Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Flames of Phaphamani

Feb 21 2011 Libcom.org

Pedro Alexis Tabensky on recent events in Grahamstown, South Africa, and
the increasing repression of poor people's movements there.

by Pedro Alexis Tabensky

The poor are steadily getting angrier and they are preparing for
something. They have relatively little to lose, except the hope that
drives their movements, informed predominantly by desire for justice for
those who are systematically dehumanized in our country today. These
movements include: Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), the Poor Peoples’
Alliance, the Landless Peoples’ Movement, the Western Cape Anti-Eviction
Campaign, Mandela Park Backyarders and Sikhula Sonke. And, in my hometown—
Grahamstown—the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement (UPM) and the Woman’s Social
Forum (WSF) are represented.

All these independent movements are communicating with one another, having
conferences such as the recent Conference of the Democratic left in
Johannesburg, and using the courts and the internet, to achieve their
aims. They are organizing themselves, finding moneys here and there that
do not carry strings attached, thinking about possible futures without
economic injustice, rereading Biko and Fanon, and using their feet and
voices. Little will stop them except repression or genuine change for the
better. Sadly, more often than not, their voices are met with police or
grassroots ANC thuggery (such as the widely reported violence met out
against AbM in 2009 and the ANC Youth League sabotage of a meeting
convened by the UPM to discuss the Makana Municipality water crisis in
2010). But this violence only stops them temporarily. In the medium term,
it works as a catalyst. The more they are shot at and beaten in police
stations and on the streets around the country, the more they become
convinced that their fight is a fight to assert their humanity; the more
they are convinced that they are largely alone and that what they hope for
can only be brought about by their own efforts.

And their voices are starting decisively to be heard and taken seriously
by the mainstream, despite countless acts of official and semi-official
violence against them, and despite mainstream condescending portrayals of
them as angry children unproductively venting out frustration or as blind
automata of some mysterious third force.

I will focus here primarily on recent events in my hometown. They are
exemplary of what is happening nationally.

On Wednesday the 9th of this month, tyres started burning in the
Phaphamani informal settlements in Grahamstown after a failed attempt—one
of many—to get the local Mayor, Mr Vumile Lwana, to address the grievances
of the local poor. The first thing one finds when visiting the Makana
Municipality website is its vision statement: “We shall strive to ensure
sustainable, affordable, equitable and quality services in a just,
friendly, secure and healthy environment, which promotes social and
economic growth for all.” If only the municipality acted in accordance
with its own stated commitments, the Phaphamani fires would not have

The flames of Phaphamani were an offshoot of a failed peaceful protest
organized primarily in response to a spate of recent rapes and murders. In
late December last year Ms Zingiswa Centwa, a learner at Nombulelo High
School, was raped and murdered. A few days later Ms Ntombekhaya Blaatjie
was also raped and sustained severe brain injuries from the attack. These
acts, in addition to many other recently reported sexual assaults in
Grahamstown, prompted the WSF and the UPM to join forces to organize a
protest march on the day of the trial of Ms Centwa’s alleged rapist and
killer to demand desperately needed services, such as better lighting,
that would help put an end to the violence met out against women. But the
aims of the planned protests were also more general. The radical lack of
security on township streets is only one sign of many more that point to
the glaring fact that in South Africa today only some of its citizens are
treated as full-blown human beings.

The protest conveners requested permission to protest in a timely fashion,
but the Makana Municipality unilaterally banned the march without
convening a legally mandatory Section 4 meeting, making their banning of
the march illegal. Given the municipality’s disregard for the law, the
organizers decided to carry on with the protest and moved from the
Grahamstown Magistrate’s Court to stage a sit-in at the municipal offices,
demanding to speak to the Mayor, Mr Lwana. They were in the building for
the better part of the day, but the Mayor did not present himself.
Instead, the Municipal Manager, Ms Ntombi Baart, made an appearance
towards the end of the day and assured the crowed that a meeting with the
Mayor would be arranged within 48 hours and then left giving those present
assurances that she would now contact Mr Lwana to arrange the meeting and
get back to them shortly. Soon after she left, the police came, claiming
that Ms Baart had called for them, and they dispersed the peaceful
protest. Residents of Phaphamani, who witnessed the deceit, were incensed
and decided, without consulting the protest conveners, to return to their
settlement, set tires alight and to dig up a recently laid tar road
running through Phaphamani.

The promised meeting with the Mayor never materialized itself. The
commitment made by Ms Baart was broken, lending further evidence that
Municipal officials are not to be trusted.

From the perspective of an outsider, one may think that this gesture of
lighting tires and destroying public property is senseless, but one must
take time to reflect on why residents of Phaphamani decided to do this.
First, they were outraged at the ongoing non-responsiveness of municipal
officials. Second, and relatedly, their needs were not considered when
deciding to spend public moneys on a road that will only advantage the
relatively rich. The residents of Phaphamani are too poor even to make use
of taxis, so the road clearly was not meant for them and, yet, their
demands for better housing, dignified toilets, water, security and jobs
are not being heard.

The flames of Phaphamani went on all night. Next morning when Mr Ayanda
Kota (UPM President), Mr Xola Mali (UPM Spokesperson) rushed to the
settlement upon receiving a call from Ms Nombulelo Yami (of the WSF)
informing them of police violence against the protesters. On arrival they
found that police were firing rubber bullets and rocksalt at the
protestors. They immediately went to speak to them to stop the unnecessary
violence, and were arrested with Ms Yami on the spot, handcuffed and
placed in a police van. While in the van they overheard a policeman ask
the driver to give him more ‘sweets to enjoy himself’. He wanted more
rubber bullets, and got them. Shortly after these arrests one of the
protesters—Ms Ntombentsha Budaza—was beaten and arrested.

The prisoners were taken to the police station and the following day they
were released on bail. The conditions of bail, disturbingly, are
unconstitutional according to Professor Jane Duncan from Rhodes
University. In summary, they are forbidden from organizing and
participating in further public expressions of the right to freedom of
speech. Their trial is scheduled for March 16.

In conclusion, unnecessary violence, dubiously motivated arrests and
intimidation, illegal actions and deceit are being used by state
representatives to suppress the voices of those who may as well be called
the South African untouchables.

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