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Bond, Patrick (2012) In climate of repression, who can surf Durban’s microprotest wave?. Eye on Civil Society : -.

The recent surge of disconnected protests suggests durable social, economic and environmental tensions are coming to a head, but facing police bullets and without strategic linkages, will they run out of steam? The notorious hit squad recently operating from Cato Manor Station and so many other extra-judicial executions would logically intimidate all but the most desperate activists.

Judging by the two main English-language newspapers, the highest profile demonstrations over the past week, close to the centre of town, were a peaceful march against rhino poachers and a picket against animal abuse at the Brian Boswell circus; and the occupation of Umgeni Road last Wednesday by militant Puntans Hill residents. There, a protester was killed and two others injured, run down by a motorist who has been charged with culpable homicide.

The latter incident was sparked by African National Congress loyalists angry about the municipality’s disconnections of illegal electricity hook-ups to shacks. They also complained of non-delivery of housing in spite of promises by Councillor Bhekisani Ngcobo, and as a result of their protest, received a commitment from Nigel Gumede and other municipal authorities that new houses would be built, along with a renewed promise that some would be relocated to the long-anticipated Cornubia housing project near Umhlanga.

Last Thursday, another protest march – by AIDS treatment activists – ended at City Hall but was aimed mainly against Barack Obama, who recently cut the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS, thus devastating programmes serving thousands of Durban residents at Saint Mary’s Hospital, McCords Hospital and the Ithembalabantu Clinic in Umlazi.

I witnessed two other indications of social unrest last week. In Jacobs on Friday morning, the main oil refinery belonging to ‘cats-wee’ (methanethiol) polluter FFS was targeted by the Wentworth-based South Durban Community Environmental Alliance with about 75 allies. FFS chief executive Don Hunter, who long denied that his firm was the source of the emissions, was recently fined by the lethargic municipal environmental health department (the rancid-cabbage smell began nearly two years ago), so the spirit was fiery after the small but significant victory.

There, the crucial challenge of alliance-building across the still racially-divided city advanced with the arrival of vibrant solidarity protesters from ‘Occupy Umlazi’ and Abahlali baseNjondolo, as it did a few months ago when truck transport firms were the reason for 400 protesters taking over Solomon Mahlangu Drive.

That struggle continues on Thursday night at the Merebank Community Centre when activists consider how to reverse the city’s R250 billion Back-of-Port construction project featuring a new harbour, which will wipe out large neighbourhoods including Clairwood, where Indian and African residents, ranging from the middle-class to shackdwellers, have been oppressed by illegal trucking and toxic petro-chemical operations for years.

Meanwhile the occupation of Umlazi land in Ward 88 continues next door to the office of Councilor Nomzamo Mkhize. At Sunday afternoon’s meeting of two hundred residents, Abahlali secretary Bandile Mdlalose gave fearless leadership, observing that ANC supporters were doing the dirty work of police in the nearby Zakhele shack settlement, where late last month, Noxolo Mkanyi and Mkhayi Simelani were shot and hospitalised.

A few kilometres south, in Folweni Reserve township, teenager Xolani Buthelezi was shot dead late last month – apparently by an Umlazi cop who then killed himself – during a service delivery protest of 1500 people. A few days before, 43 people had been arrested in a similar protest, but their efforts at least managed to reverse a 25% taxi price increase.

So many others have been assassinated in the course of changing the society, that bodyguards are now required by even Durban’s top political and municipal officials, and no wonder after the scare last Friday when local police suspiciously followed the national metalworkers’ union secretary Irvin Jim in Richards Bay, in the wake of the unsolved killing of regional ANC leader Wandile Mkhize on July 2. Last July’s hit on Durban’s leading ruling party official, Sbu Sibiya, occurred shortly after ANC councilor Wiseman Mshibe was shot dead, and before the National Democratic Party’s leadership was decimated by executions.

Many other civil society activists also lost their lives to assassinations or police bullets these past five years, including Mbongeleni Zondi in Umlazi, South African National Civic Organization’s Jimmy Mtolo in New Germany, Clairwood activist Ahmed Osman and Merebank’s Rajah Naidoo, and University of South Africa student Mthoko Nkwanyana.

If the wave of courageous protests continues, it is because new layers of activists are emerging whose backs are against the wall. If intimidation does not work, their next formidable step will be to link up and make a case not only against a local councillor, but against the broader political system responsible for South Africa’s standing as the world’s most unequal society.

Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society.

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