/ 12 October 2010

Leaderless community self-destructs

Leaderless Community Self Destructs

Birds of prey hover over the Kennedy Road informal settlement in Durban. Swooping through the nauseatingly sweet air, perfumed to mask the stench of a landfill site just across the fence, they pick at the detritus below.

Mired in squalor on the periphery of society, communities like the estimated 8000 people who live here have long attracted predators: politicians, shacklords, academics, journalists, NGOs, tavern owners and others out to make a quick buck from human misery.

Even the rebuilding of homes after shack fires ­- eight have ravaged the settlement this year alone, the worst gutting 800 homes in July — has allegedly been corrupted.

Said resident Msawakhe Sangweni: “After the first few fires, the [eThekwini] municipality started building the amaTins (metal shacks) for people, but these things were too small for big families. We asked for the materials so we could rebuild ourselves. But the materials arrive and then go missing.”

Sangweni echoed community suspicion that the building materials, handed to a community policing forum (CPF) — seen to be aligned to the ANC ­- for distribution to residents, had been sold outside the community. “The committee says there is an investigation into this, but we don’t know anything,” he said.

Forum chairperson Jomo Gwala confirmed that an investigation was taking place, but would not comment further. The CPF was established in September last year after youth leaders of the shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, were set upon by a mob chanting anti-Mpondo sentiments. It triggered a night of terror and violence that left two people, Nthokozisi Ndlovu and Ndumiso Mnguni, dead.

Abahlali leaders fled for their lives and into hiding, as did several hundred others. Abahlali alleged the attack was an attempt by the local ANC to disembowel the movement, one of the largest of its kind with more than 3 000 paid-up members and claiming many other informal followers in 25 communities in KwaZulu-Natal and others in the Western Cape.

Thirteen members of the Abahlali-aligned Kennedy Road Development Committee were arrested for the murders, with police alleging that they were behind the killings. One has since been acquitted after three months in jail, seven were released on bail in November last year and the remaining five in July this year. After several delays, the trial is expected to start in late November. The charges include two counts of murder, attempted murder and armed robbery.

Abahlali has called the investigation into the attacks “blatantly political” and the judicial process “distorted”. The movement’s call on government for an independent judicial inquiry into the attacks has fallen on deaf ears.

A year has passed since the attacks on the night of September 26 and the following morning. What happened that night remains as murky as the rivulets of water, turned a milky blue-grey by sewage and washing, that run through the settlement.

A few days after the violence, at a meeting called by KwaZulu-Natal safety and security minister Willies Mchunu, where he claimed that Kennedy Road had been “liberated” from Abahlali, the CPF was formed.

At the meeting the chairperson of the municipality’s housing committee, Nigel Gumede, said that Abahlali’s oppositional approach to the municipality had blocked development. Gumede promised the community electricity connections and housing in the new Cornubia development by February this year.

A year later electricity has not been installed and, Gumede said, the Cornubia development has yet to break ground. “There was no policy to reticulate electricity in informal settlements,” he said. “We have been working on that. And there is also the issue of shacks of low quality not being able to hold the electrical-ready boards.”

There are other changes at Kennedy Road. There are more amaTins. The drop-in centre and crèche run by the community no longer operates, and the hall, once a common resource for meetings, is dilapidated and home to refugees from the last fire.

Malodorous rubbish piles up because the community’s clean-up campaigns have ceased, whereas toilets installed months ago have not been cleaned. Some residents say they are uncertain about their future, because communication between them, the CPF and the municipality is nonexistent.

One resident who spoke anonymously to the Mail & Guardian said: “Whenever I go to the committee with a problem or to help with a proof of residency [to access social grants and identity documents], they say ‘I’m not the chairperson.’ And they tell me to go away.”

Gwala said representation for Kennedy Road was in chaos. “Ward 25 [where the settlement is situated] does not have a single ANC branch executive; that’s why things are mixed up. There are two branch executives, the old and the new. No one will be sure who is leading Kennedy Road until this is settled.”

On why the settlement could not vote in a non-ANC committee, as was the case previously, Gwala said: “If I have a problem, I’m supposed to report to the BEC [branch executive committee], who reports to the councillor’s office, who will take it to [Mayor Obed] Mlaba’s office. That is how it works.”

Zama Ndlovu (28) used to work at the drop-in centre, which cares for up to 50 children a day while “their parents went to work or to look for a job”.

After the death of her mother and aunt, Ndlovu’s job allowed her to support her own son, four-year-old Nhlaka, as well as a sister, a nephew and a cousin, all between eight and 15 years old. Since the attacks, she has worked intermittently.

Ndlovu, who is studying by correspondence for a diploma in human resource management, said: “When you finish matric and do tertiary [education], you feel like you have the world in the palm of your hand. Then you realise there are no jobs. Eventually in June I felt I had to be more adult because the people I’m responsible for can’t go to bed hungry, so I did domestic work for R45 a day. I never thought of myself as a domestic, but I’m the elder at home now.”

It was school holidays when the M&G visited Kennedy. Children wandered around the settlement. Ndlovu looked wistfully at her son and said: “There’s nothing for these children now. At the crèche there was a playground and things for them to do; we’d also give them a hot meal. Now people have started home crèches, but five children in a small shack is terrible for them. And it’s more expensive, R10 a day. We used to charge R20 a month and even then many couldn’t afford it.”

The lives of those arrested for the murders have also changed. Thokozane Mthwana, one of the “Kennedy Road 12”, gave his version of the night of terror: “I thought the police had come to save us from the mob, and I got into the van. But when we got to the station, they arrested us,” he said. Mthwana’s home and tuck shop, with all its stock, was looted and destroyed that night. Having previously worked as a security guard to support his three children and three nephews, he has been unable to find a job since. “I lost my job when I was arrested last year and now no one will hire me because of the case.”

Mthwana’s plight appears especially tragic. His mother, who helped support the six children he cared for with her pension, recently died.

He said his two-month stint in prison was “very difficult”. “You have to buy your life in prison. You need Boxer [tobacco] or something like that to buy life. Things happen to you that I can’t explain to you. Even to sleep at night, you need to buy it.”

With its Kennedy Road headquarters looted, Abahlali now operates out of a small office in downtown Durban. There, Sbu Zikode’s five-year-old son picked at a newspaper article with a black-and-white photo of Kennedy Road pasted on the wall. Their home has since been destroyed.

Zikode said the settlement has changed almost unrecognisably since the attacks. Looking dejected for a second, he said: “It’s only now we’re allowing ourselves to feel the effect of the attacks on our families. For a long time we were dealing with the attacks, people being displaced, the movement, trying to make sense of what happened. It’s only now that some things are starting to sink in.”

Abahlali itself appears to be at a watershed after five years of existence. Kennedy Road, its symbolic heart, has been wrenched away. There were tentative attempts to return and a Kennedy Road in Exile branch, with more than 100 members, was formed.

The movement continues to negotiate with the municipality over in situ upgrades in 14 informal settlements around Durban, including Kennedy Road. The impression remains that it still holds the view that “living politics” remains more important than the agendas of NGOs or funders.

There are now questions about whether it will go the route of other social movements, like the Anti-Privatisation Forum, whose support and voice seem to have ebbed away.