There was something unfettered about the police rubber bullets fired at the Kennedy Road informal settlement in Durban on Tuesday night.
As I climbed towards the Kennedy Road Community Hall I saw an old woman duck out of her doorway to throw dishwater into the muddy alley outside her shack. ”Get back, you maders [short for maderchod, Hindi for motherfucker], get back inside or we’re coming for you,” a policeman shouted.
Standing next to resident Mondli Magwaza, I peered around a wall at the policemen and vehicles on the road through this anthill of a settlement, which houses 7Ã‚Â 000 people.
Apparently without warning shooting erupted. As an overhead light near us shattered, people scrambled into the shacks.
It was after 9pm and the police had blocked off both ends of Kennedy Road near the settlement and had been firing for about an hour.
Earlier they had used teargas and rubber projectiles to disperse a crowd of more than 500 shack-dwellers gathered at the community hall to discuss the arrest of Sbu Zikode and Philani Zungu, respectively president and vice-president of the shack-dwellers’ organisation Abahlali baseMjondolo.
Zikode, Zungu and Abahlali public relations officer Mnikelo Ndabankula were stopped by police in their rented car before going to a 6pm interview at the local radio station, Gagasi FM.
According to Superintendent Glen Nayager of the Sydenham police station two members of the Sydenham crime prevention unit approached the parked car because a similar vehicle had been used in a robbery. Zikode, a former Sydenham police station reservist, and Zungu were arrested after allegedly becoming abusive. On Wednesday, they appeared in the Durban High Court on charges of assaulting a policeman and resisting arrest, and were released on bail.
Versions of what happened at the community meeting differ wildly. Nayager said the heavy police presence followed reports of an emergency car being stoned by the gathering.
”I negotiated with the crowd to get them to disperse, but when their representative went back to them, they stoned him and the police.”
He also said seven shots were fired by the crowd, prompting police to respond with rubber bullets and ”keep a presence there for the rest of the night”.
Magwaza insisted there was no shooting by residents, saying police had opened fire from as close as 6m, wounding Nondomiso Mke in the leg.
Following their court appearance, Zungu said that Nayager had assaulted him after his arrest. ”I was punched and had my head beaten against the wall by Nayager until I fainted,” he said. ”He kicked me in the private parts and when I asked him why, he said, ‘Because you are a ball.”’
Nayager responded: ”I had nothing to do with their arrest. I can’t comment on the allegations against me.”
At Sydenham police station on Tuesday night, a shirtless Ndabankula told the Mail & Guardian: ”When they arrested Zikode and Philani they ripped the shirt off me and said, ‘These red shirts [worn by Abahlali members], we will use them to mop the floor.’ Then they threw it on the ground and stamped on it.
”The police in Sydenham can’t stand us because we know our rights and are fighting for them.”
Shirts with slogans like ”Talk to us, not about us”, made for this week’s provincial housing summit, aimed to highlight Abahlali’s limited access to the conference. Abahlali, which represents 30 shack settlements in Durban, Pinetown and Pietermaritzburg, came to public notice earlier this year after calling for a boycott of the municipal elections. In the past fortnight, it has been the subject of close official attention.
Last week, it presented a memorandum to Durban’s city manager, Mike Sutcliff, using the Access to Information Act to seek clarity on the shack-dwellers’ future and the city’s low-cost housing plans.
Afterwards, provincial housing department officials, including department head, Mxolisi Nkosi, allegedly called a meeting at which Nkosi instructed the organisation not to speak to the media.
Briefing the media at this week’s provincial housing summit KwaZulu-Natal Housing Minister Mike Mabuyakhulu alleged that Abahlali was ”funded by international organisations intent on destabilising the country”.
He refused to elaborate, but his comment was an apparent reference to the support Abahlali is receiving from left-wingers linked to South Africa’s social movements.
”It worries me that there are suggestions of a third force behind Abahlali and that I am being considered enemy number one by the KwaZulu-Natal government,” Zikode said.
The Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) criticised police conduct in both Kennedy Road and at the Sydenham station, saying it constituted ”illegal repressive behaviour”, which ”prevented citizens from exercising their constitutional right to gather, associate and freely express themselves” and violated the Regulation of Gathering Act.
The FXI added that the action of the police ”as if they are above the law, is an extremely disturbing trend of late in all parts of South Africa”.