A tale of two city struggles

The Social Justice Coalition’s (SJC) perfectly orchestrated march on Freedom Day for safe sanitation featured a long queue for the toilets at the Cape Town mayor’s offices.

The first thing I noticed was that most of the more than 2 000 marchers were children, which made sense—they are especially vulnerable to the heath dangers posed by inadequate sanitation. The second was that the handwritten placards all bore the same handwriting.

Third, most of the marchers had been bused in from Khayelitsha and were sporting SJC T-shirts. And fourth, the posters advertising the march competed in Adderly Street with those displaying ANC and DA candidates in the local government elections.

Clearly, a lot of resources had gone into the protest—about R200 000, according to some estimates. By contrast, on the same day Abahlali baseMjondolo Western Cape, another Khayelitsha-based organisation, held a shack fire summit in the township’s QQ informal settlement. This was to commemorate those who had lost their lives in shack fires and to launch a campaign for the electrification of shack settlements.

Only 100 people turned out, according to the Cape Times. Other estimates suggested 200. No buses here—most who made it to the Abahlali marquee arrived by their own means, some walking across the vast area that constitutes Khayelitsha to get there. But the SJC and Abahlali differ from each other in more than an unequal access to resources.

Last October, after the protracted civil servants’ strike, Abahlali Western Cape called for a nationwide “month of informal settlement strikes”. The organisation urged affiliates and non-affiliates to take to the streets and barricade them.

“Let us make the whole city of Cape Town ungovernable and let us create chaos throughout the city,” the organisation said. The action reportedly led to the damage of property and was strongly condemned by the SJC, the Treatment Action Campaign, Cosatu and Equal Education. Abahlali was made up of “self-styled revolutionaries” who attacked working people with stones, they said in a joint statement.

Upping the heat, the South African Communist Party later weighed in against Abahlali, calling the road blockades “anarchist and populist”. Abahlali replied: “When the SACP condemns us, it condemns the struggles of the people across the country.”

Back at the Cape Town Civic Centre on Freedom Day the marchers were efficiently marshalled into a snaking queue behind a gleaming porcelain toilet seat propped up on a makeshift stage. To one side was a line of rented toilets in case nature prevailed over symbolism.

After testimonials from Nosakhe Thethafuthi (who endured raw sewage in her yard for two years) and Makhosandile Qezo (who was robbed while relieving himself in the veld), the protestors handed over a memorandum and then watched a rap song about sanitation.

Then a sudden shower of rain sent the crowds scattering away from the courtyard into an adjoining square for shelter. One latecomer, who supported the protest action, commented on the apparent lack of crowd control. If Abahlali baseMjondolo had let a march descend into that kind of disorder, arrests would have been quick to follow, he said.

The standoff between the two organisations is not sitting well with activists. In February, members of both camps attended the Johannesburg conference that formed the Democratic Left Front.

“We mandated people in the Democratic Left Front to get the two organisations together to try to reconcile their differences,” said Martin Legassick, who is on the front’s national steering committee. “Abahlali was willing to do that, but SJC was not,” he said.

Mazibuko Jara, expelled from the SACP, now sits on the same committee as Legassick. The fact that there were differences over the strike did not mean friction between the two groups should be permanent, he said. Efforts to unite the two were continuing and there were some who identified with both formations, Jara said.

“The sharing of perspectives, resources and strategies would be of great benefit to both constituencies and would project a stronger voice to society,” he said.

Legassick added that, although there was a lot of militancy on the ground in the black and coloured townships of the Western Cape, resources were a setback in uniting the various struggles.

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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