke us. They took us there to find out what was happening* A meeting was set up with the owner of the factory and the local councillor but they didn't come. There was no [brick company], no councillor, no minister, nobody. There was no fighting but the people blocked the road. Then the police came. Then the counsellor came. He told the police 'These people are criminals, arrest them'. We were bitten by the dogs, punched and beaten. The Indian police are racist. They told us that our shacks all need fire."
At the protests, the police swept up fourteen people, and held them for ten days before their release. Zikode, together with Nonhlanhla Mzombe and other community activists, organized a welcome home party for the fourteen, at which Zikode held the crowd rapt with the following affirmation of their actions. "The first Nelson Mandela," he explained, "was Jesus Christ. The second was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. The third Nelson Mandela are the poor people of the world."
Epidemic of rational behaviour
The ANC responses to these outbursts have followed the President's lead: "the matter should have been referred to appropriate ANC structures", and the "local leaders of the protest are self-appointed" have been some of the official pronouncements. Ashwin Desai, activist and author of "We Are the Poors", contextualizes these responses: "When the party structure solely is a top down mechanism, there are no conditions for people on the ground to be able to have an impact on the policies that affect them. And if that's the case, then protest is the only recourse they have."
Protest is also effective. In Clare Estate, within a week of the original protest, local newspapers announced that government had resuscitated some long-dormant plans to provide housing for people in informal settlements near to the rich and close to job opportunities. Yet this response misunderstands the protests. The experience of government failure is not one that can be fixed at ministerial level. The best policies in the world will be deeply compromised if they remain, at the local level, favours to be handed out by local councillors to a mute and impassive population.
This, in part, explains why the Clare Estate organizing blossomed out from Kennedy Road to other communities within the same electoral ward. Last Friday, this organising resulted in a legal march of 3000 people from Kennedy Road and five other informal settlements joined by residents in the municipal flats, as well as seasoned activists from Wentworth and the Socialist Students' Movement. The march ended at the offices of the local councillor, Yacoob Baig, where Baig's immediate resignation was demanded. The march was pulled off in the face of all kinds of intimidation and dirty tricks which included a misleading article in a local newspaper claiming that the march would not legal, the distribution of smartly printed flyers falsely claiming that this would be an IFP march and a large armed military presence in the settlement the night before the protest.
Within Durban, this event has altered the political terrain. Yacoob Baig - who began his political career in the National Party, and worked for the DA before joining the ANC - now operates on the last fumes of his credibility. Nearly ten percent of his constituency took the day off work to demand that he quit.
There's also a national significance to this march. It heralds a shift away from the typical dependency of struggles of the poor on those with money. Durban has a solid recent history of collective action. The World Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia drew a crowd of 8 000. Last year's COSATU demonstrations drew 20 000. In each of these cases, there was enough money around to bring warm bodies to the event. In Kennedy Road, there was a whip round for t-shirts, a sound system, twenty yards of calico and a tin of paint for the banners, and the march could have gone ahead without any of these baubles. The organising was endogenous to Kennedy Road, which suggests that it can and will happen again, in Kennedy Road and in other communities, independent of party officials, NGOs and middle class leftists.
The march also built an effective non-racialism. Discussing and uniting behind the collective demands for Baig's resignation, land, and housing, entailed far more constructive engagement between communities splintered by apartheid than any other event in the ward since 1994. Zelda Norris of the Sydenham Heights Ratepayers' Association , an association coded as coloured under apartheid, explained why they joined the predominantly African Kennedy Road settlement on the march: "[Baig] is our councillor - we've all put him in that position* in the end he's made a lot of promises which he never kept. The Kennedy association met with us and we decided to combine with different organizations because we all felt our issues weren't getting addressed."
The protest in Ward 25 is a revolt of the obedient and the faithful. These are people who have done everything asked of them, who couch their demands in terms of being "loyal citizens of the Republic of South Africa", and whose legal and organised right to protest was utterly non-violent. They participate in every available consultative process. They care for their sick and dutifully call what they are doing 'home based care'. Many will say they have become entrepreneurs collecting cardboard, plastic or metal for sale to recyclers. They accept that delivery will be slow and that they must take responsibility for their own welfare. They revolt because they have believed and done everything asked of them and they are still poor and because the moment when they ask for their faith to be rewarded is the moment their aspirations for dignity become criminal.
Yet these protests reassert the right of the poor to take to the streets, and of the dignity of the places in which they live - places against which the middle classes roll up their windows as they drive by. One of the banners on last Friday's march announced "The University of Kennedy Road". This assertion of dignity and place is dangerous stuff - the rhetoric of elite policies justified in the name of the poor doesn't function if the poor are speaking for themselves. Yet, in a democracy, this is precisely to be welcomed, and we ought to be ready for more. For this is the sound of the third Nelson Mandela clearing its throat.
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