They Die Out There: It Matters Not Where, Nor How

On Monday morning there was a protest, in the form of a road blockade, organised from a shack settlement in Durban, South Africa. The settlement, officially known as Quarry Road but popularly known as KwaMam’Suthu, is on a sliver of land that runs along a river bank squeezed between two busy roads. It is in the suburbs to the North of the city. The current sequence of open contestation between people occupying land in the interstices of this part of the city and the local state stretches back to the ‘80s. It has a prior history that, before the mass evictions of the ‘50s and ‘60s, came to a head in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. Over the last decade it has ebbed and flowed as the state has alternated between offering material and political concessions and responding to struggle with increasingly violent repression. Recently things have been getting hot again. Last month residents from the nearby Kennedy Road settlement burnt a municipal truck during two days of protest.

Ten years ago the leadership in KwaMam’Suthu were affiliated to the South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO) which is aligned to the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Since then they have sometimes worked with Abahali baseMjondolo, an autonomous poor people’s movement, when seeking to secure land or services, or to oppose or get rid of a local politician, but have generally returned to formations allied to the ruling party when working to secure these gains. But any organisation outside of the control of the local ANC structures is highly contested. The local ward councillor was not impressed when the South African Communist Party, which is in alliance with the ANC, recently launched a branch in the settlement.

Early on Monday afternoon it was reported that “A protester who was running from rubber bullet fire and a haze of teargas has died in a stream after he became entangled in a web of illegal electricity connections.” It was also reported that six children, ranging in age from a months to five years old were treated after having inhaled tear gas. As is often the case in these kinds of situations the dead man was not dignified with his name in the media reports. The term ‘violent’ was only used to describe the protestors.

The man whose life came to an end in the river was Jabulani Sokhela. He was forty years old. He had no family of his own but was an elder in a family of four. He was from Donnybrook in the Midlands. He made his living as a ‘Community Caretaker’ in the ablution blocks that, as a concession to struggle, are now housed in shipping containers in some shack settlements.

The death of a protestor at the hands of the police is not an unusual event in South Africa. A google search, no doubt an inadequate research tool, shows up more than fifty cases of people killed by the police during street protests since the turn of the century. This figure does not include the thirty eight miners massacred at Marikana in 2012, the growing list of grassroots activists assassinated by more shadowy forces or the people killed by the various other armed forces available to the state and used to effect evictions and disconnections from self-organised access to municipal services like water, electricity and, although less frequently, sanitation. In October 2013 two people were killed, and another seven injured, after they were attacked by municipal security guards during an armed electricity disconnection in the New Germany settlement, which is just up the road from KwaMam’Suthu. At the time Mbali Mdlozini, whose cousin was killed in the attack, told a newspaper, in a phrase that has been consistently present during street protests over the last fifteen years, that “We are not animals”. On Monday some residents from the New Germany settlement joined the road blockade organised from Quarry Road. Jabulani Sokhela was one of them.

In October 2005 residents of KwaMam’Suthu marched on their local municipal councillor in opposition to the ongoing attempts to ‘eradicate’ the settlement and remove those of its residents that would not have been left homeless to the rural periphery of the city. They organised a mock burial of their councillor and demanded that he hand over the keys to his office. At the time one of the residents was in Westville Prison after being arrested during a successful attempt to stop an eviction. The evictions were seen off and the middle class councillor was removed and replaced with a resident from a nearby shack settlement. Two years ago, with activists who had been forced out of the Kennedy Road settlement by the local ANC leading the struggle, KwaMam’Suthu was successfully extended to include an adjacent piece of land. The occupation was held in the face of repeated attempts to evict. The settlement is now considerably more dense, and larger, than it was in 2005.

Its residents have won some access to sanitation and showers, provided in the shipping containers where Sokhela was a cleaner. But they continue to live in life threatening conditions and have to face regular fires and floods. They are not alone in this. The morning after the protest organised from KwaMam’Suthu the Daily Maverick reported that last year 2 090 people burned to death Gauteng, the province in which Johannesburg is situated, “many of them in shack fires that sweep through informal settlements”. Monday’s protest was to demand basic services, including electricity, which is essential to any serious attempt to reduce shack fires, and in opposition to the ward councillor.

The mode of urbanism in which some lives are lived amid radical precariousness and, in death, are seldom mourned in wider society, has been central to some of the most compelling critiques of the fundamental inhumanity of colonialism. In 1956, the same year that he resigned from the French Communist Party on account of its inability to take the particularly of the situation confronted by black people seriously, the great Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, declaring that “My dignity wallows in puke”, looked to a redemptive moment that “breathtakingly. . . would fall down over the town and burst open the life of shacks like an over-ripe pomegranate”.

In 1961, in his famous account of the colonial city in The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon, also from Martinique, wrote that in the colonial ghetto – understood from without as “a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute” and evidently “a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light . . . a crouching village, a town on its knees, a town wallowing in the mire” the colonized “die there, it matters not where, nor how”. Fanon, less taken with apocalyptic fantasies than Césaire, saw the urban land occupation as the “gangrene ever present at the heart of colonial domination”.

More contemporaneously another great writer from Martinique, Patrick Chamoiseau, wrote, with profound political sympathy, in his 1982 novel Texaco of a “proletariat without factories, workshops, and work, and without bosses, in the muddle of odd jobs, drowning in survival and leading an existence like a path through embers” amidst a “disaster of asbestos, tin sheets crates, mud tears, blood, police”.

In 2015 South Africa continues to inhabit the logic, inscribed in space and sustained at gunpoint, of the colonial city. The spatial order that structures who counts, and who doesn’t, continues to be fundamentally raced. The state has no plan to move into a postcolonial urban order. In so far as there is a plan being pieced together, frequently in practice rather than via policy and legislation, its logic is clear: to contain the situation by recourse to the eminently colonial strategy of normalising violence as a central tool of governance for certain categories of people.

The state – ever more corrupt and brutal – is often held to account for the state of South African cities. It is also not unusual for the critical gaze to turn to the gated communities, with their McMansions and golf courses, and to deplore the ways in which colonial spatial relations have mutated into the new order. Recently there has also been some critique of ‘civil society’, usually understood as politics organised through NGOs, and its frequent inability, often but not always raced, to recognise modes of politics organised outside of its narrow gaze. In this milieu, it has been argued, there is a systemic inability to recognise sustained grassroots struggles, often conducted at real cost, as a mode of politics rather than a mere symptom of a deepening social crisis. But none of these lines of critique enable movement out of the general complacency in the face of the everyday brutality by which people who are poor and black are governed. The essential logic of colonialism – that some people just don’t, not in practice anyway, count as people – has become widely normalised.

In October 2005, three weeks after the residents of KwaMam’Suthu marched on their councillor, four boys in Paris, taking a short cut home from a football game, were pursued by the police. They ran, and for good reason. Their names were Muttin Altun, Zyed Benna, and Bouna Traoré. Their families were from Turkey, Tunisia and Mali. Seeking refuge they ducked into a building. It turned out to be an electricity substation. Benna and Traoré died in a single agonising moment. Altun was grievously burnt but survived. The revolt that began after the funeral continued for twenty days, moved into more than 250 cities and towns and left almost nine thousand cars burnt out or damaged.

In South Africa riots will not roll through our cities in an act of mass refusal to accept the electrocution of an impoverished man in a filthy river while in flight from the police as normal. No Bishops will lead the faithful in a candlelit march on the Durban City Hall. No trade union will call its members out on strike. We remain habituated to the evident fact that our country is, fundamentally, a moral, political, spatial and racial order in which some of us just don’t count as fully human.

Richard Pithouse is a research associate in the philosophy department at the University of Connecticut and a columnist with the Mail & Guardian in Johannesburg.