Yesterday more than forty people were arrested in a major police operation to prevent the occupation of the Rondebosch Common in an elite suburb of Cape Town - the most unequal city in South Africa, which has now surpassed Brazil as the most unequal country in the world.
We “invaded” Rondebosch Common…but only the police destroyed the fynbos.
Statement by those who occupied the common
We did our best. We had everything stacked against us.
The might of the South African Police Force, the paranoia of some Rondebosch rate payers, and the arrogance of our protester turned mayor Patricia de Lille.
Legal march and gathering
As a former activist, de Lille should know the law with regards to gatherings. She should already know that she can’t ban a protest without meeting with us first and without credible threats of violence that could not be assuaged through the meeting. This was an illegal act and a violation of our Constitutional rights and the specific procedure that the City is required to follow according to the Gatherings Act.
It was also clearly illegal that they stopped and threatened people who protested in small groups, given that only groups of 15 or more constitute a legal gathering.
The police came for us in Manenberg, in Bishop Lavis, in Kraaifontein, and in Athlone. They came for us in groups of 50, in groups of 20, ten, five and even two. They penned us inside our townships saying we were not welcome in the leafy suburbs. They arrested two of us in Manenberg. Our buses got rerouted back home.
There were police stationed all over Cape Town: in Kraaifontein, all along Klipfontein Rd, in Little Mowbray, and even in Wynberg. There were Caspirs, SAPS, Water Cannons, Law Enforcement, Anti-Land Invasions units, Metro Police and an unknown number of undercover police.
Though thousands of us attempted to march, only a few hundred made it to the Common. Yet this was a huge victory for us. We walked from as far as Bishops Lavis and Mitchell’s Plain to get there. (20+ kilometres!)
And when we arrived and sat peacefully protesting at the entrance to the Common, the police attacked us, manhandled us, and violently arrested us.
As Khayelitsha’s Pastor Xola Skosana said from the march: “I have escaped imprisonment by the skin of my teeth, saved by the clerical shirt and the religious look, I guess. They sprayed some blue substance on our clothes, tempted to say that’s DA Blood. Most of our people were manhandled and thrown into police vans. I have never seen so many police. Now I know you don’t mess with stolen white property, DA and ANC police will crush you! Watch the news, the writing is on the wall. I salute the mothers and young girls from Mitchell’s Plein who looked the men in blue and dared them to arrest them. Everything was blue, it’s truly DA land”.
Using armoured vehicles and police in riot gear, they herded people together in order to arrest them.
In all 40 of us were taken on the Common, and taken from police station to police station until they were finally charged with “public violence” after being pepper sprayed and charged with ‘public violence’.
But then more of us came on to the Common, in groups of two, five and ten. We caught the police by surprise. Eventually they gave in to 70 of us, letting us occupy, until they finally evicted us at 7pm.
14 men and 26 women were held at Mowbray Police Station, and finally released after human rights lawyers were called in. The last were released at approximately 1:30am after more than 7 hours in the cells.
Just a few examples of pervasive police brutality yesterday:
* A young lady filming was smacked while she was being taken into custody (caught on video)
* An older man got pepper sprayed while he was already in the back of a police van
* Police assault at least three young ladies before arresting them (caught on video)
* Police did not wear their name tags so that they could not be identified. However some of us were still able to lay charges thanks to the assistance of some other supportive police officers
* The city’s Anti-Land Invasions unit was particularly brutal towards us
The Caspirs destroyed the Common
Despite unfounded fears by Friends of the Rondebosch Common that we would take over and destroy the fragile ecosystem in the area, we did nothing to hurt the fynbos and other plants. As we promised, we treated the ecosystem with respect.
Instead, as this video footage shows, SAPS Caspirs were roaming around the Common destroying everything in their path. So much for the police being deployed to protect it!
What we achieved
* We reached the Rondebosch Common against all odds.
* We exposed the fact that the DA led government is just as violent and authoritarian as their ANC counterparts.
* We were inclusive, racially diverse, and showed hundreds of naysayers that we are peaceful, caring and proud people.
* We began a city-wide conversation about inequality, segregation, and democracy.
What we still lack
* We need to educate one another about our struggles and how they are interlinked.
* We need to expose those who are profiting and becoming famous out of the struggles of the poor or to push their political agendas.
* We need to be better organised
Our principles as a movement
* Political parties and organisations affiliated with political parties are not welcome in our struggle.
* We are inclusive. All are welcome in our struggle as individuals and communities. But participants must leave their party affiliations and t-shirts at home
* We direct our own struggle. No sympathetic organisation is permitted to come and tell us what we are fighting for and how our struggle should be waged – COSATU included.
Those of us who were on the Rondebosch Common at 6pm engaged in a great discussion. We came up with the above achievements, failings and principles. We have resolved to move forward today. We were also, with the help of some dedicated lawyers, able to secure the release of 41 of the people arrested. The police are still refusing to release one protester however, possibly because Patricia de Lille has been gunning for him.
All 42 have been charged with public violence and 41 will appear in Wynberg Magistrates Court on Monday the 30th of January at 9am.
The planned summit will go ahead, albeit with smaller numbers and a different venue, and we will also be discussing our next plan of action. We will not take this treatment lying down! We are all leaders! Forward to the struggle for land, housing, jobs and most of all dignity!
For more information, please contact:
This Friday communities around the Cape will march from Athlone stadium to Rondebosch commons for a three day ‘occupation’. The aim is a public space to discuss solutions to a range of issues: housing, rent arrears, evictions, political corruption and the ongoing segregation in the city.
The chosen site is loaded with historical symbolism. Used once as a military camp by colonial authorities, it was racially integrated before the mass erasures of the Group Areas act. The community groups that have chosen the commons are asserting the right to reclaim public space in a city that, even more so than the rest of the country, is deeply segregated by race and class.
Despite using the Occupy name, the initiative predates events in the US. And contrary to the idea that this is about disaffected middle class hipsters looking for something to do on the weekend, it is driven by civic groups and backyarder associations from some of the poorest areas on the peninsula.
Even if the commons is a pseudo-public space (for now) it remains a site where ordinary people are constitutionally guaranteed the right to gather and talk. But the City of Cape Town has behaved like other urban authorities throughout the country when dealing with political gatherings of this nature. Firstly, despite being given ample notification of the event, city officials refused authorization. Ignoring the Regulations of Gathering events which puts the onus of consultation with organizers on state officials, mayoral representatives axed an arranged meeting because some of the community delegates were “15 to 30 minutes late’’.
This petulant refusal to do their job was accompanied by attempts at pre-emptive criminalization. Completing her Darth Vader-like transformation from firebrand activist to Empress Zille’s chief flunkey, Patricia de Lille has claimed the commons occupation is a prelude to a land invasion.
At a City Council meeting this week she called the occupation an “apparent” invasion whose “agents of destruction will not be allowed to succeed.”
The subtext is come the weekend these “cowards” will be met with arrests and an officially authorized clampdown. So much then for an “inclusive” and “caring” Mother City.
This has been accompanied by scaremongering that protestors are planning to destroy the local environment. The “Friend of Rhondebosch Commons” have called for calm: “While the intention of the organisers may be construed as confrontational, we are appealing to community members to act with restraint and let the City of Cape Town, SAPS and other role players deal with the situation.” Of course, the call to act with restraint begs the question of what kind of vigilante tactics the “Rosebank Neighbourhood Watch” have been up to?
In fact it is the local government (and possibly a white upper middle class neighbourhood watch) who are being confrontational. The organisers have even invited De Lille to attend the Summit but it now seems most likely that what was intended as a peaceful protest will be met with a police clampdown. Alas this reaction will once again be construed as the DA resorting to type and falling back into its tested pattern of appealing to its mostly white, privileged electorate. Invoking fearmongering claims about “land invasions” as subliminal code for the swart gevaar. Behind this draconian and hysterical response is the fear that public space will be used to highlight the fact that Cape Town is still one of the most unequal cities in the world, seated at the foot of one the most unequal countries in the world.
We need experiments, such as the Summit, to drag these issues of race and class into the public sphere. Without it South Africa will continue to replicate draconian state tactics and re-elect bullshit politicians who pander to people’s worst prejudices.
As events of the last year, from Egypt to the woefully under-reported Occupy Nigeria, demonstrate we are living at a time of profound contestation of the hollowing out of public life. It is at the level of urban space where economic elites and their willing political “stakeholders” are being challenged. The real “occupation” doesn’t occur at events like the Summit, it is in the texture of everyday life. Occupation by a bellicose political culture of fear, occupation by a decrepit and morally bankrupt economic system, occupation by overbearing security systems and occupation by a consumer culture that bombards us with inescapable imagery of the desirable.
People's land, housing and jobs summit
by Jared Sacks, Pambazuka
For months, communities from all over Cape Town have been planning a three-day People's Land, Housing and Jobs Summit at one of Cape Town's huge open pieces of unused land. This summit is set to take place this weekend from 27 until the 29 January.
Yet, even though community representatives sent in their notification of intention to gather on the Rondebosch Common and have complied with all legislation governing the right to march, the City of Cape Town is attempting to ban the march and summit altogether.
CLAIMING THE COMMONS
This Common is a symbolic public space with a notable history. The Khoisan indigenous people who lived in the area used the entire Cape Peninsula as a common – an inclusive space not owned by anyone and held in trust by local inhabitants to be used for everyone's benefit symbiotically with nature. Khoisan culture understood the importance of sharing, using only what one needs, and protecting one's environment.
After the space was colonised, it was first used as a military camp and sections of the Common later became a vibrant racially integrated community much like the famed District Six. As more and more of the Common was enclosed for housing and other types of developments, about 40 hectares remained. However, it was no longer an authentic commons as people of colour were removed to comply with the Group Areas Act and were not able to return until after 1994.
The Rondebosch Common, therefore, became a pseudo-commons. Tt was open and accessible to the wealthy and mostly white population of the area but unapproachable for the black poor who remained in distant and overcrowded townships.
For this reason locating the the summit at Rondebosch Common has special symbolic significance for many of the participants. It represents an immediate assertion of equality within one of the most unequal cities in the world. By taking back the commons, thousands of poor and working-class people, together with many middle-class allies, are saying that they no longer want to live in a city which remains segregated under the shadow of Hoerikwaggo (more recently known as Table Mountain), where some live in huge mansions while others live in 10x10 meter shacks, where some are paid millions and others spend their whole lives underemployed.
If the commons is for all in name only, then it does not exist. Thus, the Take Back the Commons movement aims to liberate public spaces such as Rondebosch Common. It must be for all to use and enjoy, not only for a privileged few to hoard.
THE TRUE PURPOSE OF THE SUMMIT
Despite scaremongering by opponents of the summit, the 'occupation' of Rondebosch Common is not a land invasion by poor and homeless communities set on destroying endangered fynbos. No one is currently planning to build informal dwellings on the Common (although I do believe such an action would be justified given the obscene segregation of Cape Town's neighbourhoods).
Instead, participants are planing on gathering together for a number of general assemblies, group teach-ins, and self-led discussion groups whose aims are to eventually plan further actions with participating communities. All this will be done with the utmost respect to the environmental conditions on the Common.
The goal is to leave the summit with a better idea of how to achieve the redistribution of land, the building of decent and well located housing, the creation of full employment, and the ending of oppression in our society. Through a three-day liberation of the Common, we will make a collective effort to build a space where all are welcome and treated with dignity and respect; a space that mirrors our aspirations for a new world.
A POLITICIAN AND THE COMMONS
When Patricia de Lille was beginning her political career after years as a trade union leader, she supported the famous Freedom Park land occupation in Mitchell's Plain. Since that time, de Lille has migrated from the Pan-Africanist Congress to form the Independent Democrats and now on to the Democratic Alliance.
Ironically, since she assumed the mayorship of the City of Cape Town, she has become just as disparaging of land occupations as her predecessors, aggressively attacking all informal forms of land redistribution and house building.
This week, however, de Lille finally fell fully in line with the DA's authoritarian right-wing agenda: the criminalisation of the poor. It was reported in the People's Post that de Lille supported City officials’ attempts to ban the People's Land, Housing and Jobs Summit from taking place on Rondebosch Common despite repeated invitations by organisers to attend the event.
Patricia de Lille's reasoning was that this public park was the 'private property' of the City. It was also made known that at a City Council meeting, it was resolved that if the symbolic occupation went ahead the City would authorise police to clamp down hard on the occupation of the Rondebosch Commons and that warrants would be issued for the arrest of the event organisers.
ILLEGAL BANNING OF GATHERINGS
Based on Section 17 of our Constitution and the Regulation of Gatherings Act, we can conclude that the City is attempting to illegally ban the three-day event on public land. Their excuse was based on technicalities: organisers arrived ‘between 15 and 30 minutes late’ for their meeting with officials and organisers insisted on having all nine elected representatives present in the meeting as opposed to four.
However, legislation clearly states that it is the responsibility of the City, not the organisers, to ensure that such a meeting takes place. Furthermore, the Gatherings Act says that the gathering cannot be prohibited except as a measure of last resort and only after such a meeting has taken place between the government and the organisers.
Even though there have been repeated requests to reschedule the meeting, the City has refused to engage with the organisers. As such, the City of Cape Town is acting in contravention of South African legislation.
RESISTING THE COMMONS
What is so threatening about communities' plan to Take Back the Commons on 27 January? Why would the City undermine the law, authorise draconian measures against protesters and even issue warrants against organisers?
It seems most likely that the real reason de Lille has weighed into the fray to prevent the march and summit from taking place is that it threatens to put the real issues facing poor communities at the forefront of the socio-political debate.
For the first time in decades, the Occupy Wall Street movement is placing inequality and class at the centre of American politics. Here in South Africa the rebellion of the poor has been raging for the last decade within townships and shack settlements. Yet, for the first time since 1994, the take over of Rondebosch Common threatens to put ongoing racial segregation, the urgent need for land redistribution and the popular opposition to the privatisation of public space right smack in the face of Cape Town's politics.
This is threatening for any DA or ANC politician as it means that they can no longer expect the poor to merely tolerate the politicised delivery of substandard public services within their ghettos. It means that the poor are demanding the radical restructuring of Cape Town's socio-political landscape and taking their demand into the space of elite power.
If I was a politician, I too would also be afraid of what might happen when taking Rondebosch Common morphs into taking back all the commons.
Here is the mayor's statement labelling us violent agents.
Click here for a short video about the summit.
Take Back the Commons Movement
28 January 2012