'Walk of Witness' to replace violent protest in Khayelitsha

Glynnis Underhill

Religious leaders in Cape Town have taken a new approach to problems in Khayelitsha: they investigated locally instead of staging violent protests.

A small miracle has happened in Cape Town. Instead of violent protests, religious leaders including Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, civil society and a forum representing protesters on Thursday explored the root of the discontent and staged a "Walk of Witness" in Khayelitsha.

This first "Walk of Witness" was the result of a mediated attempt by interested groups to come together to help resolve the plight of residents in townships and informal settlements in a peaceful way, said Elizabeth Petersen, the interim director of the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum.

"The religious leaders and others are looking at the conditions that sparked the protests," said Petersen. "After our consultation with the protester's forum, the religious leaders want to see what the circumstances are. They just want to listen and see it for themselves."

Makgoba was part of a group of 86 signatories – consisting of prominent South Africans and former anti-apartheid activists including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu – which recently wrote a public statement condemning activists saying they want to make the Western Cape ungovernable.

"Making areas of South Africa ungovernable was a tactic of the African National Congress [ANC] and its allies during the struggle against the racist apartheid system in the 1980s," the group of 86 wrote in the open letter. "The ANC runs the national government of South Africa and has control of eight of the country's nine provinces, but it does not control the Western Cape, which is in the hands of the Democratic Alliance. We call on the religious communities as well as politicians of all parties to call on the activists engaged in this destabilisation project to cease and desist and return to the values that this country is supposed to uphold."

While the open letter caused a stir, and some bitterness from the protesters, there appeared to be a stalemate on all fronts. An illegal march on the city last week was called off on Thursday night by its organisers after the City of Cape Town was granted an urgent interdict to prevent the protest from taking place.

At the time the spokesperson for the Cape Town Informal Settlements Organisation, Sthembele Majava, told the Mail & Guardian that community representatives held a meeting in Site C in Khayelitsha to decide whether to continue with the march. "We weren't worried there could be violence, and we weren't worried about the City of Cape Town or the police," said Majava. "We just have to respect the judicial system."

Many Cape Town residents expressed relief that the court developments had put a stop to the march, which was expected to cause havoc in the city. Before cancelling the march, Majava said that he would like to ask all businesses in the city to close their doors to ensure there was no looting, as had happened during the previous march by the organisation in October.

Recreational land
Majava told the M&G poverty was forcing people to live in appalling conditions in informal settlements, which were positioned far outside of the city, and this was the reason behind the march. The organisation had its eye on pockets of public recreational land in the city's southern suburbs for residential use.

Arms deal activist Terry Crawford-Browne, who went to the Constitutional Court to force President Jacob Zuma's hand to set up a commission of inquiry into allegations of corruption in the R70-billion 1999 arms deal, has also thrown himself into the constructive engagement project.

With the core of the gathering being the Group of 86, and members of the newly-named broad representative forum of the protest network Sesikhona, a peoples' rights movement, the Khayelitsha gathering inspected the controversial mobile toilets and observed the conditions.

"The wetlands that flood in winter and are full of rubbish and dirt, [and they] smell," said Crawford-Browne. "The essential thing is the demand of local organisations that they want the eradication of the informal settlements, and not improvement of the buckets. They say the land is available, if only there was the political will."

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