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The Antimonies of Democracy

A Murder in Durban

by RICHARD PITHOUSE

Durban, South Africa.

In the last days of June Nkululeko Gwala was assassinated in Cato Crest – a shack settlement in Durban that is in the process of being upgraded with formal housing. Just over three months ago Thembinkosi Qumbelo was gunned down in the same streets. Both men had been prominent figures in the increasingly bitter struggles around housing that have convulsed Cato Crest in recent months. There have been road blockades, a land occupation – named, as they often are these days, ‘Marikana’ – and the offices of two municipal councillors have been burnt down.

Five people from the area all, like Gwala, members of the shack dweller’s movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, are in hiding after being subject to death threats from local party structures. Others have been told that their access to what counts as work – ‘volunteering’ to work as a cleaner in the grandly named Expanded Public Works Programme in exchange for food vouchers – will be withdrawn. At times these threats have been openly issued in public meetings by ANC leaders.

In situations like these there are always all kinds of rumours. But there’s no question that people are scared. Nothing of possible political consequence is discussed on the telephone, meetings are held furtively and when a new person arrives with an account of threats from the local party structures they are very carefully checked out before even being allowed to enter a room.

People are certain that Gwala was murdered by the same men who killed Qumbelo and that one of the assassins is still hanging around, in a long black coat and a black cap pulled low, waiting for his chance to strike again. It’s often pointed out that these assassinations look like those that have become routine in the taxi industry and that the local Councillor, Mzimuni Ngiba, is a taxi owner.

One man says that he saw a municipal VIP vehicle parked around the corner on the day when Gwala was murdered. A whole busload of people say that while they were travelling back to Cato Crest from Gwala’s funeral in Inchanga they saw Ngiba in a car, a white Toyota Tazz, with the Mayor. Most people seem to think that it was the comments made by the ANC chairperson in Durban, Sibongeseni Dhlomo, in a public meeting on the day of Gwala’s murder that authorised the hit.

It’s not usually clear how far up the party hierarchy sanction for political violence goes. But given that in the past senior figures in both the municipal and provincial government have offered open endorsement for violence against independently organised activists, that this violence has been carried out with impunity and the escalating rate of assassination within the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal naivety in this regard seems as ill-advised as paranoia.

A few years ago state violence at the hands of the police and private security companies in Durban was most often driven by attempts to beat back popular opposition to evictions. Today demands for housing or services like sanitation and electricity can still result in conflict. But now that the Municipality’s attempt to resegregate large swathes of the city on the basis of class by removing shack settlements from middle class suburbs has been thoroughly defeated it is the arrival of ‘delivery’ that most often tends to result in protest and violence at the hands of the police or party thugs.

There are a number of reasons why ‘delivery’ is so acutely contested. One is that it is invariably imposed from above without any sort of meaningful negotiation. “They will never”, S’bu Zikode from Abahlali baseMjondolo says in angry resignation, “dirty their hands by negotiating with poor people.” This means that development that might look good on a spreadsheet can be experienced as catastrophic by its ‘beneficiaries’. In one of the more bizarre cases people in eTafuleni, many of whom have large homes, some with as many as 7 rooms, along with grazing land, have discovered that the Municipality considers their homes to be shacks and wants them to move into a transit camp – a government built and controlled shack settlement.

A second common problem is that in open violation of law and policy attempts are invariably made to exclude large groups of people from the list of ‘beneficiaries’. This helps the technocrats because it reduces their estimation of the ‘backlog’. It helps the politicians because its causes bitter divisions within communities. The most common strategy to achieve exclusion is that shack renters are left homeless or sentenced to the limbo of the transit camp, while shack owners are given houses. Increasingly, although not invariably, this process of excluding some from the count of who is entitled to receive what the state offers is given an ethnic inflection. In recent months the idea that the right to public goods should be mediated by ethnicity has been actively endorsed by senior ANC figures in Durban who, scurrilously, have blamed their inability to provide housing to people on migrants from the Eastern Cape – the geographic reference is a proxy for ethnicity.

Another factor generating conflict is rampant corruption. Sometimes it takes an informal form, with houses being allocated via deals struck on the bonnet of a councillor’s car. At other times it becomes a rival formality that intersects with other aspects of the formal system. There is even a case of a person presenting a receipt for an illegally bought house to the courts to justify her demand, as an upstanding property owner, to have her neighbours, longstanding residents of the area, evicted from their shacks.

People who are moved from their own shacks to transit camps are invariably told that they will be first on the list to access housing when houses have been built. But once the houses are built it is not unusual for people unknown to local residents to be installed in the houses amidst bitter recrimination driven by allegations of corruption. Because there is no open process governing allocation, and at times no obvious rationale behind who gets a house and who doesn’t, there is always the risk that rumours of corruption can exceed the reality of corruption.

The brazen use of the state’s housing programme to reward loyalty to the ruling party is also central to the acrimony that more or less inevitably accompanies ‘delivery’. If you are renting your shack, have no money to pay a bribe, have not demonstrated your fealty to the local party bosses and are seen to be of an ethnicity with a lesser claim to the city ‘delivery’ may very well mean eviction. There are also rivalries, sometimes violent, within the party around who gets access to jobs, tenders and the right to allocate houses.

All of this explains a lot of the fury that has accompanied the arrival of ‘delivery’ in Cato Crest. But none of this is unique to Cato Crest. Last year the Zakheleni shack settlement erupted. Earlier this year it was KwaNdengezi. In both cases there was serious armed intimidation from or linked to local party structures and people had to flee their homes. Right now in places like Siyanda and Uganda tensions resulting from claims of corruption are running high.

The realities of public housing as it is actually built and allocated are so far from the technocratic fantasies laid out in policy documents, and from how the law is supposed to work, that new forms of power are being developed from above and below to deal with the situation. Councillors, often accompanied by bodyguards bristling with guns and menace, are sometimes little more than gangsters, their authority sustained by intimidation and patronage. The violence required to defend the development model is still sometimes exercised by the police and private security but it is increasingly being taken over or outsourced to freelance thugs by local party structures. Activists report that it’s not unusual for people who have been in and out of jail to be given key roles in directing housing projects. Appeals to the Municipality to act against gangster councillors – whether expressed via fax, protest or the occupation of the City Hall – are invariably ignored.

New forms of social power are emerging in response to the intersection between elected authority and gangsterism. Abahlali baseMjondolo has weathered serious repression and currently has fifty four branches across the city. In KwaNdengezi the local traditional leader and the Commander at the local police station have both emerged as far more credible brokers than the local councillor. The Station Commander, embarrassed at having his officers arrest people, including an old woman, on the orders of the local councillor is now calling all the constituencies in the area together to negotiate a way through the mess.

Alliances are also constantly shifting. In Siyanda the Branch Executive Committee of the ANC has decided to support Abahlali baseMjondolo in a planned protest against the local councillor. In Kennedy Road it is the police that have warned Abahlali baseMjondolo about new plans for violence being hatched by the local ANC. It was a retired nurse, a Black Consciousness activist in the 70s, who introduced people in Cato Crest to Abahlali baseMjondolo. She was appalled to discover that her gardener had been consigned to the Cato Crest transit camp and hooked him up with the movement.

The ANC admits that it has no plan to deal with the housing crisis in Durban. Its own figures indicate that there are 400 000 people in 500 shack settlements waiting for houses. If the current trajectory is maintained most of those people will die in their shacks. The municipal housing programme that does exist is profoundly inadequate in many ways but there is very little discussion of this for the simple reason that, from the top to the bottom, it has been captured by people linked into the party. It is being massively abused for their own pecuniary interests and to secure support for the party. It can’t meet the needs of Durban’s residents but it can turn a poor person into a business person with a car and a gun overnight and, with equal rapidity, it can also turn a business person into the sort multi-millionaire that collects imported sports cars as a hobby. The questions that are being posed in Durban from above are about the distribution of state resources and not how to use them to meet people’s needs more effectively. S’bu Zikode stresses that an effective challenge from below requires unity to be built between shack owners and renters, and across ethnicities, by developing a clear sense of “the real enemy”.

In 2013 the office of the Mayor of Durban may sit on a street named after Pixely Ka Seme, one of the intellectuals present at the founding of the ANC in 2012. But the party, with its toxic mix of millionaires and gangsters, is a world away from the vision of Seme, and the best of those that followed him. For Mazwi Nzimande, a young militant in Abahlali baseMjondolo, the lesson is clear: “You must always love justice more than any organisation.”

Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University in South Africa.