REPRESSION AND RESISTANCE IN DURBAN AND CHINA: ABAHLALI BASEMJONDOLO DOES NOT ACT ALONE
AbM has been growing in Durban since 2000, but gained public prominence in September 2009 when ANC supporters and members destroyed its well-functioning Kennedy Road Settlement (Good, 15 January 2013). Recently public attention has focussed on AbM's settlement in Cato Crest, where the movement had a current paid-up membership of 1,560 (Pithouse, 24 September 2013).
Three of their members had been killed by the police and the city's Land Invasion Unit this year, including most outstandingly, a seventeen year old school girl, Nqobile Nzuza, shot twice from behind by police at 5am on 30 September. At 1 October, Thembinkosi Qumbelo, Nkululeko Gwala, and Nzuza were dead, and two others were in hospital, while others had been beaten during illegal evictions, during consequent protests, and in police stations. Protest against illegal and inhuman state action was itself dangerous. As an AbM press statement of that date noted, it is ‘taken as criminal for us to refuse to be intimidated', and most tellingly, ‘to organise ourselves outside of the ruling party.'
S'bu Zikode was a founder of both Kennedy Road and AbM, and was explicit about the movement's future plans and intentions: ‘We wish to make it clear that we will not be beaten out of this city...We have shown that if they demolish we will rebuild. If they beat us and kill we keep returning to the streets, to the courts and the debates in the media...We will keep struggling until this City is willing to suspend its violent attacks on us and engage in genuine negotiations' (Zikode and Mdlalose, 26 September 2013).
The KZN Church Leaders' Group noted the actions of recent months and were trenchant in their condemnations: the illegal evictions and demolition of homes; the alleged fraudulent selling and allocation of houses in Cato Crest by local political leadership; that several court interdicts protecting the residents' homes were "despised and ignored by city officials and political leadership"; and the shooting by the Land Invasion Unit and the SAPS of protesters asserting their rights.
They were "outraged", they declared, by "the contempt with which the city officials and political leadership disrespect and disobey court injunctions; by the failures of the police to fulfil their [duty] of protecting people." Their action instead of shooting protesters, and of "acting outside of the law themselves [was] destroying the fabric of our society" (Church Leaders', 5 October 2013).
AbM's observations and those of the Church Leaders were supported by the findings of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID). Their latest report recorded an increase in police assaults nationally of 218 per cent, while deaths in custody and at the hands of the police had also increased. There had been 275 deaths in police custody and 415 ‘as a result of police action'. They also recorded 4,047 cases of assault, and many other serious misdemeanours and human rights violations in the 2012-13 financial year (IPID, 2 October 2013).
Pithouse has endeavoured to explain the severity of the present day repression, noting that President Jacob Zuma's ‘increasingly violent and predatory state has its firmest urban base in Durban.' The scale and intensity of political violence in Durban, Pithouse adds, ‘far exceeds' that of any other major city: ‘the local state and the local party are both willing to crush dissent with violence', however lawful and peaceful the dissent might be. This is one of the lessons of both Kennedy Road and Cato Crest.
The other lies in the popular resistance organised through AbM. Sustained and developed over more than a decade, in ways reminiscent perhaps of the United Democratic Front, they combine innovation with tenacity and resilience, organisation with internal democracy, and the autonomy which so enrages the ANC. Their resistance over some thirteen years is an outstanding achievement.
For all the huge differences in size and political systems, comparisons between China and Durban are not insignificant. It is possible to speak of a rising see of dissent in the world's most populous non-democracy. In 2010, the number of mass (or protest) incidents across China exceeded 180,000, more than doubling from 2006. Popular discontent was growing, to which the regime was responding with repression. The country's internal security budget reportedly reached $124 billion in 2013, a sum exceeding military allocations.
Further similarity was found in the fact that ‘the most universal source of discontent' in China, according to Michael Caster (24 September 2013), was ‘illegal demolitions and evictions'. Brutal crackdowns on resistance were accompanied by widespread claims of arbitrary detention and the invasion of people's privacy.
Petitioning was the most common means of protesting land-rights violations, but frequently led to detention and torture. Caster felt that the numbers of what he termed ‘resistance actors' was likely to continue rising. This was because China's ‘internal security logic', rather like the ANC's in Durban, was ‘based on force and manipulation'. But the growth of non-violent resistance, and the interconnectivity of activists, might ‘eventually overburden the state's capacity to forestall [wider] national mobilisations'. There were obviously many uncertainties and unknown factors in such expectations.
Caster believed that while ‘the overall Chinese population may have agreed not to discuss the 1989 Tinanmen Massacre', nonetheless ‘they will not suffer another.' Writ smaller, perhaps a parallel exists for the predominant, militaristic ANC, in the wake of the massacre in Marikana, the destruction in Kennedy Road and the killings in Cato Crest. AbM, an under resourced autonomous organisation of the urban poor, might have a longer term impact.
Kenneth Good is Adjunct professor in global studies, RMIT University, Melbourne and Visiting professor in politics, Rhodes University, Grahamstown.
Michael Caster, ‘A Sea of Discontent: Non-Violent Waves in China', Open Democracy, 24 September 2013.
Church Leaders' Group, public statement by Bishop Ruben Philip, 5 October 2013.
Kenneth Good, ‘The Destruction of Kennedy Road', Politics Web, 15 January 2013.
Good, ‘How the Killing of Thami Zulu Contradicts Zuma's Claims', Politics Web, 13 May 2013.
Paul Holden and Hennie Van Vuuren, The Devil in the Detail, Johannesburg and Cape Town, 2011.
IPID Report, Mail and Guardian, 2 October 2013.
Richard Pithouse, ‘There Will be Blood', South African Civil Society Information Service, 24 September 2013.
S'bu Zikode with Bandile Mdlalose, ‘The Flames Are High', AbM press release.
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