Durban’s Brutal Underside


Durban, South Africa.

Nkosinathi Mngomezulu was shot  in the stomach on Saturday morning. He was shot at the Marikana land occupation at Stop 1, Cato Crest in the city of Durban, South Africa during an eviction. He’s currently in the Intensive Care Unit of the King Edward Hospital. His comrades fear that he may be attacked in the hospital. They’ve not been allowed to post their own guard but they’re making sure that he’s always surrounded by a large group during visiting hours.

Mngomezulu’s comrades are not paranoid. He’s been threatened with death if he recovers and returns home to the occupation. On the 26th of June Nkululeko Gwala, like Mngomezulu a member of the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, was assassinated in Cato Crest. Just over three months earlier another activist, Thembinkosi Qumbelo was gunned down in the same area in similar circumstances.

And hospital is not necessarily a safe place for someone who has crossed the African National Congress (ANC) in Durban. On the 30th of June last year Bhekimuzi Ndlovu was shot in the Zakheleni shack settlement in Umlazi after a series of protests against the local councillor and for land and housing. The Unemployed People’s Movement reported that the next day he was visited in hospital by a delegation from the local ANC. They said that they wanted to pray for him. Shortly after they left he became violently ill. The doctor diagnosed poisoning.

Murder has been part of the repertoire of political containment in post-apartheid Durban since Michael Makhabane was shot in the chest at point blank range by a police officer on a university campus in May 2000. Political killings have been undertaken by shadowy assassins since at least April 2006 when two former South African Communist Party activists were assassinated in Umlazi after supporting an independent candidate against the ANC in the local government elections. And the armed mobilisation of ANC supporters against people organised outside of the party has been given de facto sanction from the police and senior politicians in the city and the province since at least September 2009 when Abahlali baseMjondolo were attacked in the Kennedy Road shack settlement in Clare Estate.

The attack on Abahlali baseMjondolo in 2009 was also the moment when the language of ethnicity began to be openly used by the local ANC, including senior figures in the Municipality like Nigel Gumede, to legitimate exclusion and violence. Abahlali baseMjondolo, an ethnically diverse organisation, was misrepresented as an Mpondo organisation and it was made clear that this designation rendered it illegitimate. Ethnic claims were mobilised in a similar way when people were burnt out of the kwaShembe shack settlement in Clermont in March 2010 and in the repression that followed sustained organisation by the Unemployed People’s Movement in the Zakheleni settlement in Umlazi last year.

Death threats are now a routine feature of political discourse in Durban. They are not only part of the arsenal of increasingly heavily armed local councillors and their party committees. In September 2007 politically connected businessman Ricky Govender, a man who has often been described as a gangster, was reported to have threatened to have a journalist at the Mercury, a local paper,  killed. He had previously been reported to have threatened to have local Abahlali baseMjondolo activist Shamitha Naidoo killed. Nigel Gumede, who chairs the housing committee in the eThekwini Municipality, has never denied the claim that he openly threatened S’bu Zikode from Abahlali baseMjondolo in a meeting in the City Hall in October 2011. On a number of occasions ANC members bused in to court appearances involving independently organised activists have openly issued death threats against activists.

Witnesses say that Mngomezulu was shot by a manager of the Land Invasions Unit, a municipal force used to crush land occupations. Cities across the country have similar units and they routinely and often violently destroy shacks in brazen violation of the law. The police are claiming that Mngomezulu was shot after he stabbed one of the unit’s members. Witnesses emphatically deny this. The police in Durban have been so habitually dishonest for so long when it comes to giving accounts of their own violence, and to violence against people organised outside of the ANC, that nothing that they say should be taken seriously in the absence of credible evidence. But even if Mngomezulu did put up some resistance to the Land Invasions Unit he would have been within his right to do so. There is a clear right, in law, to defend one’s home against illegal attack.

The land at Stop 1 in Cato Crest was occupied, and the occupation named Marikana, in March this year after a large number of people were made homeless as their shacks were destroyed to make way for a housing development. As has been typical for years shack owners were given houses but tenants were (illegally) left homeless if they couldn’t pay a bribe to get a house or didn’t have solid connections to local party structures. In this case the eviction of the tenants was also given an overt ethnic inflection with politicians from the local councillor to Nigel Gumede and the mayor, James Nxumalo, openly mobilising a discourse that presents people from the Eastern Cape province as alien intruders in Durban.

Some of the people that were illegally rendered homeless earlier this year had lived in Cato Crest since as far back at 1995. They had work in the area, their children were in local schools and Durban was where they were making their lives. The local ANC had told them to ‘go back to Lusikisiki’ – a village in the Eastern Cape Province. They decided, instead, to occupy an adjacent piece of land. Their shacks have been demolished on eight separate occasions, often violently, and they have rebuilt them each time. As I write (on Tuesday 24 September) the ninth demolition is in progress. They have been to the High Court five times to request the Court’s intervention against these patently unlawful evictions. The Municipality has brazenly violated all of the assurances it has given the court, as well as three court orders.

People who have tried to defend their homes have been beaten and shot with rubber bullets. When they have gone to the streets they have been arrested and beaten in the local police station. When the court ordered lawyers from both sides to meet at the Marikana land occupation on Tuesday last week to identify which shacks were protected by its orders local ANC members were mobilised by the local councillor to disrupt the process. Intimidation, including death threats, made the process mandated by the court impossible.

This drama is not simply about the state using violence to try and sustain the duopoly that it shares with the market with regard to the allocation of land. It’s also about protecting the interests of the ruling party. Party supporters have built shacks in the same area without consequence. These are political evictions. And politics is being openly mediated through ethnicity. Mpondo people are being presented as having no right to this city and the Zulus amongst them as disloyal. S’bu Zikode from Abahlali baseMjondolo has concluded that “To the smug politicians in their suits in the City Hall, and their thugs hunting us in the shacks, you are not a proper human being if you are not Zulu and if you are a Zulu living and organising with Mpondo people then you are not a proper Zulu”.

For Zikode “The City Hall is red with blood”. But on Monday last week Abahlali baseMjondolo brought its own tide of red shirted resolve to the City Hall in an impressive march. The movement has 1 560 members in good standing in Cato Crest and its members from across the city are holding meetings at the Marikana occupation, cooking together and rebuilding the shacks after each demolition.

Zuma’s increasingly violent and predatory state has its firmest urban base in Durban. But despite the authority that the ANC wields in this city its power is not exercised with patrician assurance. On the contrary the scale and intensity of political violence here, much of it carried out in power struggles within the party, far exceeds that of any of the other major cities. The law remains an important terrain of struggle in Durban but neither it nor the Constitution offer any guarantees. The local state and the local party are both willing to crush dissent, perfectly lawful dissent, with violence. The silence of higher authority has served to sanction this violence. Nonetheless it is here in Durban that the most sustained popular resistance to the brutality and venality that has metastasized through the ANC has been organised. There has been remarkably innovation, tenacity and courage from below. But although the future remains unwritten it seems certain that there will be blood.

Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University in South Africa.





Dr. Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University in South Africa.

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