Abahlali baseMjondolo is the largest poor people’s movement to have emerged in post-apartheid South Africa. The movement has confronted considerable repression at the hands of the state since its formation in 2005. This repression came to a head on the night of September 27th 2009 when an armed mob, self-identifying as ANC supporters many of who were intoxicated, massed in the Kennedy Road settlement, launching an assault on its inhabitants. They framed their attack in ethnic terms, declaring Abahlali, a multi-racial and multi-ethnic organisation, to be a ‘Pondo organisation’.
The mob descended on the Community Hall where Abahlali youth were holding an all-night camp. And later the mob attacked individual homes looking for Abahlali members and saying openly that they were going to deal with the movement’s president and vice-president. The police were called; but they did nothing, turning a blind eye. The violence continued into the next day leaving two people dead. Up to a thousand people were driven out of the settlement. Clearly the police had their orders. At the provincial level the criminalization of Abahlali was already occurring and it seemed far from coincidental that the coup at Kennedy had been planned and went to the top of the provincial government as retaliation for the movement’s successful challenge to the province’s Slums Act; a challenge that was won in the constitutional court just a few days after the attack. [i] At the local level, Abahlali was violently purged from Kennedy Road. Democracy was replaced by ANC patronage; staying in the settlement required publicly demonstrating allegiance to the ANC. For months after the attack the homes of Abahlali members were brazenly looted and destroyed.
Abahlali, with the support of many others, called for an independent commission of inquiry that would examine all aspects of the violence. But the ANC instead set up a 'task team' that treated Abahlali as an illegitimate and criminal organisation and the police arrested 12 of its members on a range of charges relating to the attack including murder.
Almost two years later the magistrate, Sharon Marks, threw out the whole case saying that the charges against the 12 were baseless. She described the state’s witnesses as ‘dishonest’, but it was on their apparent evidence that five of the 12 accused had been denied bail for a year and suffered in the notoriously brutal Westville prison. Abahlali knew they had been set up and they knew the twelve were innocent; but a politically motivated campaign aided by paid and unpaid hacks for the provincial state and its political patronage machine launched a major disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting Abahlali.
Most of the time the left in South Africa does very little to effect change or promote the rights of those living in astounding poverty, seventeen years after Nelson Mandela’s historic election. But what is shocking is when leftists who are supposed to have a theoretical understanding of politics, uncritically support the state’s criminalization of a grassroots political movement of poor people, and give credence to the lies perpetuated by local political entrepreneurs and the police. When the Bishop of KwaZulu-Natal, Rubin Philip and the distinguished historian Jeff Guy, among others, called for an independent inquiry into what had happened at Kennedy Road, they were accused in the Durban press of supporting the murder of innocents. It meant that a real investigation into the violent attack on Abahlali could be brushed aside while the perpetrators of the violence went free and the real circumstances of the deaths of the two men went unexamined.
While the authoritarian edge of the left had sentenced Abahlali in the court of public opinion, the state was not able to present any credible evidence against any of the accused at the trail. The state could not find a single reliable witness to testify against the accused. And Witness X, who had pointed out the accused in an identity parade, said in court that she was only pointing out people who had been part of an imfeme dance group and that three statements written down at the police station against the accused were false. She added that she had actually seen three other men involved in the stabbings and would be prepared to testify against them if they were charged.[ii]
The magistrate concluded that the witnesses against the 12 were belligerent and contradictory, and she voiced concern that they had been coached. So the Kennedy Road 12 were freed, but they had been robbed of two years of their lives, as well as their homes and livelihoods. It is clear that we need an independent enquiry to uncover the truth of what happened.
Much of the time, criminal acts against the poor are not even prosecuted or at the very least is delayed. And on the other hand, the time and money needed to prove means that often the courts are stacked against poor people. In the case of the Kennedy 12, without the support of Church organizations, human rights and other grass roots organizations as well as academics around the world, justice would have been denied. The Kennedy 12 were represented in court by the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI) whose executive director, Jackie Dugard, said after the verdict that ‘It has been clear for some time that the Kennedy Road accused were charged not because they had done anything wrong, but because they were associated with Abahlali’. She went on to say that the verdict was not only ‘a complete vindication of Abahlali’ but ‘raises worrying questions about police complicity in attempts to repress Abahlali’s legitimate and lawful activities on behalf of poor and vulnerable people living in informal settlements across South Africa’.
The case was thrown out on Mandela day 2011. The day commemorates Mandela’s sacrifice and struggle and what he called his ‘long walk for freedom’. But in post-Apartheid South Africa, political repression continues. ‘We will be celebrating our daily Mandela day,’ said Abahlali who don’t need to be taught about the class nature of the state: ‘This is what the state can do. It can take you out of your home, away from your work and lock you up in a place … where you are regularly beaten. It can do this to you with no evidence against you and with no apology … we don’t enjoy the so-called “freedom” that we are always being told to celebrate’. This, Abahlali continued is ‘the lie of our democracy, the democracy that serves the interest of the few, while the majority of us live in deep poverty.’
Conditions at Kennedy Road have deteriorated and the ANC promises about ‘development’ remain unmet. Against the attacks on those who resist repression Abahlali remains defiant, ‘we will beat you in the streets and in the courts.’ Reminiscent of the wonderful poem by Shelley, ‘the mask of anarchy’, they conclude, ‘we are many and have proven to the world that we have the courage to stand together and to face repression and lies … our Movement will move forward without any fear of any thuggery from any politician. We will continue to be together and to find courage in our unity’.
Nigel C. Gibson is a visiting research fellow at the School of Development Studies, University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa and author of Fanonian Practices in South Africa: From Steve Biko to Abahlali baseMjondolo.
[i] . See Nigel Gibson and Raj Patel, “Democracy’s everyday death: South Africa’s quiet coup,” http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/59322.
[ii] A full transcript of the trial is available at http://www.seri-sa.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=85:state-v-limpaphi-and-11-others-kennedy-12&catid=19&Itemid=41