The Con always celebrates when the smart ones in our extended family get their names on a book cover. At a time when xenophobic attacks appear to be on the rise again in Johannesburg and Durban, we publish an excerpt that examines the violent attacks of 2008 from Richard Pithouse’s recently released collection of essays, Writing the Decline (Jacana)
16 June 2008
The industrial and mining towns on the eastern outskirts of Johannesburg are unlovely places. They’re set on flat windswept plains amid the dumps of sterile sand left over from old mines. In winter the wind bites, the sky is a very pale blue and, around the Harry Gwala shack settlement, it seems to be all coal braziers, starved dogs, faded strip malls, gun shops, and rusting factories and mine headgear. It’s only the police cars and a double-storey facebrick strip club that look new.
But even here the battle for land continues. The poor are losing their grip on the scattered bits of land that they took, more than 20 years ago, in defiance of apartheid. The state is, again, sending in bulldozers and men with guns to move the poor from central shack settlements to peripheral townships. In every forced removal many are simply left homeless. It is very difficult to resist the armed force of the state, but people do what they can. Officials are often stoned. In principle the courts should provide relief from evictions that are not just illegal but are, in fact, criminal acts under South African law. There have been notable successes. But it is often difficult to get pro bono legal support, legal processes are slow, and the evictions continue.
In the Harry Gwala settlement the poorest women are on their hands and knees searching for bits of coal to bake into lumps of clay to keep the braziers burning. S’bu Zikode from Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban and Ashraf Cassiem from the Anti-Eviction Campaign in Cape Town are here to meet with the Harry Gwala branch of the Landless People’s Movement. These are all poor people’s movements that have been criminalised and violently attacked by the state. The meeting is to discuss strategies for holding onto the urban land that keeps people close to work, schools, libraries and all the other benefits of city life. This is what it has come down to. Militancy is about holding onto what was taken from apartheid.
Here in Harry Gwala, forced removals started in 2004. That was also the year in which the Landless People’s Movement declared a boycott of the local government elections and was subject to severe repression, including the police torture of some activists. In August the
following year 700 residents marched on the mayor demanding an end to forced removals and the immediate provision of water, electricity and toilets. Provincial housing minister Nomvula Mokonyane declared that the evictions ‘marked another milestone for housing delivery’ and explained that ‘We are doing all this because we are a caring government and want to give you back your dignity’. A statement on the municipality’s website responded to the march by noting that ‘Although there was an initial reluctance on the part of the Harry Gwala residents to move, the metro and the [private housing] company met them to work through any objections and give them reasons why such a move would be worth their while’. But in May 2006, when the municipality tried to move ahead with the forced removals in earnest, it became clear that residents were determined to hold their ground. The Johannesburg Star reported that ‘police fired rubber bullets and bulldozed their way into the Harry Gwala informal settlement near Wattville after residents barricaded themselves in with burning tyres. Shots rang out and people scattered in all directions as metro police fired at them. Twelve people were injured and were taken to hospitals in the area.’
In Harry Gwala the evictions are remembered ‘as a war’. Now the settlement is recovering from a different kind of eviction, a different kind of war. It is to this that the discussion soon turns.
The Freedom Charter, adopted in Johannesburg in 1955 as the manifesto of the struggle against apartheid, declared that ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it’. But for two terrible weeks in May people unable to pass mob tests for indigeneity were intimidated, beaten, hacked, raped and burnt out of shack settlements and city centres across South Africa. The attacks began in the shack settlements around Johannesburg. In Harry Gwala the homes of two Shangaan families – one had come from Maputo in Mozambique and the other from Giyani in South Africa – were burnt and demolished. All that was left was squares of burnt earth. The local Landless People’s Movement moved swiftly to condemn the attacks and work with the local police, with whom they have often been in conflict, to stop the attacks from spreading further. In the nearby Makause settlement, which is not organised into an oppositional movement autonomous from the state, things were far worse. Here the settlement is dotted with burnt-out and demolished buildings. There is also a terribly empty 200-metre-long strip where, in February last year, 2,500 shacks were unlawfully demolished at gunpoint by the state and the residents forcibly moved to a ‘transit camp’ 40 kilometres out of town.
In the second week the pogrom spread to the Johannesburg city centre. There were clashes at the Central Methodist Church, a well-known haven for undocumented Zimbabweans, where residents successfully barricaded themselves with piles of bricks for defence. In January there had been a much more damaging attack on the church. On that occasion the assault came from the police. They stormed in with dogs, pepper spray and batons and arrested 500 people. The church told the media that people were assaulted and robbed in the attack, and that even those with documents were arrested.
In the second week the pogroms also spread to Durban, Cape Town and the small towns in the hinterland. In Durban the first attack was on a downtown Nigerian bar and was followed by attacks on Rwandese and Congolese people living in city flats and then on Mozambicans, Zimbabweans and Malawians living in shack settlements. In Cape Town it began with the Somali shopkeepers, who have been murdered at an incredible rate for years. The state has dismissed the clearly targeted nature of the ongoing killing of Somalis as ‘just ordinary crime’.
Some of the mobs were singing Jacob Zuma’s signature song, ‘Bring Me My Machine Gun’. Some came out of shack settlements and migrant worker hostels linked to Inkatha. Some were just drunk young men. The most widely reported tests used to determine indigeneity, such as seeing if people know the formal and slightly archaic Zulu word for elbow, were taken straight from the tactics that the police have used for years. The mob definition of the foreigner has always centred on foreign-born Africans, but in some instances Pakistanis and South Africans of minority ethnicities, especially Shangaan, Venda and Tsonga people, were also targeted. There are a number of credible allegations of police complicity in the pogroms, but in some places community organisations were able to work with local police stations to bring the violence under control. There are many accounts of individual acts of brave opposition to the attacks by both South Africans and migrants. In the Protea South shack settlement in Johannesburg migrants were able to organise themselves into self- defence units, and protect themselves with round-the-clock patrols. It is striking that in many, although not all, of the areas under the control of broadly progressive organisations of the poor that have been in serious conflict with the state, there were no attacks at all.
After two weeks 62 people were dead, a third of them South African citizens, and figures for the number of people displaced ranged from 80,000 to 100,000. Some had fled the country. Others were sheltering in churches, at police stations and in refugee camps. Conditions in the camps were often grim. Human rights organisations issued strenuous condemnations and there were several threats of collective suicide, clashes with the police and demands for the United Nations to take over management of the camps from the South African state.
Thabo Mbeki’s presidency was, in the spirit of Pan-Africanism, animated by a vision of an African Renaissance that would finally redeem the world-historical promise of the Haitian Revolution against slavery in 1804. On the first day of 2004 he resisted considerable international pressure and stood with Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Port-au-Prince to celebrate the 200th anniversary of that revolution. Six months later Mbeki welcomed Aristide to Pretoria with an uncharacteristically warm hug on a red carpet. This followed Aristide’s kidnapping and removal to the Central African Republic by the American military on the last day of February.
Some saw these acts as a concrete step towards Pan-African solidarity. Mbeki’s detractors on the left pointed to the voluntary adoption of GEAR, a structural adjustment programme, in 1996, or the decisive moves to bring popular politics under party control from 1990, to argue that he was merely Africanising domination. But others argued that, in the spirit of realpolitik, and mindful of the fate of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolution in Haiti, he had made a tactical decision to use the wealth of South Africa to make his global battle against anti-African racism a bourgeois initiative secured by the technocratic management of the poor.
Most of the slaves that made the Haitian Revolution were born in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their revolution offered citizenship, black citizenship, to everyone who fought in it, including Polish and German mercenaries who deserted their posts to join. Citizenship became a political question rather than a matter of indigeneity or ethnicity. But for those two weeks in May 2008 it wasn’t safe to be Congolese in many of the poor neighbourhoods in South African cities. There are still places where Aristide, whose excellent but French-accented Zulu could easily mark him as Congolese or Rwandese, would be unwise to tread without security.
Contrary to much of the discussion in the media, this state of affairs is not new. A month before these recent attacks 30 shacks were burnt and 100 people displaced from the Diepsloot settlement in Johannesburg. When the police eventually arrived, their only response was to arrest 20 Zimbabweans for being undocumented. Migrants have been driven out of shack settlements in sporadic conflagrations since October 2001, when hundreds of Zimbabweans were hounded out of the Zandspruit settlement, also in Johannesburg. Three weeks before the attacks in Zandspruit, the Department of Home Affairs had announced ‘Operation Clean Up’ in which people in the settlement were asked to support the department in ‘rooting out illegal immigrants’. Between 600 and 700 people were rounded up and deported to Mozambique and Zimbabwe. When many of the people deported to Zimbabwe found their way back a few days later, and refused a demand to leave within ten days, they were driven out by their former neighbours.
The extreme hostility with which the post-apartheid state has responded to African migrants is well documented in numerous human rights and academic reports. Migrants to South Africa confront a notoriously ungenerous policy regime which is enforced by a bureaucracy and police force that are both systemically corrupt and prone to extorting money from migrants, documented or not, on the threat of arrest and deportation. There are cases where South Africans have also been arrested and deported to countries they have never previously visited because they could not speak Zulu well, didn’t have the ‘right’ inoculation marks or were ‘too black’. If the police suspect that someone may be an ‘illegal immigrant’ and she doesn’t have papers on her, she may be detained in a holding cell and then sent to a repatriation centre to await deportation. If she is documented but doesn’t have papers on her, she may still end up being deported, as it is people picked up on suspicion of being illegal that have to prove their legal right to be in the country. There is no burden of proof on the state. There is a right to one free phone call from the police holding cells and another from the repatriation centre, but that right is routinely denied. Sometimes people whose presence in South Africa is perfectly legal just disappear. Their families only discover what has become of them after they have been deported. One consequence of this is that anyone who thinks that they may be under suspicion has to carry their papers with them at all times. The similarity with the apartheid pass system has not escaped the notice of migrants.
The Lindela Repatriation Centre looms with a particular malevolence in the fears of migrants. Set in an old mining compound on the outskirts of Johannesburg, its function is to hold illegal immigrants while they wait to be deported. The phrases ‘gross violations of human rights’ and ‘concentration camp’ roll out with the word ‘Lindela’ in the language of human rights organisations as naturally as the word ‘criminals’ goes with ‘illegal immigrants’ in the language of the politicians, police and much of the popular media. Yet none of this resolute condemnation, much of which is undergirded by exhaustive empirical detail, has made any significant difference. Detailed human rights reports going back to 1999 describe routine violence, deliberate sleep deprivation, sexual assault, the denial of the right to a free phone call, appalling and appallingly limited food, a total lack of reading and writing materials, endemic corruption, unexplained deaths and extended periods of detention without judicial review. There have been riots in Lindela going back to at least 2004. It is still hell. Senior people in the ANC Women’s League have financial interests in Lindela.
The state has not been alone in this. On radio talk shows, in newspapers and university lecture theatres it quickly becomes clear that the fears and stereotypes that white people projected onto black people under apartheid are now often projected, unapologetically, onto the black poor in general and shack dwellers and migrants in particular. Things that can no longer be publicly said about black people can still be said about the poor, with or without papers. It is not unusual for middle-class black people to take this up with enthusiasm. It’s been an open season for a long time. The fear and hostility of the old order have been redirected rather than overcome in the new order.
The popular movements that have rebuilt a broadly progressive grassroots politics – albeit precarious, politically isolated and spatially scattered – were able to successfully defend and shelter people at risk in the May pogroms and, on at least one occasion, confront attackers head on. There was not one attack in any of the more than 30 settlements where the largely Durban- and Pietermaritzburg-based shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, is strong. Despite being crowded into ever fewer bits and pieces of urban land, all of which remain under threat from a state determined to ‘eradicate shacks by 2014’, the movement was also able to offer shelter to some people displaced in the attacks. In a widely circulated and translated statement Abahlali baseMjondolo declared that ‘An action can be illegal. A person cannot be illegal. A person is a person where ever they may find themselves. If you live in a settlement you are from that settlement and you are a neighbour and a comrade in that settlement.’ The Landless People’s Movement in Johannesburg and the Anti-Eviction Campaign in Cape Town were also able to mount some opposition to the pogroms. In Khutsong, a town to the west of Johannesburg, where popular conflict with the state has probably been most acute, the Merafong Demarcation Forum was able to ensure safety. There are striking differences between these organisations, but they have all, in the face of considerable repression, boycotted elections and sought to build a progressive grassroots politics outside the party structures beholden to the state.
But despite more than four years of vigorous protests by the grassroots left across the country against local party councillors and their ward committees, the reality of political exclusion doesn’t have much elite currency. Civil society doesn’t always easily recognise that democracy isn’t only about elections and NGOs. People who appropriated or forged substantive rights to citizenship through the insurgent popular struggles of the ’80s, or who were promised full social inclusion in Mandela’s image of the nation, now find that, whatever their identity documents may say, they have been excluded from a key aspect of substantive citizenship – the right to speak, to be heard and to co-determine their future. Developmental processes are overwhelmingly technocratic and expert-driven and the party is, for the very poor, now a top-down structure used more for social control than as a space for popular discussion and participation in politics. In fact, in many shack settlements party structures are the armed enforcers of state discipline. Many of the thousands of popular protests over the last few years (often clearly misnamed as ‘service delivery’ protests by both the NGO left and the state) were aimed at trying to subordinate local party structures and representatives to popular power. It has been notable that many of the people organising these protests have declared that they have returned to struggle because they have, again, ‘been made foreigners in our own country’. This crisis in citizenship caused by widespread exclusion from substantive citizenship has expressed itself in some remarkable mobilisations that have united people with and without legal citizenship to struggle to democratise society from below. But in the absence of democratic and progressive organisation it can also take the terrifying form of a desire to assert one’s own citizenship by turning on the ‘real’ non-citizens. It has been popular politics organised outside the ruling party that was able to defend and shelter people targeted in the May pogroms, and that had previously, though covertly, offered the same protection from the state. It is a politics that moves from the bottom up and that the state and many NGOs, including those on the left, consider to be outside professional civil society, with its aspirations to manage the poor, and, therefore, to be criminal. The police have been trying to beat it into submission since 2004.
Mbeki repressed the return of this politics and could travel to Haiti in his own jet. Aristide embraced this politics and was forced to leave Haiti in an American jet. But in Port-au-Prince and Johannesburg – against the odds, and against the soldiers and the police, against the mob that has decided to become the police, against the expert and against the NGO – it endures, fragile but alive.