The ANC is sitting to discuss party policy this week, but service delivery activists look set to have a sit-in of their own in the ruling party’s stronghold of KwaZulu-Natal. The Unemployed People's Movement says it will occupy council offices in Umlazi near Durban, despite police action over the weekend to quash its protests and silence activists. By MANDY DE WAAL.
As members of the ANC in Kwazulu-Natal swell the ruling party’s policy conference in Midrand this week, trouble is brewing back in Jacob Zuma’s home province. Police in Umlazi, just outside of Durban, arrested service delivery activists in a move that’s brought condemnation from civic society, who say it is a government attempt to silent dissent.
Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) activist Bheki Buthelezi was arrested early on Saturday morning (23 June) at his Umlazi home and taken to the local police station, where fellow activists say he was held without being charged. This was followed by the arrests of 18 other activists who, at the time of publication, had still not been charged.
“The arrests are a political conspiracy, because the police were instructed by municipal officials to arrest Comrade Bheki even though there isn’t a single valid charge, and there isn’t even a docket for his arrest,” says China Ngubane, a fellow activist. Ngubane adds that after Buthelezi’s arrest, police were heard phoning municipal officials to ask them what they should do with the people they had arrested.
Buthelezi was arrested first, and held for twelve hours before being released on R500 bail. A large group of protestors gathered outside the Umlazi Police station to demand his release shortly after he was taken into custody. A stand-off between the police and protestors ensued, with activists alleging that the SAPS were aggressive and threatening. After Bheki was released, the police rounded up some 18 other activists who are still in custody.
SAPS spokesperson Captain Thulani Zwane says Bheki was arrested during the early hours of Saturday morning and charged with intimidation, but admits he never saw a docket. “I don’t know how much bail he was released on,” Zwane acknowledges. “I haven’t seen the docket. But someone who is arrested on the charge of intimidation is usually someone who wants to assault someone, or who threatens someone. I don’t know why the docket isn’t available, but he is the only one of those arrested who has been charged right now. Buthelezi was charged with intimidating workers who were working on the highway at Umlazi.”
Ngubane says Buthelezi’s arrest follows a UPM protest march in Umlazi. “The protests were about the Zakheleni informal settlement (in Umlazi) which has no water, electricity, sanitation… this is the core issue and has been the issue we’ve had with the local government in Umlazi from 1992 until today.”
He says that local activists have tried to get a response from local government for years about the lack of basic amenities in Zakheleni, but memos, letters, and calls for engagement with officials have fallen on deaf ears. A protest march was held on Thursday 21 June, the movement says, in order to draw government attention to the plight of people in Zakheleni and local government’s alleged refusal to deal with the community. Bheki and other activists from the movement were arrested days afterward.
“Most of the people at Zakheleni are not employed – they are the most vulnerable and most marginalised, and are members of the Unemployed People’s Movement. We have been pleading with government to engage with us and listen to our needs. We want recognition from our leaders, but when we cry out they do not hear,” Ngubane explains, saying that the civic organisation has requested that Zakheleni’s local councillor, Nomzamo Mkhize, come and speak to the community.
However, Ngubane says that despite years of pleading, Mkhize refuses to engage with the people of Zakheleni. “Nomzamo Mkhize has been a councillor for the ward for over ten years, but has never spoken to any individual in the Zakheleni community. Our main issue is that if she doesn’t listen, what is the purpose of her being there?”
The Umlazi division of the UPM says that it will now take the protest to Mkhize. Ngubane says activists will now occupy Mkhize’s offices in an effort to demand change. “If she doesn’t cater for our concerns then what is her purpose? We are telling her to go.”
Ngubane, activists from Zakheleni, and members of the UPM say they have a long list of grievances against Mkhize, which start with her failure to hold a ward meeting to discuss problems at Zakheleni; failure to acknowledge community queries or written requests for information; and a failure to address service delivery issues and the lack of electricity, water and sanitation in the settlement. Activists further allege that the Umlazi councillor is engaged in nepotism.
In an ironic twist, the anti-poverty activists are using the strategies and slogans that the ANC used to conquer Apartheid. Ngubane says that the old struggle mantra “an injury to one is an injury to all” is been used by activist leaders to pull disparate political groupings in Umlazi together to rally against the lack of service delivery.
“We realise that politics and politicians are trying to divide us, and that there is a lot of strength in unity, so we are trying to fight this. We encourage people not to wear political regalia or uniforms, because we believe once you put that on you see yourself as separate, or you divide on party politics. We want people to be united against one common enemy – the lack of service delivery,” says Ngubane.
“We are beginning to realise that public politics is not serving the needs of the people, but that this populist government is failing us. The government is the one per cent, they are the elite and the government is serving this elite and not its people.”
Ngubane maintains that what he terms “government elitism” is a nationwide problem and that protests and calls to the ANC aren’t bringing results. “The only channel that is heard, the only time when we are seen is when we mobilise in the streets and burn tyres. We have tried peaceful protests and writing memos for the past ten years. But our letters are filed away and our memos are thrown in the bin.”
Umlazi’s UPM says that a deadline for engagement was given to local goverment, but says the time for negotiation has come and gone. The organisation says it will now occupy local government offices until such time as they can take over the running of local government themselves.
The ruling party has much to address during its policy conference, and the agenda will no doubt be dominated by Zuma’s next term of office – dubbed the “Second Transition”. Other policy matters up for discussion include the renewal of the ANC; economic transformation; social transformation; communication; as well as policy regarding legislature and governance.
KZN ANC members make up the biggest percentage of the ruling party (some 23%), and as this province pushes to get its way on policy, perhaps its leadership should take a side caucus to discuss what’s happening back home.
If they don’t do something soon they may have an insurrection on their hands by the time they get home. DM
Photo: A township resident burns tyres and other materials to erect a barricade during protests over the delivery of basic housing and education near Ermelo, 200 km (120 miles) east of Johannesburg, February 15, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
"Go down this set of stairs and then just run - run as fast as you can." ~ Lt David Brink, 9/11