/ 20 September 2012

Apolitical truth about civil disobedience

Service delivery protests in Cape Town have given rise to a great deal of commentary and finger-pointing.
Service delivery protests in Cape Town have given rise to a great deal of commentary and finger-pointing.

Over much of this past winter, communities in shack settlements across Cape Town took to the streets in some of South Africa's most active civil-disobedience protests since 1994.

The protests gave rise to a great deal of commentary and finger-pointing. I was disturbed by the double standard of the political rhetoric of politicians and some nongovernmental organisations in the way they expected the protesters to react in response to the violence the state and police subjects them to on a daily basis.

I was also concerned about the way these bigger political players moralised the debate, which shifted the focus from the perfectly legitimate issues of service delivery and meaningful engagement raised by the protesters to a soap opera in which analysis was replaced by empty electoral hyperbole.

Three weeks ago, I met community members from one of the protesting shack settlements, one of those that politicians were holding up as a key example on the issue. Talking to the committee members of Sweet Home Farm, an informal settlement of 15 000 people in the Philippi area, revealed a yawning chasm between what the official players are saying about Sweet Home and the realities on the ground.

I began to research Sweet Home, visiting the settlement a number of times and talking to committee members, ordinary residents, members of a rival committee and anyone who knew anything about the social and political make-up of the area.

My findings were shocking. Not least because it showed that Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille was wrong when she insinuated that the ANC Youth League was involved in co-ordinating the protests at the settlement. They were also surprising because they showed that neither the youth league nor any other organisation affiliated to the ANC was a participant in the protests. In fact, community members were not only protesting against the City of Cape Town and its Democratic Alliance (DA) representative, they were also taking to the streets because they were angry with their ANC councillor and his relationship with a local henchman.

My discussions with people on the ground quickly revealed that the protests were not instigated or organised by any political parties but, rather, were the result of the shack dwellers' indignation at the way in which their dignity was routinely affronted by politicians and government officials. Even the residents who vote for the DA in elections were protesting and they were doing so with full knowledge of the political contradiction of such actions.

As Nobanazi, a single mother of three, made clear to me when I interviewed her: "We are not fighting because we want to mess things. We are fighting because we are struggling. Inside our hearts there is no peace."

Nobanzi is not a politician, a revolutionary, an "anarchist" or even a "hooligan". She also does not condone the destruction of property. And yet she participated in the mass civil disobedience, which blockaded roads and destroyed traffic lights, because she felt that this was the only way she and others could get the attention of government.

Here is a list of some of the reasons why Sweet Home residents believe they have been forced to protest in a manner that seeks to cause disruption by, for example, blockading roads and destroying property:

  • Their garbage is not taken away every week as it is in other parts of the city, leaving the settlement extremely dirty, unattractive and unhygienic;
  • Most of their toilets are broken, leaking or otherwise unsanitary;
  • The homes of only some residents have been connected to electricity;
  • The open-air sewage canals built by the city are unsanitary and unsafe for children to play in. A nearby business has blocked the canal, with the result that raw sewage floods into homes when it rains;
  • The unsanitary conditions are a threat to the health of residents, particularly children and the elderly;
  • They are angry at Ward 80 councillor Thembinkosi Pupa for not working with them to meet their needs and for ignoring residents when they attempt to engage on issues; and
  • They are angry at the mayor and other City of Cape Town officials for ignoring them and failing to engage meaningfully with the community on urgent development issues.

It is clear that the protesters are responding to the structural violence of the state, to the structural violence of a society that hates the poor, that denies them livelihoods and leaves them landless, homeless and living in appalling conditions.

South African society shoots protesters already damaged by poverty, massacres workers already victimised by their bosses and is so unabashedly violent that it calls for yet further militarisation in our workplaces and in our communities.

Shack dwellers
As they did at Marikana, the police have surrounded Sweet Home and other shack settlements such as Barcelona, Europe and BM Section to deter future road blockades.

Yet they cannot stop all shack dwellers from taking to the streets all the time. In fact, just last week, shack dwellers from the small railway town of Touws River took to the streets and blockaded the N1 freeway for much of the day.

In Cape Town alone, there are hundreds of shack settlements whose residents are fed up with the conditions in which they live. Any one of them could rise up in protest at any moment.

A state that treats the most oppressed people in society as if they were some sort of internal enemy, funded by a mysterious third force, is a state that is completely failing to address the gross inequalities in our society. Such an approach to governance shows that South Africa is engaging in a new kind of colonialism.

The conspiracy theories that NGOs and politicians peddle to try to explain away the rising tide of protest in Cape Town have little to do with reality and are a further affront to the dignity of the city's poorest residents.

Neocolonial policing methods may contain protest here and there, but they are not capable of stopping it altogether.

Only a response by government that acknowledges the dignity of poor black South Africans and actually attempts to work with them to address their grievances can possibly stem the tide of these protests. Until then, De Lille will merely be using the police to play musical chairs with protesting shack dwellers.

Jared Sacks is a Cape Town-based social justice activist and founder of the non-profit organisation ­Children of South Africa

  • Read the full report here