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In Climate Of Repression, Who Can Surf South Africa’s Micro-Protest Wave?


The recent surge of unconnected community protests across South Africa confirms the country’s profound social, economic and environmental contradictions. But if activists fall before a new hail of police bullets, or if they lack an overarching political strategy, won’t their demonstrations simply pop up and quickly fall back down again – deserving the curse-words ‘popcorn protests’ – as they run out of steam, or worse, get channelled by opportunists into a new round of xenophobic attacks?

 

It’s been a hot winter, and we’re just halfway through July (the Centre for Civil Society’s Social Protest Observatory keeps tabs: http://ccs.ukzn.ac.za). Consider evidence from just the past two weeks, for example, in Johannesburg’s distant Orange Farm township south of Soweto, where residents rose up against city councillors and national electricity officials because of the unaffordable $250 installation charged for hated prepayment (i.e. self-disconnection) meters, not to mention a 130% increase in electricity prices since 2008.

 

Nearby, in Boksburg’s Holomisa shack settlement, 50 activists were arrested after blocking roads with burning tyres. Likewise, in the port city of East London’s Egoli township, house allocation controversies led to a brief uprising, and down the coast, high-profile Port Elizabeth road barricade protests again broke out over failing services in Walmer township.

 

Near the Botswana border close to Northwest Province’s Morokweng village, a dozen residents angry about inadequate state services were arrested for arson, public violence and malicious damage to school property, following months of frustrated non-violent protest; while in the provincial capital of Mahikeng, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate began an investigation into a death on July 4: “The deceased was allegedly shot and run over by a police vehicle during a service delivery protest in the area.

 

In Free State Province’s capital of Bloemfontein, 300 community protesters barricaded a main road with rocks, and in a separate incident, when municipal police began forcibly removing street traders from a shopping centre, a community demonstration shifted targets: from a cruel city council to the nearest Other victims, immigrant hawkers. The protest forced 500 to flee, reviving memories of the deadly copy-cat anti-immigrant attacks of mid-2008 and mid-2010; the police arrested more than 100.

 

Days later, the same thing happened twice in Cape Town, at the huge Mitchells Plains township and close to the International Airport, with community xenophobes targeting Somali-owned spaza shops. Cretins from the Western Cape provincial African National Congress (ANC) executive had fuelled these flames with a blatant policy proposal aimed at outlawing foreign-owned shops.

 

More and more frequently, it seems, community-based popcorn protests can hang in the air long enough for opportunists to blow them onto xenophobic terrain, if the political wind shifts from left to right and residents think and act only with localistic perceptions, inconsiderate about why so many refugees are forced into South Africa thanks to Pretoria’s subimperialist political and economic policies.

 

Durban’s protest swell

 

Durban may have been South Africa’s most active protest site in recent days, including high-profile middle-class demonstrations close to the town centre: a peaceful march against rhino poachers and a picket against animal abuse at the Brian Boswell Circus. 

 

The city’s most disruptive recent demonstration was the occupation of a key spine road, Umgeni, last Wednesday by furious residents of Puntan’s Hill shack settlement. One protester was killed and two others injured, run over at 4am by a motorist who has been charged with culpable homicide, though he claims he was innocently trying to escape the blockade.

 

The latter incident was sparked by community ANC loyalists victimised by the ANC-run municipality’s disconnections of illegal electricity hook-ups to their shacks. They also complained of non-delivery of housing notwithstanding their councillor’s repeated promises. As a result of the protest, Puntan’s Hill activists received a new commitment from authorities that new houses would be fast-tracked and that some families would be relocated to a long-promised housing project, Cornubia, near the city’s wealthiest new suburb, Umhlanga.

 

Last Thursday, another Durban protest march – by AIDS treatment activists – ended at City Hall but was aimed mainly against Barack Obama, who recently cut the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS, thus canceling life-saving treatment for thousands of local residents at two downtown hospitals and an NGO clinic in Umlazi township. On Sunday, some of Durban’s treatment activists will protest again at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, in a coalition called Keep the Promise supported by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other notables.

 

Another Durban protest, on July 6, entailed tyre burning and a road blockade in Mariannridge, as residents blamed yet another local councillor for lack of adequate housing.

 

I witnessed two other manifestations of social unrest last week in South Durban. In the petro-chemical complex of Jacobs on Friday morning, the notorious corporate polluter FFS Refiners, specialising in waste oil recovery, was targeted by the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance’s 75 protesters. The company’s chief executive, Don Hunter, long denied that FFS emissions were the source of an awful ‘cats-wee’ (methanethiol) stench, but he was finally caught by the lethargic municipal environmental health department (the smell began nearly two years ago), so the protest spirit was fiery after this small but significant victory. 

 

Racial integration of this protest, in a very divided, neo-apartheid urban context, occurred with the arrival of ‘Occupy Umlazi’ and Abahlali baseMjondolo activists. The same solidarity was offered nearby a few months earlier, when truck transport firms’ irresponsibility compelled 400 mainly working-class white protesters to invade the main Solomon Mahlangu (Edwin Swales) Drive that links South Durban to the M4 highway.

 

The broader struggle here is to retake the South Durban Basin’s sprawling valley from ecologically-poisonous capital and an uncaring municipality, a struggle that continues on Thursday night at the Merebank Community Centre when activists consider how to reverse the city’s $30 billion ‘Back-of-Port’ construction project. Thanks to the deepening of Durban harbour – already Africa’s largest – and its capacity to unload mega-ships holding 15,000 containers at a time, the new container terminals and proposed dug-out harbour (on the old airport site) will wipe out large neighbourhoods.

 

These include 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. Just a half year following Durban’s hosting of the UN Climate Summit, the extreme emissions associated with port and petro-industrial expansion ridicule our managers’ claims to be environmentally conscious.

 

About 15 minutes drive south of the port, Occupy Umlazi continues on bush land taken in the huge township’s Ward 88, not far from the infamous Max’s Lifestyle Club frequented by local black elites. A large tent was erected next door to the office of ANC councillor Nomzamo Mkhize, who for the last fortnight has tried to ignore the protest. At Sunday afternoon’s meeting of two hundred residents, Abahlali secretary Bandile Mdlalose gave fearless leadership, observing that ANC supporters were doing the power structure’s dirty work in nearby Zakhele shack settlement. There, late last month, Occupy Umlazi activists Noxolo Mkanyi and Mkhayi Simelani were shot and hospitalized in a late night raid by political thugs.

 

A few kilometres further south, in Folweni Reserve township, teenager Mxolisi Buthelezi was fatally shot in the back with an R5 rifle while running away from police, during a July 1 service delivery protest of 1500 people. A few days before that incident, 43 people were arrested in a similar protest. Their efforts at least managed to reverse a 25% taxi price increase. The cop who allegedly killed the youth, Msizi Chiliza, committed suicide a few days later.

 

Violence in the air

 

Durban can be a wickedly violent town, rife with internecine political rivalries settled by the bullet. Bodyguards are now required by leading municipal officials – including the police chief – who have become justifiably frightened by how high the crony-capitalist stakes became after an anti-corruption investigation, the Mamase Report, fingered not only former mayor Obed Mlaba and municipal manager Mike Sutcliffe, but numerous councillors and allied businesses. Several well-connected construction firms still get housing contracts in spite of past work that is so shoddy, hundreds of their structures collapse during stormy weather.

 

The air of violence explains the scare last Friday night, when Durban police in an unmarked car suspiciously followed the national metalworkers’ union secretary, Irvin Jim, from the SA Communist Party’s big conference in northern KwaZulu-Natal. This raised speculation of a potential hit job given how the union is being targeted by elites for being too independent-minded and for advocating large-scale nationalisation.

 

Communist Party leader Blade Nzimande downplayed Jim’s concerns, claiming the men were simply guarding Durban mayor James Nxumalo but got lost. Unconvinced, union spokesperson Castro Ngobese remarked of the car’s passengers, whom Jim’s bodyguards confronted, “Surprisingly they did not know the name of the mayor, and even worse they could not produce authentic SA Police Service identification cards. The cars had false registration plates and were heavily armed.”

 

The incident comes just after the unsolved murder of regional ANC leader Wandile Mkhize on July 2, immediately following the ruling party’s controversial policy conference. Mkhize’s last SMS – to former ANC Youth League leader Fikile Mbalula – included the confession, “The stories and lies we fed as members to some of you in leadership further served to deepen the contradiction,” i.e., between the youth and ruling party’s national executive.

 

Party infighting is also blamed for last July’s hit on Durban’s leading ANC official, Sbu Sibiya, shortly after ANC councillor Wiseman Mshibe was shot dead. Several leaders of a small breakaway from the Inkatha Freedom Party – the National Democratic Party – were also executed in cold blood last year.

 

Every activist here is aware of the Cato Manor Police Station, located within a black township (just below the University of KwaZulu-Natal from where I write). Dozens of its recent police staff are under investigation for involvement in the station's alleged hit squad, reported to be responsible for more than 50 murders in recent years.

 

Challenging power durably

 

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

 

In such cases, just as during apartheid, assassinations can be understood as an honour: acknowledgement that activists are doing a good job targeting the local power structure, which in turn is often being squeezed by national and international pressures to clamp down on dissent, so as to more decisively impose the austerity policies generating these sorts of uprisings across the world.

 

South Africa, however, suffers from far too many activists and analysts who promote a localist ideology that begins and ends with the municipal councillor, city manager or mayor. There are too many turf-conscious leaders who look inward, failing to grasp golden opportunities to link labour, community and environmental grievances and protests, and to think globally while acting locally.

 

Most encouragingly, perhaps, in Cape Town the South African Municipal Workers’ Union and local civic organisations signaled a future direction for protest, when on July 5 several hundred marched in unity against both poor service delivery and mayor Patricia DeLille’s neoliberal version of a public works programme, which amounts to union-busting outsourcing. Declared union leader Mario Jacobs, “In the future we plan to involve more organisations and will bring thousands of people to take part.”

 

The tests in Cape Town are whether further community protests attract labour’s support and whether they, like others emerging across the land, succumb to resurgent xenophobia and hijacking (or repression) by ANC cadre. Across South Africa, similar efforts to unite unions with township, rural and green groups – especially by the Democratic Left Front led by ex-communists, and the Million Climate Jobs campaign based at Cape Town’s Alternative Information and Development Centre – are another test of progress.

 

If the wave of courageous protests continues, it is because new layers of activists are emerging whose backs are up against the wall, but who won’t give in. If police or party thugs do not intimidate them, their next step towards power will be to link up, meld micro-protests into a movement much bigger than the sum of the parts, and then make the political case: not only against a local councillor here or there, but against the broader economic system responsible for our standing as the world’s most unequal society.

 

Patrick Bond directs the Centre for Civil Society in Durban. 

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