— Zachary Levenson
Originally appearing in Against the Current 160, Sept/Oct 2012
A MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN continued stuffing an old tire with bits of straw, refusing to stop as two younger men pleaded with her not to ignite it. She didn’t seem to take them seriously, presumably because one of them was wearing a Democratic Alliance (DA) shirt, the reigning party in the Western Cape and largely despised by black voters. It was hard to hear the substance of the debate over the chanting of struggle songs and vigorous toyi-toyiing, not to mention the crowd shouting down officers in an SUV marked “Anti-Land Invasion Unit.”(1)
It was only after a well-known leader of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign told her that a fire would provoke arrests that she relinquished the kindling. With the burnt asphalt of Symphony Way easily visible from the previous few days’ protests, it seemed obvious where this was going, but this time no tires were torched; the critics of the tactic won out.
Instead, residents of Blikkiesdorp and Tsunami formed a line and continued dancing, blockading the thoroughfare through Delft South on the eastern periphery of Cape Town just east of the airport.
This was one of hundreds of so-called “service delivery protests” that have occurred over the past decade in South Africa. As the post-apartheid promise of housing for all — a guarantee enshrined in the country’s constitution — proved to be empty rhetoric, residents in shack settlements around the country have begun to demand change.
With grossly inadequate access to potable water and sanitary toilets in major metropolises including Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, not to mention the unlikelihood of legal electricity connections, the number of such protests has grown remarkably over the past few years, combining demands for municipal service provision with disgust over the dysfunctionality of post-apartheid housing delivery.(2)
According to analyses now circulated around the internationalist left, South Africa has the highest per capita number of uprisings of any country, a rapidly intensifying “rebellion of the poor” marking it as the “protest capital of the world.”(3)
But even if a purely quantitative analysis of these gatherings suggests escalating unrest, does their content match the hype? While certainly one can find instances of cumulative organizing and the emergence of sustained challenges to a rapidly degenerating welfare state, can these protests reasonably be described as “rebellions”?
I asked the woman who was prevented from lighting the tire what she was hoping to achieve and why she thought this might be an effective tactic. She told me that all of this — the blockade, the tires, the confrontation with police — was an effort to attract the ward councilor for Delft South.
Trying to Get Attention
Hardly a rebellion in the standard sense then, this was actually an attempt to engage an elected official, as heterodox as it might appear. According to numerous residents with whom I spoke, the councilor had never set foot in Blikkiesdorp despite having been in office for the better part of a decade. All they wanted, I was told, was to get answers.
Lest this be dismissed as an isolated incident, I witnessed similar modes of engagement by peri-urban shack residents across the country. Last November, 700 members of the youth league of Abahlali baseMjondolo, reported to be the country’s largest shack dwellers’ organization, marched on Durban’s City Hall through the pouring rain, and I marched with them. Continue reading