I occasionally write opinion pieces for a broader audience, responding to recent events in South African politics. On this page, I've compiled a selection of them.


23 November 2015

You can't choose your interlocutors

Business Day

MORE than a month after the start of the Fees Must Fall protests, students are still struggling with university administrations. In recent weeks, these struggles have become increasingly brutal; the police are now regular visitors to campuses, and students have begun to act violently.

This was not inevitable. The ways in which the protests have developed have been shaped by a struggle over who has the right to speak for students.

In particular, students grouped as #FeesMustFall have been suspicious of elected student representative councils (SRCs). Nonetheless, many universities limited their engagement with students to these bodies. The tensions that arose from this have shaped developments.

At the University of the Western Cape, for example, the SRC elections in September resulted in the election of a 10-member team who are all members of the government-aligned South African Students Congress (Sasco). Other student organisations alleged fraud or, at least, the infringement of rules during the election. The result may have amplified these concerns.

At the University of Johannesburg, the SRC occupied an ambiguous and changing role in the protests. A fortnight ago, a group of students attempting to occupy the vice-chancellor’s office expressed doubts about the SRC’s commitment to the struggle, linking this to a critique of the dominance of Sasco members on the council.

At Wits University, the relationship between the SRC and some of the protesting students degenerated at the end of the second week of the protest.

As the SRC discussed accepting a proposal from the university, other students stormed its meeting. Afterwards, the rhetoric heated up. Some accused the SRC of being "sellouts". A connection between the African National Congress and the largest group in the SRC, the Progressive Youth Alliance, was again invoked.

There is more to this than the suspicion of particular political groupings. In each of these examples, the SRC was placed in an invidious position: the university administrations insisted on speaking only to elected student representatives.

This is a familiar pattern across the country. In the course of engaging with insurgent communities, the local state has regularly refused to engage with unlicensed groups of activists and insists, instead, on speaking only to those who participate in formal spaces.

US academic Faranak Miraftab explains this practice by contrasting the state’s willingness to engage with activists it has "invited" to speak with its related reluctance to engage in conversations "invented" by activists and forced on it.

Miraftab argues that community activism always takes place in both kinds of spaces but that the contemporary South African state recognises activism only in "invited" spaces as legitimate. Actions in "invented" spaces — protests on the streets — are seen as being illegitimate or illegal.

For many insurgent communities, the local state’s embrace of particular institutions of participation has rendered these institutions suspicious. Petitions committees, ward committees and community policing forums seem to be, and often are, sites of patronage.

This has led these communities to reject local political representation through ward councillors and their committees. Instead of following the formal system, community politics is increasingly found outside: on the streets, in publicly disruptive practices and in "invented" spaces.

In the eyes of local police service, this popular insurgency is presumptively illegal and the structures of community activism presumptively illegitimate. This is true whether or not the protests are violent.

It has led to the adoption of routinely brutal practices of community policing. Allegations of violence proliferate in the aftermath of a protest, and criminal charges are levied against known "troublemakers". Far too often, these charges are manufactured by the police seeking an ex post facto justification for arrests.

In the context of the student protests, universities have sought to "invite" engagement in formal spaces and have insisted that the invitations are conditional on membership in an elected representative body. That body is inevitably the university’s SRC. Administrators refuse to engage with students outside, including the groups occupying the university without licence.

These unlicensed students describe themselves as representing a national student uprising on their campuses. They often emphasise the catholic nature of their politics and their independence from formal political arrangements.

These arrangements are explicitly anti-hierarchical: they resist the nomination of leaders and representatives, and refuse to delegate authority to anyone to negotiate with the university on their behalf.

This creates difficulties for universities: the structures of negotiation require parties to meet, discuss and — inevitably — compromise. It requires the apparent equality of parties, which is most often achieved by ensuring that negotiations take place between small groups.

It is easy to see how the reluctance of students to recognise their elected representatives throws this system into disarray. Without the ability to assume the legitimacy of their preferred negotiating partners, administrators are faced with the meaninglessness of these talks.

No agreement thrashed out with an SRC will be respected. But talking to hundreds of students at once makes a mockery of the politesse of the negotiating table: authorities are humiliated, louder voices dominate and compromises may be rejected.

How universities respond to this is important. They can align themselves with those who refuse to acknowledge action in "invented" spaces, and retreat to a laager. They can call on the police to control the spaces outside. Or they can accept the unpredictability that comes from recognising the fact of action in both "invited" and "invented" spaces and respond to the demand for direct engagement. In doing so, though, they embark on a process of contestation rather than negotiation and risk abetting the erosion of legitimacy of campus elections and mandates.

The past weeks have given us examples of both responses, sometimes on the same campus. At Wits, the administration vacillated between attempts to separate the SRC from the remainder of the students, and efforts to engage with students as a collective.

We have the image of vice-chancellor Adam Habib sitting on the floor with students and, simultaneously, the image of armed policemen prowling the campus. Tensions between the university and students tended to decline when the administration engaged within "invented" spaces, but ratcheted upwards when it sought to bypass them.

At the University of Johannesburg and University of the Western Cape, the scenario is playing out in a different way. The administrations have largely refused to recognise action in "invented" spaces and insisted on seeing the legitimacy of only the SRC.

When engagements happen, they appear insincere and do not convince the assembled students. Negotiations proceeded within "invited" spaces. The agreements emerging from them have little legitimacy or support. They are abandoned and protests continue.

These protests are increasingly seen as illegitimate and possibly illegal. The police have become a regular presence, sometimes watching and sometimes intervening. When they do, they are brutal in much the same way as they are in other kinds of protests.

And in response, protesting students have resorted to violence of their own.

It is tempting to default to tried-and-tested institutions such as ward committees and SRCs. But in a climate of increasing inequality, exclusion and contestation, these institutions can begin to look more like part of the problem than the solution.

It is sometimes necessary for the authorities to step outside the spaces in which they meet with apparent representatives and to enter the spaces communities invented for themselves. To fail to do so can lead to more of the violence they condemn, and an undermining of the very democratic project they claim to serve.

26 October 2015

Halting fee increases fails to provide meaningful resolution

Business Day

IN MAY 1968, students shut down the universities of Paris, erected barricades throughout the city, and seemed set to change the world — or at least their corner of it. But nearly 50 years later the legacy of these protests is still being debated: Did they actually change anything? Who was in charge of them? Who has benefited from them? What kind of political spaces did they open up?

In the present moment, the French events of 1968 have a peculiar resonance for South Africans.

I am writing this in the lull of Saturday evening and Sunday morning. Right now, students are taking stock after an event-filled and sometimes disruptive two weeks. At the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), where I teach, students have returned to their occupation of Solomon Mahlangu House. It might still officially be known as Senate House in university correspondence, but it feels very different now.

On Saturday, the assembly of students decided to continue to occupy the campus and to continue to enforce a shutdown of the university. The vice-chancellor’s office has accepted this, if somewhat reluctantly, and announced that Wits would not be operating as planned on Monday.

This is significant, at least in part because it seems — to many newspapers, commentators, and outsiders — inexplicable, or at least excessive. To pick one example, the Sunday Times editorial line reads: "Let real talks begin where protests end" and instructs "our young people" to "quietly step back into academia and sit for their exams". There is no sense here of why students might not choose to do so. Across the media — old and new — similar refrains can be heard: the students have won a major victory and should now return to their "real" lives.

Underpinning this is the idea that the victory won on Friday — an unbudgeted and temporary freeze in the increase of students fees for the coming year — is a meaningful resolution to the problems highlighted by the students’ protests. This is a seriously flawed assumption.

The students’ demands have never been reducible to reversing the fee increases planned for next year. At Wits, the demands have taken three main forms: a freeze in the increase of student fees, a commitment towards establishing free university education and an end to the university’s practice of outsourcing support workers. The freeze in the increase of student fees for next year addresses only one of the linked demands.

The students demand a fundamental recalibration of the social and economic relations that shape universities and their place in post-apartheid society. The demand for a freeze is part of a challenge to the state and university administrators to reconsider the ways in which university education is funded — to rethink models of funding premised on student debt. And the overall vision seems to me to go much further: to challenge the ways in which universities have responded to financial constraints by outsourcing support staff, thus dropping the apparent economic burden of providing fair employment and just working conditions to poor workers.

At Wits, this challenge has been at the heart of campus politics for years. It has led to minor shifts in policy, including the implementation of a code of conduct to be applied by companies who have been contracted to provide the services that were once provided by the university directly. However, this code has been ineffective in achieving its purpose — and its purpose has in any event been a modest amelioration of the conditions endured by outsourced workers, rather than a reversal of the structural inequalities created by outsourcing in the first place.

On October 6, a week before the current protests kicked off, outsourced workers staged a protest on the Wits campus. Students joined them in solidarity. On October 14, when the current protests began, workers joined the students. Throughout the past 10 days, both workers and students have been present at Wits — and have been in regular engagement with each other.

In 1968, too, students were not protesting alone. Across Paris and France, factories were occupied by workers while universities were occupied by students. The challenge posed by the protests was not a generational threat, but a social one — as differently situated groups recognised that they shared struggles with the existing order, with the way in which the country was run.

But this is not how the events of 1968 have been remembered. The struggles of workers have been erased from the popular history, and the struggles of students have been enshrined in their place. The possibilities of solidarity have been minimised, and the challenge to the social order defanged. Rather than a struggle against the ways in which society was structured to disempower workers and students, May 1968 has come to be remembered as only a youth protest — an emotional rejection of their parents’ actions, and an acting out of a generational psychodrama.

In her study of the ways in which May 1968 has been remembered, Kristin Ross suggests some of the ways in which this particular version of the past has served conservative political interests. It allowed the French authorities to recast the politics of the moment: instead of a challenge to forms of governance that characterised post-War French society, it became seen as an attempt by young students to be incorporated into that society — to be given a privileged place within politics. Some student activists and academics, were absorbed into existing networks of power, making careers for themselves as the licensed explicators of May 1968. Part of the deal was that the struggles of workers would be airbrushed out of the picture. And the workers’ absence permitted the restoration of the ordinary operations of the social and political order in the wake of the protest.

In South Africa, we are in a moment during which the afterlives of this current wave of protest may be about to be determined. It is entirely possible that the solidarity shared by workers and students will vanish from the public explanations of the protests. This can already be seen happening in the government’s response, which focuses entirely on the fee increase and not on the substantial challenge to existing models of university funding. It can be seen in the responses from those in the media calling on students to return to their "real" work. And it can be seen in the shifting of the debate from a politics of solidarity between students and workers, and towards a struggle over the intellectual autonomy of universities.

I began this piece by noting the date and time during which I have been writing. When anyone is writing about unfolding events, we risk being left behind by changing circumstances. It is entirely possible that by the time this piece reaches print something else will have happened, and the attempt to understand the student protest that I have laid out here will seem quaint and dated.

But it is also worth remembering another lesson of May 1968. In the immediate aftermath of the events, within weeks of their height, Henri Lefebvre sought to explain how the disruptions of the ordinary social experience wrought both by the solidarity of workers and students and by the erection of barricades across Paris could change the world. He argued that these events made a different kind of thinking possible, and that protests need not be the product of a developed ideology. They are not the end of a line of political action, but could be its beginning.

As Ross puts it, reworking Lefebvre’s ideas: "The thought of a movement is generated only with and after it: unleashed by the creative energies and excess of the movement itself. Actions produce dreams and ideas, and not the reverse."

It is in the moment of the protest and afterwards that new ideas and politics are made, and in its aftermath that its meaning becomes established.

The impoverishment of the meanings of May 1968 — the elimination of workers protests, and the invisibility of solidarity — presents an important message for today. If the students are not back at school, or have not yet accepted that a partial victory is sufficient, it is at least in part because they are still struggling to establish the meaning of their protest, and to insist that it is not just an attempt to gain a brief material benefit, but rather an attempt to change the world we all live in.

14 September 2015

Activism is alive and well and living in SA

Daily Maverick

If we’re to believe recent reports in the Daily Maverick, South Africa’s activists are in trouble: Zwelinzimi Vavi believes they don’t exist, saying that “South Africans have become resigned” and “they are complaining everywhere but there is no real activism”. Commenting on his statements, Ranjeni Munusamysuggests that activists have lost their “mojo”, perhaps because “South Africans are just lazy”. David Lewis, meanwhile, suggests that protests are too isolated, activists too easily demobilised, and calls upon them to “update their activism” and “grasp this nettle”.

The authors each pin the plight of South African activism to a march being planned for later in September by the United Against Corruption campaign. Vavi suggests that: “This march is a great test, whether people are willing to go beyond complaining endlessly.” Lewis partially agrees: “Will the marches accurately represent our current mojo? Yes and no … Mostly, I think the march will reflect how well or otherwise activists have adjusted to radically changed circumstances …”

What is all this about? 

I don’t think that its really about the march. After all, it hasn’t happened yet. No one can possibly know whether it will succeed or fizzle out. Instead, I think that these comments are driven by concerns about a shift in the nature of politics and popular activism in South Africa: away from national campaigns – coordinated and led by 'civil society' – and towards localised acts of insurgency.

It is this shift that underpins the discomfort with contemporary activism obvious in Vavi’s statements and in Munusamy’s article. It is also key to answering David Lewis’s call for activists to “update their activism” – to use new technologies of communication and new modes of engagement to build broad-based civil society movements that can effectively engage with the state, in the way that earlier movements were able to. Lewis’s argument seems to come close to suggesting that contemporary activism has failed because it has not built a lasting civil society organisation that can coordinate representation outside of the state. In this context, the political consciousness expressed in protest has the life of a mayfly, going from birth to death in a day.

All these approaches seem to me to be wrong. In my book, South Africa’s Insurgent Citizens, I argue that we do not have a crisis of activism or political commitment in South Africa. Instead, we have a vibrant, challenging, and contentious political sphere defined by grassroots activism.

This claim needs some context. In the last 15 years, a new model of political activism has developed in South Africa’s townships, informal settlements, and inner cities. This activism – unlike the activism of the apartheid era – starts from the understanding that the state is legitimate, but unresponsive. Activists can assume that elections are free and fair, that most officials are seeking to represent their electorate, and that the courts and institutions of justice are accessible and honest brokers of fundamental disputes. And that yet – despite this – the state is not always approachable. It doesn’t deliver necessary services predictably, or distribute them evenly. It often ignores efforts at participation, letting citizens petition committees endlessly. It dismisses protests as uncontrolled and juvenile. And sometimes the state responds to protests and other unlicensed forms of activism with callous brutality – as it did at Marikana, at Ficksburg, and elsewhere.

The contradictions of the post-apartheid state are experienced locally, at the level of communities: in neighbourhoods without water, in communities without housing, in settlements where police harass activists. Unsurprisingly, it is in these communities and locations that activists organise.

The ambiguities of the state – legitimate, yet unresponsive – shape the forms local activism takes: sometimes these activists seek to engage, and to participate. Sometimes they seek to protest and to challenge. Sometimes they seek to organise local electoral opposition. Sometimes they go to court. Sometimes they connect up with national campaigns. Sometimes they seek to build solidarity between disparate communities. Sometimes they go it on their own. And sometimes – often – community activists try each and all of these tactics, whether simultaneously or sequentially. 

The history of local politics in Thembelihle, a settlement near Lenasia on Johannesburg’s outskirts, provides an example of how contemporary activism works. Since 2001, Thembelihle has been the site of near constant activism – first in response to efforts by the state to remove and resettle the community. Between 2001 and 2005, activists associated with the Thembelihle Crisis Committee (TCC) organised protests, arranged petitions, and went to court to prevent their relocation. Throughout this period, the police harassed local activists and sought to prevent protest action. During this time, the TCC was linked closely to the Anti-Privatisation Forum – organising political events in collaboration with the larger civil society organisation. Between 2007 and 2011, the community once again attempted to engage with the local state, attending ward committee meetings and presenting petitions to the mayor. They also took to the streets. But this was not all: in these years, the TCC took part in the Operation Khanyisa Movement, an attempt to intervene in electoral politics. In 2006 and 2011, the movement fielded candidates in the local government elections, and in each case succeeded in having one proportional representation candidate elected to the city council. At no point in the last 15 years could activism in Thembelihle be said to have been “demobilised”, “lazy” or “complacent”.

Nor, however, can it be neatly summed up in one phrase, or identified with any one organisation. It took many different forms; it responded to changing local circumstances; it engaged with other civil society movements; it moved between the confrontational space of unlicensed protest, the spaces of civil society organisation, and the spaces of electoral politics. It did not stick to any one.

Much the same account could be given of the politics of Abhalali baseMjondolo, the shack dwellers’ movement based out of Durban. On 3 October 2015 it will celebrate its 10th anniversary of struggle: of local community organisation, of mass marches and protests in and around central Durban, of engagement with and disengagement from national civil society organisations, of legal struggles and court-room victories, of self-defence and challenge. It will also recall a decade of internal struggles and splits, of debates over Abahlali’s decisions to boycott elections – and then, last year, to provide a limited endorsement of the DA in KwaZulu-Natal. Abahlali’s decade of activism doesn’t fit into neat categories: it is at once outside of institutional definitions of civil society, and deeply embedded in it; it is political and social; local and national.

It is this complexity and these ambiguities that are missing from the accounts of activism provided in last week’s Daily Maverickarticles. Vavi’s implicit description of all this activity as so much “complaining” denies the legitimacy of the multiple forms of activism undertaken by citizens and activists in Thembelihle and Durban, and silences the dissenting voices of activists across the country. Munusamy’s approval of his comments is clear from her suggestion that “service delivery protests” do not count as activism because “these are normally centred around local community issues and usually last just a few days”. This glib, evidence-free, description cannot capture the 15-year long series of struggles and protests in Thembelihle, or the decade of Abahlali’s activism; nor is it capable of describing the ways in which these activists have moved in and out of struggles over local ‘service delivery’, worked with other activists and organisations in solidarity, and reshaped the ways in which communities across the country have embarked upon politics.

Lewis is right to suggest that the future of South Africa will not be built on the model of past politics, but he is wrong to suggest that this is because local activists are out of date. South Africa today is not a society in which people are “resigned” to the status quo. Nor is it a society in which people are “lazy” or “complacent”. Instead, it is a society in which people are continually reinventing ways of engaging with the state and with the public sphere – ways of engaging that seem to be invisible to many commentators and organisations. If there is anyone who needs to have their ideas about activism “updated”, it is the media at large and other established figures. 

There is a lot that can be learned from listening to activists struggling on the ground today, and little that they need to be told about the realities of political action in post-apartheid South Africa. 

30 June 2015

The Callous Silencing of Suffering

Business Day

THE manifest insufficiencies of the Farlam Commission of Inquiry’s report are its achingly narrow construal of its powers, its ostrich-like refusal to draw conclusions or assess the evidence heard, and its naively technical recommendations.

But the report also silences the voices of the injured and dead.

Over the 300 days that the commission sat, the same voices were heard again and again: of politicians disavowing responsibility, police bureaucrats reiterating technicalities, and outside experts struggling to impose order on the mass of evidence. The voices of the miners were hardly heard and the rank-and-file police officers — who carried arms and used them — were not listened to.

This pattern is repeated throughout the commission’s report. The voices of the miners are discredited and the accounts of the relatives of the dead are silenced, while self-serving statements of senior police officers are regurgitated.

In the report’s account of what happened at Scene 2 — the site where half of the miners were killed over the course of an hour following the initial confrontation at Scene 1 — the voices of the victims are ignored. Instead, the report closely follows the testimonies of senior police officers on the site, often to the point of merely repeating their evidence word for word.

The story of these killings, as far as the report is concerned, is the story of the impossibility of knowing what actually happened. The senior officers all describe their ignorance of what happened; they speak to their confusion and the absence of any plan for disarming the workers. They describe the events in the passive voice: shots were fired, people were killed. No one is described as taking action — no individual fired a shot, no names are given to the dead.

The report does discuss the deaths of two individuals killed at Scene 2, but these discussions are inadequate. Take, for example, the killing of Thobile Mpumza. The report quotes the testimonies of police officers who stated that they were placed in direct fear for their lives by his actions. This account takes up three pages of the report.

This is followed by two short paragraphs noting that the physical evidence was "inconsistent" with this account and that this "merits further investigation". The report does not draw the obvious conclusion: that the officers were lying, and Mpumza’s death is still not explained.

At no point in this account does the report attempt to describe the events at Scene 2 from the perspectives of any of the miners. This is not because there was no evidence available.

On August 19 last year, Shadrack Mtshamba testified about his experience at Scene 2, telling the commission that, "as I was hiding myself, I heard lots of gunshots coming from different directions. I was scared for my life and I covered my face with my hand for some time, expecting to be shot at at any time." His testimony can hardly be described as irrelevant to any description of the killings at Scene 2. But his voice is not in the commission’s report.

A second example of this silencing can be seen in the account of the use of muti during the strike. On page 103, essentially out of the blue, the report discusses "Exhibit L87" — a photograph of men washing themselves. A brief statement from one of the injured workers follows, denying that this was evidence of the use of muti and stating that, in any event, he would not have participated in these rituals as he was a Christian.


THE report immediately suggests that this was "contradicted" by another striking worker. Xolani Nzuza states he did take part in African traditional religious rituals, but that this was entirely irrelevant to the proceedings, of no more significance than his fellow miners’ prayers. These accounts — which are not obviously contradictory — occupy less than a page of the report.

They are followed by an unedited transcript of a statement by "an undercover security superintendent employed by Lonmin" who "infiltrated the meeting of strikers…. " It repeats all of the slurs levied against the miners after the massacre. It trades in stereotypical and racist depictions of Africans as sex-obsessed and violent savages. It is grossly offensive.

And it is entirely unanalysed, and uncriticised by the commission. Indeed, this section ends with the end of the transcript. The report does not attempt to engage with the substance of the statement; nor does it provide any critical evaluation of its plausibility. At first glance, all that these three pages do is repeat malicious gossip and then let the cards fall where they may. This is a dispiriting dereliction of the commission’s duty.

By explicitly criticising the statements of workers, and pitting one worker’s testimony against others, the report undermines the plausibility of the accounts presented by those who were best positioned to understand the religious beliefs and practices of the miners on the koppie.

By refusing to extend the same critical consciousness to the statement by Lonmin’s undercover operative, and by quoting it at such length, the report lends these offensive statements the veneer of plausibility. By refusing to assess the evidence at all, and by refusing to make any statement, the commission has allowed the unverified allegations of an ignorant and prejudiced account to drown out the voices of the miners themselves.

This pusillanimous refusal to engage with the evidence speaks to the callousness that pervades this report. The commission was not ignorant of the importance of tackling this question: throughout the families’ presentations on August 14 last year, the widows told the commission about the hurt and the shame that they felt hearing the media and the police discuss their loved ones as muti-crazed and violent.

But the report has nothing to say about the families, or their experiences. The only substantive mention of the families is a condescending acknowledgement that they were one of eight groups "which assisted it to perform the task the president mandated it to do". Groups thanked alongside them include the municipalities of Tshwane and Rustenburg, legal practitioners at the commission, the media who reported on the commission and the "executive assistant to the commissioners".

The families were not merely at the commission to assist the commissioners, and their presence should never be regarded as window-dressing.

But that is what the report does.

It is worth remembering what Ntombizolile Mosebetsane told the commissioners on August 14 last year: "It is important for us to attend the commission of inquiry. We have heard in the public that victims of the Marikana tragedy have themselves to blame…. [The Commission] has enabled us to express how we feel. This is important because it helps us to heal if we know the truth and if we can tell the commission about our loved ones and how their deaths have affected us. It helps us to accept the situation."


HER faith in the commission’s process turns out to have been sadly misplaced.

The report does not allow the families or the victims of the police to speak. It suppresses and marginalises their voices. It casts doubt on the testimonies of the miners, and uncritically accepts the testimonies of senior police officers and Lonmin’s "undercover" agents.

It refuses to assess the plausibility of evidence, and avoids the responsibility of drawing any conclusions. It allows the voices of the most powerful to dominate the story of Marikana, making it impossible for Mosebetsane or anyone else to begin to heal.

Instead, by refusing to hear their voices, it salts the wounds of those who survived and insults the memories of the dead.


04 May 2014

Abahlali's Choice

Daily Maverick

Political identity is a strange thing. In the run-up to an election, we are asked - over and over again - to identify ourselves with political parties. We are asked to remember our histories and follow our family’s old allegiances. We are instructed to forget those histories, and face the future. We are expected to identify with the faces on political posters and see ourselves reflected in them. On 2 May, the shack-dwellers’ movement of South Africa, Abahlali baseMjondolo, endorsed the Democratic Alliance in this week’s upcoming provincial elections. A storm of controversy has erupted. 

large percentage of South Africans are unconvinced by this, of course. The major parties seem bankrupt, devoid of new ideas. Their claims on our identities are absurd and overblown. For many of us, the choice between parties is no choice at all: it is just a matter of preferring one tone of voice, one temperament, one set of berets, and one set of unconvincing promises over another. 

The “Vote No” campaign is - in its own way - a response to this, with its conviction that we have no plausible alternatives within the electoral system. The solution, it suggests, is to spoil votes in such large numbers that this deep discontent will be registered, and the existing elite will reform itself. 

The virulent response that it has provoked has been breathtaking. The leaders of the campaign have been accused of disloyalty and of near-treasonous behaviour. Their suggestion that tactical voting can include the conscious spoiling of ballots has been questioned by the IEC’s lawyers. Their attempt to adopt a principled stance has been roundly and broadly ridiculed as hypocritical, juvenile, irresponsible and - worst of all - ineffective. Spoiled ballots will not threaten the state.

All of which makes the equally-virulent reaction to the announcement that Abahlali baseMjondolo have chosen to endorse the Democratic Alliance in this week’s election even more remarkable.

Throughout its nine years of existence, Abahlali has steadily refused to participate in elections, and has refused to endorse any political parties. In the documentary Dear Mandela, members of Abahlali are shown spoiling their ballots in the 2009 elections - writing “No Land! No House! No Vote!” across the length of their ballot papers. For many years this refusal to contest elections - either as a political party, or through a proxy - was used by Abahlali to defend themselves against regular attacks by the state. They were a social movement, not a political party.

In the last five years, though, the attacks against Abahlali and its members have become ever more violent and more common. An attack on the Kennedy Road settlement in Durban in 2009 displaced many of the movement’s leaders - some of whom continue to live in hiding. Abahlali believes that it is the target of an assassination campaign - and its leaders live with the daily fear of death. In the past twelve months, three members of Abahlali have been killed, while a further fifteen have been injured, often in clashes with the police. 

At Cato Crest, last year, a young woman, Nqobile Nzuza, was killed by the police. Later that day an Abahlali activist was arrested and held without bail for a week for causing ‘public violence’. As yet, no police officers have been held liable for Miss Nzuza’s death.

In this context, political neutrality provides no protection.

And so, earlier this week, Abahlali announced that they were abandoning their “No Land! No House! No Vote!” campaign and encouraging their members to vote strategically in the election. 

They invited parties to engage with them on a series of core concerns, including investigating misallocations of housing, ensuring tenure security in informal settlements, implementing informal settlement upgrading processes, treating informal settlers and the poor with dignity, and ending the spate of illegal evictions across KZN. The only party excluded from this process was the ANC.

According to Abahlali, this engagement was followed by a lengthy debate amongst its members, and a continuing processes of consultation and discussion in its different branches. These discussions would be repeated, again, at a special general meeting - at which a final decision on which party to endorse would be taken, and made public.

This meeting took place on 2 May - and, at its close, Abahlali announced that it would endorse the DA for the KwaZulu-Natal provincial elections. As they said in a press release, this was ‘a tactical vote against the ANC because the ANC are killing the working class and the poor when we stand up for our humanity’ and not a wholehearted endorsement of any party at large: ‘we are well aware that no political party supports our full programme and that all the parties have serious limits.’ 

Understanding this, Abahlali also circulated a lengthy agreement between it and the provincial leadership of the DA - an agreement which, among other things, commits the DA to consult with residents over housing matters, promote the in-situ upgrading of informal settlements, promote free education for the poor, ‘advocate for the reduction in the gap between poor and rich’, to defend the rights of informal traders and to embark on investigations of the wrongful allocation of RDP houses in specific areas around Durban. 

It is perhaps worth noting that these commitments go beyond the DA’s national election platform.

Despite this - and despite Abahlali’s repeated emphasis that they are not joining the DA, or any other political party, and not endorsing them beyond this particular election - the announcement has caused shock and consternation amongst Abahlali’s many sympathisers.

Over the past twenty-four hours, my social media feeds have been alight with attempt to explain Abahlali’s actions. A disturbing number of them have focused on conspiratorial and racist explanations: either Abahlali were fooled into offering their support by one or another white interlocutor, or somehow ‘money must have been involved’. Others have questioned the decision to endorse the DA, even locally, when its actions in government in the Western Cape have resulted in evictions and the displacement of the urban poor. And yet others have bemoaned the decision to enter into the electoral arena at all - shocked and disappointed that Abahlali seem to have abandoned their principled stance against the elite domination of our electoral politics.

Almost no one seems to be interested in Abahlali’s own explanation - that they are the targets of violent repression, and that they have taken a pragmatic decision to oppose the power behind it.

But even if they were, it is hard to escape the conclusion that - once again - Abahlali would be criticised for abandoning principle in favour of pragmatism, and that their decision to do so is - like that of the “Vote No” campaigners - hypocritical, juvenile, irresponsible and likely to be ineffective.

We should be slow to condemn any group for making the political choices it deems necessary: whether that is, as it is for the “Vote No” campaign, to challenge the logic of electoral politics or, as it is for Abahlali in this election, to suspend that challenge and participate in a compromised arena. Without offering any opinion on the rights and wrongs of Abahlali’s choice, it is important to remember that suspicions of poor people’s political agency have marked our politics for years. The apartheid state was known - absurdly - to suggest that black opposition to it was stirred up by white agitators. Our current government suggests that mass protests of the poor are caused by shady political agendas, rather than by genuine suffering or oppression. Given this history, we should be wary of passing too quick a judgment on Abahlali’s decision to decide for itself how to deal with the years of violent oppression and political exclusion to which it has been subjected.

07 December 2013

A Continuing Legacy of Struggle

Daily Maverick

The deaths of great men and women are public affairs. It is easy to imagine being asked, in some future year, “Where were you when Nelson Mandela died?” Where I was, was a pitiful reminder of the ongoing struggle for liberation.

I am writing this on Friday morning, a cold and grey morning after. I don’t know how a reader might answer the question – whether you were listening to the radio, or watching the television; whether you were alone, or with family, or with friends – but I do know where I was last night, at a quarter to midnight.

The lobby of the Johannesburg Central Police Station is not a welcoming place at any time – but the hours around midnight are particularly bleak. The light is harsh and medicinal. The uniformed men behind the counter are tired, disinterested, and suspicious. A woman in a blood-stained shirt rests her head against her forearms while she waits for someone to notice her, to speak to her. Earlier, a man collapsed and lay there, writhing, un-noticed and un-aided.

I was there with my husband, and with a dozen of his colleagues. We were there because Nomzamo Zondo, an attorney at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI), had been arrested that afternoon while trying to enforce a new order of the Constitutional Court. That order had been handed down at 14.30 in the afternoon, and interdicted the Johannesburg police from interfering with about two thousand of the city’s informal traders. These traders had won the right to return to their stalls, and resume trading until further notice.

At about 17.00, Nomzamo was called to the corner of Hoek and De Villiers Streets, in the Joburg CBD. Officers of the Johannesburg Municipal Police Division (JMPD) were harassing traders who had heard of the court victory and set up their stalls. Once there, Nomzamo tried to tell the JMPD officers about the court’s order.

Then they arrested her.

The afternoon’s euphoria collapsed in an evening of disillusion. The Constitutional Court’s decision to dismiss the city of Johannesburg’s cynical arguments about the ‘convenience’ of removing traders from the city’s streets – regardless of the personal costs – represented a victory for compassion and common-sense. It proved that our system could work: that everyone can get representation and can be vindicated. It proved that people’s rights must trump the city’s convenience in the new South Africa - and that the exercise of political and administrative power would not be allowed to proceed untrammelled.

And then, about two hours later, Nomzamo was arrested trying to enforce it.

The arresting officers showed an absolute disdain for the Court’s ruling. They told her that the JMPD ‘does not take orders from civilians.’

Perhaps they meant that they did not take orders from her. Perhaps they meant that they would not take orders from the Constitutional Court itself. I don’t know.

Nor does anyone else.

Last, night, the JPMD’s spokesman told the media: “As for today’s court ruling, the JMPD will be advised by the legal department of Johannesburg.” Which seems to imply that he and the police imagine that there may be an available option other than immediate compliance.

He also admitted that the JMPD had been sent in force to disrupt informal trading, and that they had used rubber bullets to dislodge the traders.

He told the media that Nomzamo had been arrested because she had been “inciting traders to act against officers.”

He could give no details of how she had been doing so. Neither could the police at Johannesburg Central – the old John Vorster Square. In the hours that followed, lawyers remonstrated with the cops to little effect. Nomzamo was held in a back office, her wrists cut and bruised from handcuffs. She had one shoe on – the other had come off as the police had wrestled her into the back of their vehicle.

She was refused police bail, which meant that she had to apply for prosecutorial bail – which could only be discussed once she had been charged, and if a prosecutor was willing to come out in the evening. For hours, the police could not identify an investigating officer; nor could they say what she would be charged with. Maybe this is not unusual – but it is surprising for an attorney to be arrested in the course of her duties, refused access to her own lawyers for hours, to have bail denied and delayed, and for charges to be so slowly drawn up.

Around about 22:00 we were told that Nomzamo would be charged with Public Violence and with Malicious Damage to Property. No one could give us the specifics of the charges – what violence? What property? – perhaps because there were no such specifics to give. Regardless, charging her meant that the system could resume and – over the next two hours – a R500 bail was negotiated.

Just before midnight, Nomzamo walked out the station – shaken, tired, cut and bruised around her wrists, and missing one of her shoes.

After she left, as we were waiting for a taxi to take us from the police station back to our own home, the news of Mandela’s death came through.

It’s hard not to think about legacies in moments like this – and hard not to ask what has become of Mandela’s legacy, two decades after he became South Africa’s first black president.

Nomzamo’s ordeal – mild as it may have been, in comparison to many others’ – was pointless, a brute exercise of the police’s power to intimidate those who challenge them. Hundreds of men and women without Nomzamo’s access to lawyers, to activists, and to the media are arrested on equally specious charges.

Johannesburg’s informal traders are back on the street this morning. Already, rumours of police harassment are spreading. I can’t believe that much time will pass before the next arrests, and the ones after that; the next court case, and the one after that; the next attempt to force the city and its police forces to obey the law – to respect ‘civilians’ and civilian authority, to respect the rights of Johannesburg’s poor citizens as much as the rights of its richer ones.

Nomzamo appeared at the Magistrate’s Court in the morning, and all charges against her were dropped because they had no prospects of success.

If we want to look for Mandela’s legacy, we cannot simply look at what has been achieved – because, for all of the massive changes since 1994, we simply have not succeeded in creating a just society in which the state serves all its citizens.

Instead, we have look at people like Nomzamo and the traders she represents. These are people who have dedicated their lives to struggle – whether it is the struggle to help, support, and represent South Africa’s poor or whether its is the struggle for personal dignity, self-respect, and recognition.

This is Mandela’s legacy. A legacy of struggle – public and personal, political and private. The state he once led still, often, fails to live up to his ideals and his example. But that doesn’t mean that we should accept its failures as normal, unremarkable, and inevitable. Neither does it mean that we should despair in the face of the state’s failures – its violence, its corruption, its recalcitrance.

It means that we have to embrace Mandela’s life of struggle as our legacy. We have to continue to fight for our own dignity, and for the dignities of others. We can no longer rely on the distant figure of Madiba to reassure us of our country’s successes, and to remind us of the ideals on which our South Africa was founded.

It means that we have to act and struggle for ourselves, now.

When someone asks me, ten years from now, where I was when Mandela died, I hope that my answer will not be, “Watching the police abuse their power,” but, instead: “Watching someone else pick up the struggle where Mandela left off.”