Twelve bullets in a man’s body, twelve more in a collective fantasy

Cities have emerged as a key site of popular struggle in post-apartheid South Africa. But with the ANC responding to independent organisation in an increasingly violent and repressive manner the future of these struggles is deeply uncertain.

On the 26th of June, James Nxumalo, the African National Congress (ANC) Mayor of Durban and Sibongeseni Dhlomo, the chairperson of the ANC in Durban, addressed a public meeting in the Cato Crest shanty town. During the meeting Dhlomo threatened Nkululeko Gwala, a central figure in recent mobilisations against evictions and ANC capture of local housing allocations. Dhlomo used idiomatic language but it was clear enough to his audience that his words amounted to a death threat. Gwala was well aware that the threat was serious. After all, it was just over three months since another activist, Thembinkosi Qumbelo was assassinated in the same neighbourhood. Qumbelo was shot while watching a football game in a local bar.

Gwala had joined Abahlali baseMjondolo, a shack dweller’s movement, in February. Since 2005 the movement has mounted a serious challenge to the ANC in a number of shack settlements in the city and beyond. The movement emerged out of broad and escalating urban ferment.


Abahlali Assembly, Foreman Road Settlement. Wikimedia Commons.

Across the country there has been, since 2004, escalating popular opposition to the ANC’s authoritarian, violent and exclusionary urban regime, one which is increasingly subordinated to clientalism and patronage mediated through party structures. For the most part this opposition is not formally organised on a sustained basis and is closer in form to what Raúl Zibechi has called, a "society in movement" rather than a social movement. Indeed, with the road blockade as its primary weapon, urban social movements have drawn considerable attention to the worsening urban crisis and exposed the limits of the assumption, widespread inside and out of the ANC, that the workplace is the central site, and the trade union the central organisational form, for popular political engagement.

The risks of formality

Formal organisation of popular movements carries obvious risks, most pertinently the risk of bureaucratisation and co-option by political parties (or the NGO/donor complex that likes to present itself as civil society). But, if popular organisation can sustain democratic practices, and enough autonomy to negotiate mutual rather than paternalistic relationships with middle class actors, it can have valuable benefits to the organisation. These include the opportunity for ongoing collective deliberation and access to the broader public sphere, in particular the African language media and the courts.

Engagement on these terrains ofcourse does in turn carry its own risks and costs, but in their absence the current popular struggle is at serious risk of collapsing under the weight of state violence and, to the degree that it is acknowledged, passed off as consequent to popular criminality. It is rare for popular struggles that are not grounded in, or connected to sustained organisation to be acknowledged as political by elite publics, rather they tend to be seen as criminal or as some sort of irrational, and at times almost biological, spasm of fury. Even when popular struggles are recognised as political they tend to be unable to win the right to represent themselves within the elite public without sustained organisation, and run the risk of being subjected to largely speculative interpretation by ‘experts’.  The result is that, to appropriate Jacques Rancière, “only groans or cries expressing suffering, hunger or anger [can] emerge, not actual speech demonstrating a shared aisthesis”.

Abahlali baseMjondolo protest in Durban. Wikimedia Commons/Inkani. Some rights reserved.

Attacking the political

Since its founding Abahlali baseMjondolo has often been held in contempt by the ANC, as if it were plainly illegitimate for poor people to organise themselves outside of party or civil society projects that, like Slum Dweller’s International, are as attractive to the World Bank as they are to the ANC. The party has frequently alleged that the movement is a plot on the part of foreign intelligence agencies. All kinds of rumours have been circulated, most predicated on the assumption that that the ongoing organisation of poor people is de facto evidence of conspiracy, assumed to be both external and malicious, and must have been achieved by either white agency and large splodges of wonga rather than the courage and commitment of shack dwellers.

Similar rumours have had currency in some currents in NGO based civil society which have been equally unwilling to recognise popular political agency. This misrepresentation of popular political innovation as consequent to conspiracy, and in the case of the ANC, anti-national, holds grave consequences. Like others poor people’s movements that have ebbed and flowed since the turn of the century, Abahlali baseMjondolo has been subject to systemic unlawful and violent repression at the hands of the state.

This came to a head in 2009, when John Mchunu, notorious hard man who had joined the ANC from the Zulu nationalist movement Inkatha, was ANC Chairperson in Durban. During his time in Inkatha Mchunu had been described as a ‘warlord’. In September 2009 Mchunu warned the ANC’s Regional General Council of “the element of these NGO [sic] who are funded by the West to destabilise us; these elements use all forms of media and poor people. We know them very well; we have seen them using their power at Abahlali baseMjondolo.”

Two weeks later a group of men, armed, drunk, and identifying themselves as both ANC and Zulu, launched an attack on the movement’s ethnically diverse leadership in the Kennedy Road settlement, who they falsely described as being part of the Mpondo minority. As the night wore on they went from house to house destroying people’s homes and threatening to kill both Abahlali baseMjondolo members and Mpondo people, requests to the police for help were ignored. It was only after some hours when some residents began to defend themselves, that the state stepped in with armed force. It quickly moved to impose an unelected ANC leadership on the settlement. No attempt was made to offer any sort of security to members (or their families or homes) of Abahlali baseMjondolo. Willies Mchunu, a senior ANC politician, declared that the government had “moved swiftly to liberate a Durban community” and the party declared that it had summarily disbanded the movement. After the attack twelve young men, all Mpondo, and all linked to the movement, were arrested and spent almost a year in jail.

For months local ANC supporters continued to openly destroy and loot the homes of Abahlali baseMjondolo members on weekends with absolute impunity. Death threats and violence by party members, and torture at the hands of the police, was used to try and coerce witnesses into inventing some evidence against the twelve young men who had been arrested. When the matter came to trial, the state’s case was so bad that the judge threw it out of court without the defence even having to answer the case brought against them.

Abahlali baseMjondolo protest in Durban. Wikimedia Commons/Inkani. Some rights reserved.

Twelve bullets 

Nkululeko Gwala knew this history very well. He knew that there had recently been an assassination in Cato Crest, that threats from the ruling party’s Durban chairperson were not to be taken lightly and that it was possible for political violence to be exercised against activists with impunity. He must also have known that political assassinations have become common within the ANC, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal. But Gwala decided not to flee Cato Crest. That night, perhaps signalling his refusal to be cowed, he went to a local bar to watch Brazil play Uruguay in the Confederations Cup. Unlike Thembinkosi Qumbelo he didn’t end his days in a bar watching football. He was shot twelve times on the walk home.

Abahlali baseMjondolo would not have survived the repression of 2009 without access to international activist solidarity, connections to the local media and pro bono legal support that had been developed via years of day to day organisation. And without the contacts that the movement has developed in the media over the years they would not have been able to counter the ruling party’s spin on Gwala’s murder as effectively as they did. But although organisation has enabled what the ANC would prefer to represent as criminal to appear in the elite public sphere as political, the fact remains that with important exceptions, middle class South Africa just doesn’t give a damn. Abahlali baseMjondolo members in Cato Crest continue to be subject to credible threats from local ANC leaders and are also being targeted for eviction by the municipality.

In principle all South Africans inhabit a Constitutional Democracy. In practice there is a graduated system that offers democracy, shrinking but certainly extant, to the middle classes, strong representation within the party for the loyal factions of the working class and a toxic mixture of patronage and repression for the poor. Party cards and fealty to party bosses are increasingly required to access state support; opposition, especially if organised outside of the ruling party, is increasingly met with violence. The bulk of the middle class, including many NGOs, academics, journalists and commentators, implicitly accept the graduated political system that the ANC has created. Many grassroots militants have concluded that while lines of solidarity, which are sometimes vital, can be forged across class there will be no way through this crisis without an organised challenge to the state and civil society from below.

Under apartheid the division of society in terms of what the late Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot called “an ontology, an implicit organization of the world and its inhabitants” took a fundamentally spatial form. After apartheid the ANC has taken some steps to deracialise elite spaces. But in the countryside the Bantustans remain neo-Bantustans, formally governed on a fundamentally different basis to the rest of the country. In the cities the shack settlements are governed on a fundamentally different basis to other urban spaces. Here the rules are, in practice, often worked out with little regard for policy or the law.

Before the end of apartheid shack dweller’s struggles were usually subsumed under a nationalist struggle, or opposition to it, that tended to disavow the particularity of the shack settlement as a site of habitation and struggle. It was often assumed that the urban question would be automatically resolved by the success of the national struggle. With every day that people continue to make their lives amidst shit and fire, every eviction, every beating, every case of torture and every murder that assumption becomes ever more fantastical.

About the author

Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.

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