Like so many activists, service delivery protesters and people fighting for basic human rights in impoverished communities across South Africa, founder of the Unemployed People’s Movement Ayanda Kota is harassed, arrested and suppressed in the hope that he’ll shut up or go away. But Kota says he’s going nowhere, and will fight for the rights of the poor and unemployed until the bitter end. By MANDY DE WAAL.
“I choose to identify with the underprivileged,” Martin Luther King once said. “I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity. I choose to live for those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way. If it means sacrificing, I’m going that way. If it means dying for them, I’m going that way.”
As poverty and unemployment activist Ayanda Kota speaks to Daily Maverick from Grahamstown, his words echo King’s sentiment as they crackle across the unsteady mobile connection. Founder of the Unemployed Movement’s People (UPM), Kota is heading out of town and into a nearby rural area to mobilise people to rise up against poverty. A people’s champion who is much maligned by the local ruling party and ANCYL for being a “traitor” – for daring to criticise – Kota accedes he could have chosen an easier path.
“Yes we could have chosen another road. A path of expensive whisky or building a R4-million rand house and getting fat on tenders… but we chose this road. This isn’t a road for sprinters, it is a long road when it comes to the question of fighting for our humanity,” Kota says matter-of-factly.
“Others have been down this road before us and we have seen what has happened to them. It is incredibly difficult if not gruesome. We know that travelling this road comes at a price, but we are prepared to pay even the highest price.”
Kota is not being overly dramatic. He’s merely stating the truth. In a political environment where party loyalty is everything, the leader of Grahamstown’s populist poverty movement is an unapologetic apostate. He’s the man who led a delegation of protestors to the Makana Municipality offices in the middle of that Eastern Cape town, and dumped buckets of human faeces at the entrance of ineffective local government. The point he made was as newsworthy and politically pointed, as it was fetid. Township people were fed up with using a bucket system to deal with their effluence.
A black consciousness adept who cut his political teeth in Azapo, Kota has a rare breed of activism that is proving more than inconvenient to local party people. “Ayanda is very articulate and he is well spoken,” says Rhodes University politics lecturer Richard Pithouse. “He has been a political activist for a large portion of his life, so he is well versed in political language. He is a very effective speaker and able to effectively think about how to grab hold of a situation and make something out of it so that it takes his political concerns to the fore.”
“Marches very quickly become normalised, but the Unemployed People’s Movement has been very effective in becoming noticed in different ways,” adds Pithouse, who explains that grass roots organisations often arrive with a splash but disappear soon after being repressed or because locals lose interest. “It does take a special kind of political skill to keep the pressure up and to keep people energised and interested,” he says.
Kota’s ability to capture the hearts and minds of Grahamstown’s poor, and his ability to keep consistent pressure on local government and party political structures isn’t making life any easier for him. The UPM founder often receives death threats and is harassed by the police, and last month he was arrested and brutalised. The charge against him? Not returning a couple of books.
Veteran journalist Mike Loewe of Grahamstown writes how Kota was charged by Rhodes University sociology lecturer Dr Claudia Martinez-Mullen of allegedly stealing her inscribed copies of The Communist Manifesto, The Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935 and The Marx-Engels Reader.
The charges were first made against Kota last August, but earlier this year when the activist was called to the local police station and voluntarily made his way there, he was beaten by six police officers. Pithouse, who accompanied Kota to the station, says that the investigating officer grabbed Kota who then raised his arm in defence. The police then started beating and kicking Kota until he was on the ground.
The attack took place in front of Kota’s six-year-old son who was distraught and became hysterical when he saw his father being attacked. Kota’s pants were then pulled down to his knees as the investigating officer belittled him by saying: “Look who is the newsmaker of the year now!” Kota was named Grocott’s Mail newsmaker of the year last year for frequently dominating the news in 2011.
“Ayanda has been under considerable pressure for a long time. He has been harassed by the police, his family has been harassed by the police, and he has been publicly threatened by the ANC Youth League on occasion. This has extended to death threats. The ANCYL’s hostility to Ayanda is long-standing,” says Pithouse.
But the politics lecturer says the harassment and intimidation of grass roots activists is hardly new or uncommon. “There are examples in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban of much worse intimidation and much worse behaviour on the part the police and ANC at a local level. Intimidation is very wide spread,” says Pithouse who adds: “There is just extreme intolerance to dissent from within the constituency that the ANC assumes the right to call its own. They don’t mind so much if it is someone from outside of what they assume to be their natural constituency, but everything they do is justifiable in the name of the black poor. But if a poor black person has credible support, is asking questions, and is organising protests, the response over the past 10 years has invariably been authoritarian.”
Pithouse explains that a lot of the animosity that local government and political types feel towards the likes of Kota has to do with identity. “People who are in the ANC or in local government want to see themselves as people who are doing the right thing, and fulfilling the aspirations of the struggle that brought them to power. It is very uncomfortable when they have to confront others who say that they are similar to people who were in power in the past,” he says.
“Instead of grappling with that, it is easier to revert to slander and repression. If you look at the songs used during the struggle, you will find that an organisation like the Unemployed People’s Movement will sing these during a protest. A lot of these songs are just the same anti-apartheid struggle songs that are now being directed at the ANC. However some of them are a lot more direct and are basically calling the ANC ‘black boers’,” says Pithouse. “At a personal level it must be very difficult for ANC and government people to deal with this.”
Psychologically it becomes much easier to employ conspiracy theories, to undermine the source of the inconvenient truth or to try and shut the source of your embarrassment up. The problem with Kota is that he’s not shutting up and he’s not going away. He’s a long distance runner and it appears his running the road he’s chosen to the bitter end.
“Yes we are disappointed in the ANC,” says Kota. “We thought that 1994 would bring democracy, but here we are with this sad state of affairs. But we can’t just be disappointed with the ANC. We must struggle and we must fight for our rights and the accession of our humanity. That is the only way that change will come to us if we want change.”
Kota doesn’t miss an opportunity to let the ANC know just how bitterly disappointed the UPM is with the ruling party’s leadership. In July last year, President Jacob Zuma was granted the freedom of the town and a road was renamed Dr. Jacob Zuma Road in his honour. Kota celebrated by penning an open letter to Zuma which, in part, read: “The Makana Municipality is a failed municipality. The needs of the people are not met, corruption is rampant and authoritarianism is worsening. Twenty thousand people remain without homes. When homes are built they fall down in the first storm. When a wall collapses people are given a plastic sheet to hang up. People go for months without water. Unemployment is at 60%. Activists are arrested on trumped up charges and given unconstitutional bail conditions that ban them from political activity. The thugs of the ANC Youth League close down meetings that they can't control. A whole generation of youth live without hope. Your presidency is a failed presidency.”
“So many things are going wrong with this country,” Kota says as he rides out of Grahamstown to help stage another poverty protest. “I mean what is happening in the province of Limpopo? As citizens of this country, as people who love freedom and democracy, we have to fight to bring about change. I mean look at the Secrecy Bill. It calls upon us to undermine a natural democratic structure, and if we look at the bill itself it symbolises the death of democracy.”
“Our leaders become the very same cogs of those same machines that did bad things to them. They have become the nuts and bolts of the machine that is oppressing us today. These are the very same leaders that during the colonial struggle embodied the ethics, values and the content of the struggle. But today they are on the other side. They are telling us to go to our graves because the days of struggling are over. They say that if we continue to demonstrate we will be shot at, we will be arrested by the very same leaders who liberated us yesterday,” says Kota.
The activist says one of the biggest pains he feels is the complete disregard that today’s ANC has for the poor and the marginalised. “If you look at Black Economic Empowerment, it has just become a mechanism for plundering resources. The ANC has no respect or regard for the poor, they merely plunder our resources in a manner that is daylight robbery.”
Kota says the ANC’s honeymoon period is over and that the 'Secrecy' Bill confirms that a new authority is in place in South Africa. “In 1994 we never anticipated things would get quite so bad. Not even in my wildest nightmares would I have dreamt that the ANC would become what it is today.”
As township people fight for daily survival in Grahamstown, Kota says that for the most part, members of the ANC are afforded jobs, tenders and a place at the trough. This as township people struggle daily with crumbling houses, corruption, water taps that don’t work, the degrading bucket system, increased food prices, hunger, unemployment and the unending disappointment of political promises that fail to amount to anything.
Listening to Kota speak, there’s no trace of desperation, only resolute determination. He is the champion of a people who have had enough, who don’t have much to lose and will do whatever it takes to bring about change for the better. With or without the ANC's help. DM
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Photo: Ayanda Kota – the people's hero.