ON A PAVEMENT in Burg Street, Cape Town, stands a double-sided graphic by renowned artist Conrad Botes (of Bitterkomix fame) commemorating the last protest march to be actively opposed by the apartheid regime in 1989.
During the staged sit-in, one of the protesters climbed onto a police vehicle and sprayed dye (meant to make the identification of protesters easier) from the mounted cannon onto the police, daubing the surrounding buildings in purple. The following day of the march, graffiti around Cape Town announced “The purple shall govern.” The next time a protest occurred in Cape Town, marchers were allowed to protest without police repression.
The memorial is part of a Sunday Times centenary heritage project and is remarkably relevant artwork, perhaps reminding us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
On Thursday morning I watched hundreds – if not thousands – of marchers streaming in a joyous, ululating fashion through Cape Town station’s concourse. They were residents of the Joe Slovo informal settlement on their way to the Cape High Court where they are seeking to prevent their forced removal to Delft. The land the residents currently inhabit is to make way for the next phase in the N2 Gateway development (which the current Joe Slovo residents will not be benefiting from).
A few weeks ago, Joe Slovo residents protested violently, occupying the N2 highway for several hours. This column is not an attempt vindicate their behaviour, yet their actions – seen in a certain light – are understandable. It says much about the post-apartheid political landscape. We are faced with an increasingly disillusioned populace who are tired of the ANC’s empty promises. Frustration, steadily mounting at the appalling state of service delivery in South Africa, is sowing the seeds of explosive dissent which has not only been expressed that September day on the N2 but also in many townships across South Africa before that.
Government is out of touch with its electorate. Lindiwe Sisulu’s (who occupies the unenviable position of housing minister) haughty approach to the Joe Slovo crisis only serves to confirm this. Service delivery is clearly not a priority in a government obsessed with political survival against the backdrop of sordid succession race that is steadily tearing the ruling party apart.
Government’s indifference is not the only concern – so is the way service delivery protests are being treated by the police. In townships across South Africa, cases of violent (and incidentally illegal) police repression is being documented by the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI). In a press release on the institute’s website, police reactions to a protest over housing in the township of Protea South is described:
Maureen Mnisi, a community leader and Gauteng Chairperson of the Landless People’s Movement, was arrested while trying to speak with the media. She and at least five other community members were taken into custody and released, without being charged, after spending the night in jail. FXI staff overheard a police captain admitting that he had “always wanted to arrest” Mnisi.
We were shocked by the police violence. SAPS members fired at random towards the protesters, leaving the pavement covered with the blue casings of rubber bullets. Police also deployed a helicopter and water cannon, and we saw at least two officers using live ammunition. One Protea South resident, Mandisa Msewu, was shot in the mouth by a rubber bullet, and several other residents were attended to by paramedics due to police violence.
The release goes on to explain that this is not an isolated incident, and cites examples from other areas.
The authoritarian – and more often than not unconstitutional – reaction to service delivery protests would suggest a frightened government at war with its own people. It is startlingly reminiscent of the previous regime’s brutal approach to protests and possibly explains our limp stance on oppressive basket cases like Zimbabwe and Burma.
South Africans fought for their rights once, and they will do so again. The sooner the government realises this the better.
“The day the purple governed” – The Sunday Times
“Police repression in Protea South an indicator of a national trend” – FXI