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THE POGROMS IN SOUTH AFRICA

 

By Richard Pithouse

 

Tuesday, July 8, 2008.

 

The industrial and mining towns on the Eastern outskirts of Johannesburg are unlovely places. They’re set on flat windswept plains amidst the dumps of sterile sand left over from old mines.

 

In winter the wind bites, the sky is a very pale blue and it seems to be all coal braziers, starved dogs, faded strip malls, gun shops and rusting factories and mine headgear. All that seems new are the police cars and, round the corner from the Harry Gwala shack settlement, a double story facebrick strip club.

 

But even here, the battle for land continues. The poor are loosing their grip on the scattered bits of land which they took in defiance of apartheid more than twenty years ago. The state is, again, sending in bulldozers and men with guns to move the poor from central shack settlements to peripheral townships.

 

In every relocation many are simply left homeless. It is very difficult to resist the armed force of the state but people do what they can. Officials are often stoned. In principle the courts should provide relief from evictions that are not just illegal but are in fact criminal acts under South African law. There have been notable successes but it is often difficult to get pro bono legal support, legal processes are slow and the evictions continue.

 

In the Harry Gwala settlement the poorest women are on their hands and knees searching for bits of coal to bake into lumps of clay to keep the braziers burning. S’bu Zikode from Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban and Ashraf Cassiem from the Anti-Eviction Campaign in Cape Town are here to meet with the Harry Gwala branch of the Landless People’s Movement. These are all poor people’s movements that have been criminalised and violently attacked by the state.

 

The meeting is to discuss strategies for holding onto the urban land that keeps people close to work, schools, libraries and all the other benefits of city life. This is what it has come down to - militancy is about holding onto what was taken from apartheid.

 

Here in Harry Gwala, forced removals started in 2004. That was also the year in which the Landless People’s Movement declared a boycott of the local government elections and were subject to severe repression, including the police torture of some activists.

 

In August of the following year 700 residents marched on the Mayor demanding an end to forced removals and the immediate provision of water, electricity and toilets. Provincial Housing Minister Nomvula Mokonyane declared that the evictions “marked another milestone for housing delivery” and explained that “We are doing all this because we are a caring government and want to give you back your dignity”.

 

The Municipality’s website responded to the march by noting that “Although there was an initial reluctance on the part of the Harry Gwala residents to move, the metro and the [private housing] company met them to work through any objections and give them reasons why such a move would be worth their while.”

 

But in May 2006, when the Municipality tried to move ahead with the forced removals in earnest, it became clear that residents were determined to hold their ground.

 

The Johannesburg Star reported that “police fired rubber bullets and bulldozed their way into the Harry Gwala informal settlement near Wattville after residents barricaded themselves in with burning tyres. Shots rang out and people scattered in all directions as metro police fired at them. Twelve people were injured and were taken to hospitals in the area.”

 

In Harry Gwala, the evictions are remembered as a war. Now the settlement is recovering from a different kind of eviction, a different kind of war. It is to this that the discussion soon turns. The Freedom Charter adopted in Johannesburg in 1955 as the manifesto of the struggle against apartheid declared that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it.”

 

But for two terrible weeks in May, people unable to pass mob tests for indigeneity were intimidated, beaten, hacked, raped and burnt out of shack settlements and city centres across South Africa. The attacks began in the shack settlements around Johannesburg. In Harry Gwala the homes of two Shangaan families, one whom had come from Maputo in Mozambique and the other from Giyani in South Africa, were burnt and demolished.

 

All that is left is squares of burnt earth. The local Landless People’s movement moved swiftly to condemn the attacks and to work with the local police, with whom they have often been in conflict, to stop them from spreading further. In the nearby Makause settlement, which is not organised into an oppositional movement autonomous from the state, things were far worse.

 

Here the settlement is dotted with burnt out and demolished buildings. There is also a terribly empty 200 metre long strip where, in February last year, 2 500 shacks were unlawfully demolished at gunpoint by the state and the residents forcibly moved to a ‘transit camp’ 40 kilometres out of town.

 

In the second week the pogrom spread to the city centre and there were clashes at the Central Methodist Church, a well known haven for undocumented Zimbabweans, where residents successfully barricaded themselves in with piles of bricks for defence.

 

In January, there had been a much more damaging attack on the church. On that occasion the attack came from the police. They stormed in with dogs, pepper spray and batons and arrested 500 people. The church told the media that people were assaulted and robbed in the attack and that even those with documents were arrested.

 

In the second week the pogroms also spread to Durban, Cape Town and the small towns in the hinterland. In Durban the first attack was on a down town Nigerian bar and was followed by attacks on Rwandese and Congolese people living in city flats and then attacks on Mozambicans, Zimbabweans and Malawians living in shack settlements.

 

In Cape Town, it began with the Somali shopkeepers, who have been murdered at an incredible rate for years. The state has dismissed the clearly targeted nature of the ongoing killing of Somalis as ‘just ordinary crime’.

 

Some of the mobs were singing Jacob Zuma’s campaign song, Bring My Machine Gun. Some came out of shack settlements and migrant worker hostels linked to the Zulu's group, Inkatha. Some were just drunk young men. The most widely reported tests used to determine indigenity, such as seeing if people know the formal and slightly archaic Zulu word for elbow, were taken straight from the tactics that the police have used for years.

 

The mob definition of foreigner always centred on foreign born Africans, but in some instances Pakistanis and South Africans of minority ethnicities, especially Shangaan, Venda and Tsonga people, were also targeted.

 

There are a number of credible allegations of police complicity in the pogroms but in some places community organisations were able to work with local police stations to bring the violence under control. There are many accounts of individual acts of brave opposition to the attacks by both South Africans and migrants.

 

In the Protea South shack settlement in Johannesburg migrants were able to successfully organise themselves into self-defence units and to protect themselves with round the clock patrols. It is striking that in many, although not all, of the areas under the control of militant organisations of the poor that have been in serious conflict with the state there were no attacks at all.

 

After two weeks 62 people were dead, a third of them South African citizens, and figures for the number of people displaced ranged from 80,000 to 100,000. Some had fled the country and others were sheltering in churches, at police stations and in refugee camps.

 

Conditions in the camps are often grim. Human rights organisations have issued strenuous condemnations and there have already been threats of collective suicide, clashes with the police and demands for the United Nations to take over management of the camps from the South African state.

 

Editor's Note: The piece continues here

 

Richard Pithouse is a South African academic and a research fellow at the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.

 

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