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Desai, Ashwin & Pithouse, Richard  (2003) 'But We Were Thousands’ Dispossession: Resistance, Repossession and Repression in Mandela Park. Centre for Civil Society Research Report 9 : 1-30.

‘But We Were Thousands’
Dispossession, Resistance, Repossession and Repression in Mandela Park

Ashwin Desai & Richard Pithouse

what they (the ANC) have done to put the economy on a right footing, is, I think, almost miraculous - Pamela Cox, Former Head of the South Africa Division at the World Bank

Mandela has been the real sell-out, the biggest betrayer of his people. When it came to the crunch, he used his status to camouflage the actual agreement that the ANC was forging with the [white] South African elite- Trevor Ngwane, Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee

The Men with Guns

In September 1999 the sheriffs came to Mandela Park with dogs and teargas and guns. On the first day they came to confiscate our goods. On the second day they came back to evict us from our homes. There were a lot of police, in Caspirs and in small vans. It was as if they were at war. They cordoned off one street at a time and started to evict people. The whole area came out, as well as neighbouring areas, to try and prevent the evictions. We stood up to them. No one told us to resist – it was spontaneous. People were beaten with batons, shot at with rubber bullets and bitten by police dogs. Teargas blew everywhere. A lot of people were injured and it is lucky that no one was killed. The police were only able to evict 13 families on that first day. And the community put many of the people who were evicted back in their houses. Later we got in touch with the Anti-Eviction Campaign in Tafelsig through the Anti-Privatisation Forum and then linked with people in Athlone, KTC, Valhalla Park, Gugulethu, Delft, Tambo Square, Mfuleni and elsewhere.

These are the words of Max Ntanyana and Fonky Goboza, activists in the Mandela Park anti-eviction campaign. As we write this introduction Ntanyana lives under bail conditions designed to make political life almost impossible after spending his third term of awaiting trial imprisonment for campaigning against evictions and disconnections. Goboza is on the move, relentlessly, trying to avoid arrest. Mandela Park is on the edge of Khayelitsha - the massive township that sprawls along the bleak plains of the Cape Flats outside Cape Town. If you walk down to sea you can, on a crisp day, see Robben Island.

Apartheid was undone bit by bit by endlessly multiple acts of resistance and lines of flight. By the early 1980s people were moving from the rural Transkei, where apartheid sought to keep them, and on to Cape Town in such numbers that the state lost the capacity to regulate the borders between its two opposed zones. Around the country people who were taking control of new spaces gave those spaces names. And the people who moved to the edge of Khayelitsha defiantly called their space Mandela Park in honour of their hope.

Mandela Park is not the only community that finds itself under armed assault from the state ten years after the end of apartheid. In fact there have been a number of deaths at the hands of the police since Michael Makhabane was shot dead on 16 May 2000 during a peaceful protest against the exclusion of poor students from the University of Durban-Westville . As we write we are receiving reports of arrests of key Landless People’s Movement activists on trumped up charges and violent clashes between activists and private security guards hired by the state in Phiri, Soweto. The activists in Phiri are resisting the state’s instalment of pre-paid water meters that force the poor to disconnect themselves from water. There have been arrests and a death. The fight goes on. Every night. Two weeks ago the Durban City Council sent scores of heavily armed men into Chatsworth in armoured cars to disconnect hundreds of people from water. Two days before the community had been able to beat off a less well-armed invasion with barricades and stones. They have been fighting constant battles against eviction from their council owned flats and disconnection from water and electricity since May 1996 when “a detachment of fifty security personnel rolled into Chatsworth in 4 x 4 bakkies and began disconnecting water and electricity, throwing furniture and other belongings onto the street, before sealing the doors of flats.” So it goes.

Revolts have ebbed and flowed in poor communities all over the country since 1996 when the African National Congress [ANC] became the first African government to ever voluntarily seek the help of the World Bank to design and impose a structural adjustment programme on its people . Markets were opened, taxes to the rich were cut, state assets were privatised, services were commodified and social spending was reduced. The results came quickly. The economy began to grow and the rich got richer. But as the government’s own statistics reveal the poor got significantly poorer and unemployment, already high, reached catastrophic levels. Over one and a half million jobs were lost and up to ten million people were disconnected from water and electricity respectively. Although the black elite
became rapidly richer and the white poor became rapidly poorer the stark fact is that in general terms whites got richer and blacks got poorer. The government’s own statistics agency concludes that in real terms, average black African household income declined 19% from 1995-2000, while white household income was up 15%. Across the racial divides, the poorest half of all South Africans earn just 9.7% of national income, down 11.4% from 1995.

People have been putting their bodies in harm’s way and fighting revolutionary struggles to stay in the places where apartheid put them, to retain access to basic services like water and electricity and resist exclusion from education. Not even the most cynical anticipated that the millennial hopes that fuelled the mass and micro struggles against apartheid would be crushed this quickly and this brutally.

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