||Mass protests have been taking place in the poverty-stricken
neighbourhoods of Cape Town, Durban and Free State, South Africa, as
well as in the country’s administrative capital, Pretoria.
From early May onwards, the protests spread around the Cape Town area.
Shantytown residents held protests in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape,
and in Mpumalanga (in the northwest of South Africa) during the week
ending May 27, and since then the actions have spread more widely. The
main demands of those involved are for decent housing with sanitation,
and an end to power cuts and water shutoffs.
In the Cape Town neighbourhoods of Langa, Gugulethu, Khayelitsha and
Happy Valley, protesters invaded unused land, made barricades, burnt
tyres and marched through the streets. In Khayelitsha, the protesters
poured the contents of their night-soil buckets on a busy highway to
express their anger at the lack of proper sanitation. In Happy Valley,
700 people protested on the streets on May 25 to demand the city council
provide better housing. Also on May 25, in Blackheath near Cape Town,
around 1,000 protesters set up barricades on one of the main streets.
Police used rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades to disperse
demonstrators in Happy Valley, Blackheath, Gugulethu and in several
other areas. Over 30 were arrested between May 23 and May 27. A
spokesman for the residents of Happy Valley said that seven people had
been seriously injured by the rubber bullets fired by police. The
Johannesburg-based Sunday Times commented on May 29 that the unrest was “reminiscent of the 1980s,” that is, at the time of the apartheid
The unrest then spread to other areas such as Secunda in Mpumalanga,
Nelson Mandela Metro in the Eastern Cape, Ocean View in Western Cape,
Cato Manor in Durban and Harrismith and Vrede in Free State. In Free
State, demonstrators pelted the local government officials with stones,
and in Pretoria demonstrators took to the streets of Lotus Gardens and
Mamelodi to vent their anger at the lack of services.
Some of the protests were reported to be the result of growing anger
amongst “backyarders,” residents who live in shacks in the backyards of
their family or friends, while others were against the squalid
conditions in the shantytowns. At her squatter camp near Cape Town,
Mzwandile Qolintaba told the Reuters news agency, “I feel a lot of pain,
we don’t have electricity, we don’t have toilets ... our children are
sick because we don’t have any water. I am angry.”
Rumours had spread that the Western Cape’s plan for a new housing scheme
would be mainly for shack dwellers recently arrived from the Eastern
Cape, at the expense of local residents. After a fire in January
devastated the Joe Slovo informal settlement in Langa, between 12,000
and 20,000 were left homeless. This further delayed the resettlement of
people who had been on the waiting list for years.
A Sunday Times article on May 29, entitled “The story so far,” explains
that the protests have been building up for the last year. On July 5,
2004, around 3,000 protestors marched on the streets of Diepsloot, a
town to the northwest of Johannesburg, demanding that councillors be
sacked for the substandard services provided. Less than two months
later, 17-year-old student Teboho Mkhonza was shot dead by police, who
opened fire on demonstrators outside Harrismith in the Free State.
Demonstrations have taken place every month since. On March 15 this
year, around 4,500 took part in a protest in Secunda, Mpumalanga. Crowds
vented their anger on municipal offices and set up burning barricades.
The government’s response
The response of the African National Congress (ANC) government has been
to denounce the protests as the work of a “secret force” which is
fomenting trouble in an attempt to overthrow democracy. It called in the
National Intelligence Agency to investigate, and charged 13
demonstrators from last year’s protest in Harrismith with sedition, a
charge carrying a maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment. President
Thabo Mbeki threatened that the full force of the law will be used
against the illegal protests and the Western Cape premier, Ebrahim
Rasool, echoed his words.
Thulani Mabanga, one of those being charged, told the Mail & Guardian on
May 20 that the accused believed there was a political motive behind the
decision to press charges of sedition, since their protests had not been
intended to overthrow the government. “All the residents did was to burn
tyres and march. Then police started shooting without warning. The
police have no evidence of any wrongdoing by the protesters,” Mabanga
said. The lawyer representing the 13 has confirmed that they are to be
charged with sedition and public violence.
The idea that such prolonged disturbances, involving thousands of people
from the poorest areas, were the result of “sedition” by a few
individuals is a slander. Far from being the product of a “secret force”
fomenting trouble, the current unrest is the result of anger that has
built up over years due to the government’s broken promises and the
continuing state of abject and degrading poverty to which millions of
South Africans are still subjected, over 11 years after the end of
An Independent Media South Africa report from Gugulethu on May 24 noted,
“The uneven battle between police and residents was marked by violence
only from the police side.”
The sudden appearance of manifold local groups-some of which have not
yet decided on a name-shows that a build-up of opposition is taking
political form amongst the working class and poor, although without any
clear perspective, programme or party to guide it.
Mbeki later repeated his threat of repression, referring vaguely to
“fault lines” in South African society “that can emerge and generate
conflicts that we do not need.” He told parliament on May 25 that the
protests “reflect and seek to exploit the class and nationality fault
lines we inherited from our past, which, if ever they took root, gaining
genuine popular support, would pose a threat to the stability of
democratic South Africa.”
The ANC’s record
When it came into office in April 1994, the ANC-led government promised
to build 2 million houses in five years. But after 11 years, the figure
is still only around 1.6 million-some of which are too small or
substandard-and the population has grown considerably during that time.
The housing problem is particularly acute around Cape Town, due to the
rapid urbanisation that has taken place in recent years. According to a
Business Day (Johannesburg) article on May 31, “There is an estimated
backlog of 320,000 dwellings in Western Cape, with about 260,000 people
on the waiting lists concentrated in the Cape metropole.”
A growing number of people live in informal housing, such as shacks in
squatter camps. The number of such households grew by 31 percent from
1.05 million in 1996 to 1.38 million in 2001. During the same period,
the number living in informal dwellings and shacks in backyards
increased by 14 percent to 0.46 million people.
The number of houses completed or under construction from April 1994 to
September 2003 was 1.53 million, but 2-3 million homes were still
The number of people given shelter in the past 10 years is 7-8.5
million, but there are more than 7.5 million still in need of adequate
housing. Because of population growth, this figure grows by about
204,000 every year.
The unrest over housing demonstrates that the division between the newly
enriched layer who have benefited most from 11 years of ANC rule and
those who have been left behind has widened to the breaking point. South
Africa is already recognised to have some of widest disparities in the
world between rich and poor, and the government response to the latest
protests shows that its intention is to step up the suppression of
opposition to its rule.
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