/ 7 March 2024

South African society dumps disdain on all the other Tintswalos

Graphic Tl Calland Contempt Twitter 1200px
(Graphic:John McCann/M&G)

The Lindokuhle Mnguni land occupation in Rosherville is a modest attempt to create a collectively planned and managed community in the post-industrial wastelands on the outskirts of Johannesburg. There are homes and gardens, careful street design and plans for a crèche, community hall, workshop and a political school. Its residents come from across the country, and beyond its borders, and are trying to make a dignified life together.

The occupation is named after Lindokuhle Mnguni, the softly spoken young man who led the construction of the eKhenana Commune in Durban. Born in 1994, he was assassinated on 20 August 2022. 

The eKhenana Commune was created as an affirmation of the value of life, as a way to, in particular, give dignity, meaning and possibility to people scorned by society. But it was always saturated with an awareness of death, of death meted out in response to the defence of a social logic against violent forms of predatory accumulation mediated through the local structures of the ANC.

The community garden in the eKhenana Commune was named after Nkululeko Gwala, assassinated in Durban on 26 June 2013. The community hall was named after Thuli Ndlovu, assassinated in Pinetown on 29 September 2014. The egg and poultry project, run off pirated electricity, was named after S’fiso Ngobo, assassinated in Dassenhoek on 22 May 2018. 

On 8 March 2022 Ayanda Ngila was the first leader in the commune to be assassinated. Nokuthula Mabaso, murdered on 5 May 2022, was the second. On 15 June that year Mnguni, giving a public talk in Johannesburg for Youth Day, spoke about his decision to accept the inevitability of death. 

He had made a choice to give his life meaning by committing to a political project that he knew would end in death. He was assassinated a little over two months later. Interested in radical ideas since high school, he gave his life meaning by committing to the inevitability of what Black Panther Party founder Huey P Newton called revolutionary suicide. 

Cyril Ramaphosa did not mention Mnguni, born like Tintswalo in 1994, in his State of the Nation address last month. He has never mentioned the assassination, let alone come to visit Mnguni’s family and comrades. He has never acknowledged any of the many assassinations of grassroots activists in Durban, a city firmly in the grip of a merciless political mafia. Zandile Gumede, the former eThekwini mayor and a central figure in that mafia, will be taking a leading role in the ANC’s election campaign in Durban.

Millions of people will still support the ANC on 29 May. People are not wrong to say that the ANC has brought them grants, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and access to life-saving anti-retroviral medication. There are people whose lives have followed trajectories like that of Tintswalo. There are people who have moved, through NSFAS, from homes in shacks sustained by grants and precarious labour to professional lives in middle class suburbs.

But the arc of Mnguni’s life from school to unemployment, a bid for dignity and meaning, a bid to open the flow of a blocked life, imprisonment on bogus charges and then assassination and all the intense swirling emotions of a political funeral illuminates at least as much about South Africa under the ANC as the story of Tintswalo. 

In Johannesburg the ANC is nowhere near as violent as in Durban. But there are evictions, of course, and the Lindokuhle Mnguni occupation has suffered violence and theft during an eviction and more state violence on a road blockade. 

The state is not the only vector of contempt. There is constant dumping of building rubble and other kinds of waste among the shacks. There are sheets of shattered glass in the building rubble. Twice a week a load of refuse from McDonald’s is dumped in the occupation. There’s plenty of rubbish from KFC too. Along with building contractors and local businesses middle-class residents from a nearby gated community also dump in the occupation. People demanding that drivers take their cargo to the municipal dumping site have been threatened at gunpoint.

The problem of dumping in this occupation is unusual in terms of the volume and regularity. It is no aberration, though. Across the country it has long been common practice for waste to be dumped in shack settlements, and for the state to allow this to happen with impunity. Unsurprisingly people whose communities are used as dump sites frequently say that they are being treated as rubbish, rendered as waste, denied recognition of their humanity.

In 2011 the philosopher Achille Mbembe, writing in an idiom that resonated directly and powerfully with the sort of thing often heard in the speech of the new generation of activists emerging from the shacklands in Durban, declared that “for the democratic project to have any future at all, it should necessarily take the form of a conscious attempt to retrieve life and ‘the human’ from a history of waste”.  

This is what Mnguni was trying to do, and it’s what the residents of the land occupation named in his honour are, in a modest but important way, trying to do. 

If the contempt that the occupiers in Rosherville faced was limited to the ANC sending out men with guns to evict them while ignoring their requests for water, electricity and sanitation to be provided we could easily ascribe the cruelty of our society to the ANC and move on. 

It is true that the ANC allows the dumping to continue. But the ongoing dumping by building contractors, local businesses and nearby middle class residents is an everyday expression of contempt from society. 

It is a clear material indication that our society is suffused in contempt for people making their lives in the accumulated wreckage of colonialism and a failed revolution. The ANC is both a predatory excrescence on society and an expression of society. 

The lack of any sense of solidarity, or even respect, across the lines that mark our various levels of inclusion and exclusion is often evident in our trivial day-to-day interactions. As they become normalised it is difficult not to participate in them. 

In the centres of the largest cities in any social democracy drivers will stop their cars as soon as someone places their foot on a pedestrian crossing. Running a red light at a pedestrian crossing would be a shocking violation of a basic social norm. 

Here in some neighbourhoods the days when the social norm was that a red light at a pedestrian crossing should be taken as amber are a fading memory of a kinder time. Today a driver with the temerity to slow down at a red light at a pedestrian crossing on Empire Road in Johannesburg, with its bus stations and many students, is likely to be met with aggression by other drivers. 

People in cars matter. People on foot do not. Everyone should know the rules. If you slow down you’re an arsehole. If you stop it is an outrage.

Many people are taking a grim satisfaction at the prospect of the ANC being punished in the elections on 29 May. Without holding any illusions about the other major contenders, many people welcome the beginning of the end of impunity for an often grotesque political class. 

It is important, though, that we don’t hold illusions about society. We don’t all get ahead with the gun but contempt for the humanity of others is endemic. 

Richard Pithouse is a research associate in the philosophy department at the University of Connecticut.