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One Year After Marikana: No Justice for the Poor in South Africa

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

It’s been more than a year since the Marikana massacre in South Africa (August 16, 2012), when 34 striking miners were killed after police opened fire.

The commission set up by the government last year has been doing what commissions do, very slowly. Whether the truth will emerge is questionable, but one result of the painfully slow proceedings is that arrested and injured miners can no longer afford legal representation. The commission is going on without them. (After it came to light last week that the police have been systematically doctoring information, if not patently lying to the commission, the commission was suspended until September 15 to investigate what a commission spokesperson called “a version of the events at Marikana [that] … is not the truth.” “It raises further questions,” writes Niren Tolsi “about the political will – and moral decency – of the South African government and its police force to allow the truth to emerge at the Farlam Commission. )

The South African Constitution includes some of the values that emerged out of the struggle against apartheid and, despite its limits, is still considered one of the most progressive in the world. Yet in practice, many people don’t have access to the constitution. When they try to access its guarantees, it often becomes clear that the government and police are above the law and the working class and poor, especially when organized outside of the ruling ANC, are beneath the law. This reality, often silenced in elite publics, recently has been on open display in Cato Crest, a shack settlement in the Durban suburb of Mayville.

Beginning September 12, 2013, Abahlali baseMjondolo, a grass-roots and participatory democratic shack-dweller movement in South Africa, won a series of interdicts in the Durban High Court to stop unlawful evictions from the settlement. The people facing eviction had occupied a new piece of land, which they named Marikana, after they had been unlawfully evicted from their shacks by the municipality. But death threats were made inside the court. And right outside the court’s doors, ANC men, in acts of bravado meant to intimidate and threaten, showed off their guns. The message was clear: Anyone who would get in their way would be “dealt with,” and court decisions would mean nothing. Threats from the local ANC have to be taken seriously. Two activists in the area already have been assassinated by shadowy gunmen. People also have been beaten by the police and the Land Invasions Unit during evictions and protests.

The movement responded to this intimidation by organizing a march to Durban City Hall under the banner of defending dignity and demanding land and housing. The march was preceded by an all-night process of political discussion among 500 members of its youth wing. And each branch that participated in the march had its own meetings to draft its own memorandum. The march took place September 16. The media reported that thousands of people supported the march. It was a joyous popular occasion that provided a concrete demonstration of the support that the movement continues to enjoy despite ongoing repression.

The court had ordered lawyers acting for the municipality and the movement to go to the settlement September 17 to identify shacks belonging to the residents who has requested the court’s protection so their homes could be marked and protected from eviction. But this process was not allowed to proceed. In their way was the Land Invasions Unit, which had evicted people illegally on seven occasions, supported by the local councilor. More death threats were made. A message from Abahlali read: “It was impossible to carry out the process as stipulated by the court order due to intimidation and threats from ANC supporters including open and public death threats. The rule of law is being undermined at every turn. Our lawyers and leaders have now left the area.”

Abahlali members have long argued that the democracy that is enjoyed by the middle classes does not exist for the poor in South Africa. There was a time when many middle-class intellectuals, often fixated on law and policy rather than the reality of the working class and the poor, didn’t take this critique seriously. But these illusions melted away in the face of the Marikana Massacre.

The murder of Nkululeko Gwala

Nkululeko Gwala, a community activist in Cato Crest, was a loyal ANC member, an organization that he identified with liberation and thought he would never leave. Gwala was a community activist and spoke out against how the distribution of housing in the area was systemically corrupt. Members of the Cato Crest community had been promised new housing, but when houses were built, party members were priotized for access, there were allegations of corruption, and people were excluded from the housing project on the basis of their ethnicity. People who were excluded from the housing project had their shacks illegally demolished and were left homeless.

Gwala was warned not to make public statements, but he continued to speak out. For this, he was expelled from the ANC. He joined the shack dwellers’ organization, Abahlali baseMjondolo, and continued to speak out and organize in the community. He knew it was dangerous, but he was clear about what was at stake: “If they say I am guilty of leading the protest, then that is fine because I am doing it for the rights of people.” On June 25, 2013, the municipality called a community meeting at which the ANC regional chair, Sibongiseni Dhlomo, said Gwala was a troublemaker and had to be removed. The die was cast.

In recent years there has been a rapid escalation of political assassinations in Durban and the province of Kwa-Zulu-Natal. Most are a result of rivalries within the ruling party, but people outside the party have been murdered, too. A few months earlier, gunmen murdered Cato Crest Residential Association chairman Thembinkosi Qumbelo. Gwala knew that his life was in danger. On the night of the meeting at which he was threatened, Gwala was shot 12 times. He was left to die in the road. He was 34 years old. Gwala’s assassination, like that of Qumbelo, remains unsolved. Activists who have said that they have information have not been interviewed by the police.

The Struggle Continues

Intimidation and evictions continue. On September 21, another activist, Nkosinathi Mngomezulu, was shot, this time by the Land Invasions Unit. At the time of writing, he is in a critical condition. On September 22, Abahlali baseMjondolo activists from around Durban gathered at Cato Crest in their red shirts to affirm their refusal to submit to ongoing violence and intimidation from the state and the ruling party.

It seems that political violence against the independently organized poor has become acceptable to much of middle class society in South Africa. The silence by the bulk of the media and civil society has been deafening.

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