There are special places dedicated to the memories of Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi, Martin Luther King in Memphis, Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem and South Africa’s own Hector Pieterson in Soweto. These and many other activists striving for social justice have been commemorated at the sites where they were felled.
Now, amidst recent assassinations in Durban (South Africa’s second largest city and Africa’s biggest seaport) and other conflict hotspots, and in the wake of revelations regarding Bush regime-sanctioned hit squad activity, we have even greater reason to celebrate the fallen comrades whose commitment to the struggle was total.
Last week, for example, the beloved South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (http://www.sdcea.org.za) lost another comrade, Ahmed Osman, gunned down on his front porch in cold blood on a warm late-summer evening (http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs/default.asp?2,27). Osman was fighting two local companies responsible for toxic waste releases in his Clairwood neighbourhood, as well as the municipality and the national Department of Water Affairs and Forestry which as usual were shirking their regulatory duty.
Osman was, attests SDCEA chairperson Desmond D’Sa, "a gentle giant, a man very humble who for many was a strong comrade and friend standing firm to eradicate illegal polluting companies and the truckers who have taken over community properties without any re-zoning applications."
Two years ago, former SDCEA member Rajah Naidoo was the victim of a similar hit just a few kilometers south of Osman’s house. According to Merebank Residents’ Association chairman, Ivan Moses, "Rajah was a dedicated community activist who helped the underprivileged, a dynamic leader, who put a lot into the community. We achieved a lot more in Merebank under his leadership."
In between, just over a year ago, the charismatic, battle-tested D’Sa also nearly lost his life during a firebombing of his apartment late one night, possibly linked to campaigning he leads against local Wentworth drug lords.
Along with Merebank, Clairwood and Umlazi, these black neighbourhoods are under continual attack from pollution, resulting in the country’s highest leukemia rates and the world’s worst asthma problem recorded in an elementary school, thanks to the vast Engen oil refinery, just to the north of Durban’s airport.
As a member of the international OilWatch network (headquartered in the Niger Delta at Environmental Rights Action), SDCEA calls for the refinery’s closure. Instead, the municipality and national government’s Transnet parastatal are preparing to double petrol refining in the immediate vicinity, notwithstanding SDCEA’s legal challenge on grounds of environmental racism and CO2 emissions.
Across the highway in Umlazi township, there was another shooting ten weeks ago. Traditional leader Inkosi Mbongeleni Zondi – grandson of the legendary Bhambatha Zondi who rebelled against Natal colonial officials in 1906 – was murdered in a hailstorm of 50 AK-47 bullets.
Such attacks, all of which remain mysteries to what D’Sa calls "lethargic" police, are not limited to South Durban. On the western outskirts of town, next to the black township of Clermont, a leader of the SA National Civic Organisation, Jimmy Mtolo, was shot dead on a Saturday morning last month by an assassin who came to his office ostensibly seeking help with housing.
A warm, charismatic man who combined gentlemanly manners with the ideas and passion of the Old Left (in the best sense of the term), Mtolo faithfully attended our centre’s monthly Harold Wolpe lectures. Many remember his insightful inputs and fighting spirit. His daughter, member of parliament Ntombikayise Sibhidla, says the police haven’t gotten to the bottom of this hit either.
On the same day Osman was shot, last Monday, University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) officials invited Durban police onto the Howard College campus where we work, to quell student protests over financial and residential grievances (these were subsequently resolved through negotiations). Luckily, only rubber bullets were used, but these can do extreme damage, too, as at least 10 victims – including a blind student – will testify. UKZN Student Representatives Council official Siya Nkwandwana told us, "Several students were badly injured. Some went to Addington Hospital this week, because they cannot walk properly."
Unluckily for 22-year-old University of South Africa political science student Mthoko Nkwanyana, who was protesting exclusions in central Durban alongside 400 of his comrades last August, police fired teargas so aggressively that he died a few meters from the Luthuli International Conference Centre, Africa’s busiest convention centre. "The police just came onto the scene and victimised the students," according to Young Communist League provincial leader Mlungisi Hlongwane.
Likewise, those of us at UKZN should never forget how Durban municipal police killed Michael Makhabane at our Westville campus in May 2001, during a peaceful protest against the expulsions (due to tuition nonpayment due in turn to poverty) of more than 500 students.
In June 2004, another youth was killed on the city’s northern outskirts, in Phoenix, where Gandhi lived and worked more than a century ago. Marcel King was shot between the eyes by security guards hired by the Durban municipality to disconnect illegal electricity hookups. According to his brother Jonathan, "My mother was involved in a confrontation with a security guard who had just hit her because she had tried to climb on to the back of his van. Marcel tried to pull her away but the guard cocked his gun and began firing."
In July 2007, environmental activist Sajida Khan died because Durban municipal toxins, floating across the street from the infamous Bisasar Road dump, left her with two bouts of cancer. Khan was known worldwide not only for her passionate but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to close the apartheid-era landfill (Africa’s largest), but also because she was an early critic of the climate change "carbon trading" gimmick she called "the privatization of the air".
Two years prior to her death, Khan’s protest intimidated the World Bank into withdrawing its support for Bisasar as South Africa’s largest Clean Development Mechanism pilot.
It would be unfair to single out Durban as an activist death zone when so many other places and governments are far more dangerous. At the top of any contemporary ranking for murder of civilians is the United States, responsible for what researchers published in the authoritative British health journal The Lancet estimates are more than a million Iraqi casualties since its 2003 oil grab.
To be sure, a somewhat lower rate of innocent deaths will be visited upon Afghanistan, where president Barack Obama is currently inserting tens of thousands of US soldiers into another war that Washington – like Moscow and London in previous eras – is destined to lose.
Surgical assassinations remain an important tool in the US foreign policy kit, even after the Central Intelligence Agency’s embarrassment about 17 failed attempts to kill Fidel Castro. According to New Yorker magazine’s investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, after the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, an "executive assassination ring" was set up which "reported directly" to former Vice President Dick Cheney, called the Joint Special Operations Command.
Eventually, as Hersh reported a few weeks ago, "a three star admiral ordered a stop to it because there were so many collateral deaths. Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving."
Actually, the CIA is in such pathetic ideological shape – having failed to anticipate both the USSR and Wall Street collapses – that even British Secret Service agent James Bond’s recent movie Quantum of Solace ridicules and rebuffs Washington’s efforts to overthrow Bolivian president Evo Morales on behalf of a French water privatiser, in an amusing twist on a real-life drama. Bond’s former CIA ally Felix Leiter is unveiled as an easily-corrupted burned-out loser who barely survives the Company’s mishaps.
Not amusing were last month’s executions of two Kenyan activists – probably by police, according to witnesses – while sitting in a Nairobi traffic jam: Kingara Kamau and George Paul Oulu of the Oscar Foundation. They were on their way to a meeting at the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights, to share information about police assassinations and disappearances of more than 8100 people.
Kenya’s main human rights organizational network reflected on the "atmosphere of fear and threat among human rights defenders. As we speak, several human rights defenders who have documented, with evidence, these disappearances and extrajudicial executions, have received verbal threats, have had to move to safe houses within the country and have even had to leave the country."
Zimbabwe’s democratic movement has lost several hundred cadre to state and ruling-party violence over the past eight years. Even now, sharing power with Robert Mugabe, eight opposition activists remain, after several months, ‘disappeared’. Most were picked up late last year by security forces and never seen again: Gwenzi Kahiya, Ephraim Mabeka, Lovemore Machokoto, Charles Muza, Edmore Vangirayi, Graham Matehwa, Peter Munyanyi and Dumisani Hapazani.
Exile sometimes doesn’t help. A year ago, Swazi liberation leader Gabriel Mkhumane was killed in a South African city, Nelspruit, where he worked as a medical doctor. The second highest official in Swaziland’s banned People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), Mkhumane was on his way to a meeting to plan a blockade of goods going to Swaziland across the nearby border. Shortly beforehand, Swazi police visited his mother back home, and, according to Pudemo leader Mario Masuko, told her "she must expect him any time, adding that he would come home wrapped in a black bag."
Added Masuko, who is now jailed by King Mswati’s fascist-monarchist regime, "Swaziland is becoming a military state, where the army would be deployed all over — to seek and destroy Pudemo cadres." Mswati this week presided over a hypocritical Southern African Development Community meeting which strongly condemned last week’s change in state power in Madagascar, the outcome of a popular uprising against former president Marc Ravalomanana. Such uprisings will become more frequent in Africa and across the world, and the region’s elites are apparently getting nervous.
In Israel and several Latin American sites, the state assassination fetish is relentless. Colombia is still the world’s most dangerous place for trade unionists. In Russia, a leading leftist human rights lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, was shot in downtown Moscow in mid January, along with anarchist journalist Anastasia Baburova.
These are just some of the examples from a depressingly long list of activists who paid with their lives. How do we honour their work and passion?
Back in Durban, for as long as the African National Congress holds power, we can probably only expect official recognition of anti-apartheid fighters from the Congress tradition. Yet the two year long process of renaming streets after these comrades – including even a Che Guevara Road (formerly Moore Rd) – has generated ongoing court cases and time-wasting controversy, pitting ruling-party nationalists against the white petit-bourgeoisie and competing nationalists from the Zulu conservative-ethnicist party Inkatha.
For ANC leaders, this is yet another form of ‘talk left, walk right,’ as struggle symbolism reminds voters going to the polls (on April 22) of a time when the party really did represent the masses’ interests. More than 100 new street names – replacing the old colonial tribute – serve the purpose of temporarily distracting attention from the degeneration of socio-economic conditions under neoliberalism.
The best tribute will be to maintain the work of those killed while opposing post-apartheid state malevolence and corporate greed, in the period after political freedom and free markets ensued in 1994.
(Patrick Bond and Oliver Meth, residents of South Durban, are based at the UKZN Centre for Civil Society: http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs.)