The Flames of Phaphamani

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 started.

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.