/ 27 August 2020

Rich vigilantes have no fear of consequences

March 30 2020 With Schools Closed Across The Country, Children From Lavender Hill In Cape Town Still Get A Daily Meal Prepared By A Local Community Organisation. Lockdown Cape Town. Photo By David Harrison
The country’s social fibre is under strain and one cannot help but feel that something will have to give. (David Harrison/M&G)


On Tuesday, respected Cape high court judges Yasmin Meer and Rosheni Allie issued a groundbreaking ruling which temporarily interdicts the City of Cape Town from demolishing people’s homes without a court order during the national state of disaster. 

The case was brought by the South African Human Rights Commission and social justice movement The Housing Assembly who argued that the City’s anti-land invasion unit (ALIU) was a law unto themselves. Evidence of the City’s repeated misconduct was presented to the court from at least five different court cases.

In paragraph 52 of the judgement, Judge Meer makes the following point in explaining why it is necessary for the courts, and not a biased official of the ALIU, to decide whether it is just and equitable to evict someone from their home. It is unconstitutional because “occupiers are deprived of possession of their structures by a City official who sits in judgement of his or her own case”.

Mayor Dan Plato’s response, in an official press statement, was not only to criticise the judgment and declare the City’s intention to appeal it, but to actively fearmonger about the consequences. The statement says that this judgment sets a dangerous precedent that would “open the floodgates on illegal land invasions”. This despite evidence presented in court to show that occupations are driven, not by judicial oversight, but “by homelessness, poverty and desperation”.

The use of “flood” imagery has precedents (refer to Peter Hallward’s book on Haiti, Damming the Flood) and is a common derogatory way of referring to the “swart gevaar” of poor, black “masses” overriding safe, white suburbs. It turns an important question of access to land, housing and constitutional rights into a seemingly existential battle for the suburban way of life. 

Dan Plato’s fearmongering is in the image of JM Coetzee’s barbarian hordes at the gates ready to overrun and infest civilisation. But the reality is much different. Shack dwellers are normally desperately poor families who are unable to afford rent in the most expensive city in Africa.

Implicit in the mayor’s statement, moreover, was a call to arms for “law-abiding residents”. When the City uses that term, it is not saying that your everyday citizen of Cape Town should help uphold the rule of law. What is actually being advocated is for wealthy landowners and middle-class ratepayers to get organised and take the law into their own hands.

Naturally, the City’s press statement does not say this directly. 

Immediately following the statement, however, neighbourhood or ratepayer Whatsapp and other social media groups were inundated by messages calling for action against “invaders”. For example, a message that was crafted by the Ward 71 Democratic Alliance support team, did the rounds on ratepayer groups, and found its way on to the Facebook wall of Ward 71 Councillor Penny East, calls for “neighbourhood watches to be extra vigilant against any potential person erecting any form of tent or structure on ANY OPEN SPACE and to take action as soon as such land invasions are spotted.”

In this instance, the specific kind of action they have in mind is left to the imagination. However, in another message from Belle Constantia about a week prior to the judgement, a private security company circulated a call from two residents for neighbourhood assistance in conducting “weekly clearing of and looking for illegal structures” on public land and then demolishing these structures themselves. In other words, they are organising fellow landowners to play judge, jury and executioner: to identity makeshift homes they personally feel do not belong and to destroy them without a court order, taking the law into their own hands.

Let’s be clear: this call to arms is landowner vigilantism – unlawful activity backed up by neighbourhood security companies. This is not an instance of law-abiding citizens protecting their rights through counter-spoliation – quite the opposite. It is the kind of lawlessness which only the unaccountable rich and middle classes can justify in protection of their own privilege.

This, of course, already happens to a certain degree throughout Cape Town’s “not in my backyard” resident groups and neighbourhood watches. One need only remember the outcry launched by the suburban fear blog in 2014. 

However, the current call seems to take this to an entirely new level. What will inevitably result from this kind of vigilante activity is the empowering of chauvinism and bigotry with the destruction of the homes and precarious lives of impoverished black people. People who criticise this lawlessness may be ostracised from their own communities. People who resist the demolition of their homes under the cover of darkness may get beaten up or worse.

Yet elite vigilantism does not end here. We only have to look at Latin America or the United States to glimpse the direction in which self-organised landowner groups are headed. In parts of Mexico, for instance, landowners and their hired foot soldiers from poor neighbourhoods have formed heavily armed paramilitary groups to violently dispossess the poor from their homes. These groups have often formed alliances with drug cartels or even become cartels in their own right. As chronicled in the acclaimed film, Roma, paramilitary groups protecting landowners have killed and assassinated thousands of people.

Along the United States border, armed right-wing paramilitary groups such as Arizona Border Recon and United Constitutional Patriots regularly round up migrants, beat them, and then hand them over to US Customs. In a highly publicised instance, the Minutemen American Defense militia invaded the home of Raul Flores, killing him and his nine-year-old daughter, Brisenia.

It is precisely these types of voluntarist organisations that form the basis of political fascism. Once they gain populist legitimacy at the community level and within political factions within the state, they become powerful enough to strike terror into the hearts of their enemies.

The City of Cape Town’s response to these calls for vigilante action by wealthy landowners will be to disown them and request that such groups merely inform the City of illegal occupations. 

But this official line will mask tacit support. 

While top-level politicians attempt to maintain a clean image, their supporters from below, including card carrying Democratic Alliance members, will be doing the dirty work with impunity. They will not be arrested by police, who will inevitably look the other way as poor people’s homes and livelihoods are demolished.

As the shack dweller movement Abahlali baseMjondolo has often pointed out, democracy in this country only exists for the rich. The poor are regularly rejected at police stations when trying to open up cases against violent landowners. Shack fires are seen as accidents rather than a deliberate consequence of state policy. Poor protesters are often shot at and occasionally killed when staging acts of civil disobedience. And a rich person’s home is considered sacrosanct while state forces actively destroy the homes of the poor with impunity.

This kind of wealthy vigilantism takes the divide between elite democracy and poor despotism to another level. If shack-dweller groups cannot rely on the state to protect them from neighbourhood militia, they too will be forced to organise to act in self-defence.

Jared Sacks is founder of a children’s nonprofit organisation and a PhD candidate in the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African studies at Columbia University.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.