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In the great anti-colonial poem of his youth, Notebook of Return to My Native Land, written on the eve of the Second World War, Aimé Césaire wrote a profound optimism into the world. He offers a marvellous image of the arrival of a moment of celebration that, “with a purple rustle of its great joyous wings” will make “the shack life burst like an overripe pomegranate”.
But in South Africa today, as in much of the world, an explosion in a shack settlement is more likely to be a gas stove erupting into a ball of flame, or a stun grenade, than anything that is in anyway analogous to the sweet rubies raining out of a pomegranate. On Monday this week the state sent out its men with guns to evict people occupying land in Suurman, outside Pretoria. The squatters fought back. At the end of the battle two of the men sent out to break down the shacks, and destroy the building material, were dead.
This was usual. It’s far more common for it to be the people whose homes are being destroyed, or who are being disconnected from electricity or water, to be killed in these everyday skirmishes. In October 2013 nine people were shot, and two killed, when the municipality in Durban sent out its security guards to disconnect people from electricity in a suburban shack settlement. When the law, and the ways that it is enforced, assume that we all have money – and criminalise attempts to make a life amid impoverishment – rule by violence is inevitable. So too, in the end, are violent responses to violent forms of rule.
But political violence is not solely a matter of what the police and other armed forces available to the state do to impoverished people as an everyday practice. It’s also a matter of political repression. When leading people in the African National Congress (ANC) continue to make sense of the world via the categories developed during the armed struggle the party is conflated with the nation and dissent, including popular and democratic forms of dissent, with betrayal or conspiracy. Students, miners and squatters have all been read as agents of malicious and illicit conspiracies, often imagined as foreign, and subject to violent repression. This will not stop until the ANC accepts that the nation exceeds the party and that people have a right to organise independently and to take positions and make alliances of their own choosing.
The police kill protestors all over the country and vulnerable groups like prisoners, sex workers, street traders and squatters are ruled with violence all over the country. But while the most egregious single incident of rule by violence was, of course, the massacre of striking workers at Marikana near Rustenburg in 2012 the problem of political violence is particularly acute in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. It is usually assumed that this is rooted in the militarisation of politics in this part of the country during the last years of apartheid.
One aspect of the endemic political violence in this part of the country is that police killings happen at a significantly higher rate here than anywhere else. These killings are largely directed at people deemed to be criminal. The political dimensions of this exceed the evident fact that when trying to make a life as an impoverished person is read as criminal the line between criminality and impoverishment often becomes blurred. The distinction between the criminal and the political also becomes blurred when political dissent is, in practice, deemed to be illegitimate.
There have been many cases in which the police have killed unarmed protestors in towns and cities across KwaZulu-Natal. These killings usually receive very little attention in elite publics. It’s not unusual for news reports to not even deem it necessary to note the name of a person that has been killed by the police on a protest. It’s usually only when the people killed by the police are in or linked to a struggle with some access to the media that these events are received with as worthy of elite attention.
The first of these cases was in 2000 when the police killed Michael Makabane, a student at the then University of Durban-Westville. Another police murder in the same city that received some media attention was that of Monica Ngcobo in 2006. She was 22 when she was shot dead as she passed a protest on her way to work. In 2013 the police murdered Nqobile Nzuza. She was shot while participating in a road blockade organised in defence of a land occupation close to the main campus of the university in Durban. She was 17.
But it is political assassinations that are a particular feature of political life in KwaZulu-Natal. It has been estimated that up to 90% of all political killings since the end of apartheid have happened in this province. In 2013 David Bruce published an academic paper that recorded 450 political murders in KwaZulu-Natal. They do occur in some other provinces, most notably the North West and Mpumalanga, but are, Bruce showed, overwhelmingly concentrated in KwaZulu-Natal.
The political killings in this province are often related to rivalries within the ruling party. These rivalries can be solely a matter of power and patronage. But they can also be related to broader political divisions within the ruling party and its alliance partners. In August last year three leaders in the metal workers’ union, Njabulo Ndebele, Sibonelo “John-John” Ntuli and Ntobeko Maphumulo were murdered in Isithebe, not far from Durban. In January this year two members of the South African Communist Party (SACP), Bongani Hlatshwayo and Phillip Dlamini, were murdered in Inchanga, also close to Durban.
There have also been a number of assassinations in Durban that have targeted of people organizing independently of the ruling party and its allies. In 2006 Sinethemba Myeni and Mazwi ‘Komi’ Zulu, both former SACP members, were killed in Umlazi, after supporting an independent candidate in the local government elections that year. Thembinkosi Qumbelo, an activist who had worked in Cato Crest with a number of organisations, was assassinated in 2013. Nkululeko Gwala, also from Cato Crest and a member of the squatters’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo was assassinated in the same year. Thuli Ndlovu, the chairperson of the Abahlali baseMjondolo branch in KwaNdengezi, was assassinated the following year. A few weeks later Mobeni Khwela, an SACP activist, was also assassinated in KwaNdengezi.
On Friday last week two ANC councilors, Mduduzi Ngcobo and Velile Lutsheku, along with their hitman Mlungisi Ndlovu, were found guilty of the murder of Thuli Ndlovu. They were given life sentences. There is often impunity for political killings and convictions are important bulwarks against this impunity. In this case a proper investigation, resulting in a conviction, was possible because of sustained organisation and struggle in KwaNdengezi by both Abahlali baseMjondolo and the SACP, often working together in a tactical alliance against repression, and because senior politicians with SACP links were willing to intervene after the murder of Khwela.
In 1956, in an altogether less optimistic poem, Césaire wrote that “When the world shall be a tower of silence . . .we shall be the prey and the vulture”. This has all too often been the fate of the postcolony. What Abahlali baseMjondolo have called ‘the politic of blood’ – a phenomenon that includes the mobilization of xenophobic and ethnic violence – is not solely the responsibility of the state and the ruling party. The tower of silence welcomes the full range of elites into its isolation from the rest of society.
Much of the media, civil society (frequently understood as NGOs), the academy, and many religious formations too, have operated on the basis that democracy is doing fine for as long as the safety and freedoms of elites are secure. It is often implicitly assumed that politics is, or should be, an engagement between elites. The general lack of regard within elite society for the lives of people who are poor and black has enabled political violence to fester in the zones of domination and exclusion and to entrench itself deep within in the circuits of patronage that flow from the state.
In Discourse on Colonialism, his famous anti-colonial pamphlet first published in 1950 Césaire shows that in the colonial imagination the category of the human, or the fully human, is reserved for people rendered as white. After confronting the reader with a gathering flood of images of colonial degradation and abuse he offers an equation: “colonization = ‘thingification’ ”. If we take this seriously a genuinely anti-colonial politics must recover the human, not as another abstraction, but as a concrete point of departure for political discourse and practice. “A prospect”, Frantz Fanon insisted in his exploration of the crisis of the post-colony, “is human because conscious and sovereign persons dwell within”.
South Africa will not be able to step off the path that we are on, a path that winds into ever tighter circles of violence, if we don’t find a way to affirm, in principle and in practice, that democracy must mean that everyone counts and that everyone has the same right to intervene in the political. Every political murder must be understood as crisis. The justice won for Thuli Ndlovu must be extended to everyone else cut down in the increasingly bloody underside of our democracy.