South Africa

SA’s messy tapestry of community protests, political intimidation and police brutality

By Mandy De Waal 13 March 2013

Do you remember a time when a freshly elected president called Jacob Zuma promised open discourse, service delivery talks, and South Africa lived with the hope of its democratic spaces opening up? That hope died way before the echoes of gunshots in Ficksburg, Marikana, De Doorns and beyond sounded like the spectre of democracy’s doors slamming shut. Now, security forces repeatedly issue the most chilling threat: “Mess with us and you’ll be the next Marikana.” By MANDY DE WAAL.

General Alfred Moyo, an activist from Makause in Germiston, will be heading back to court on Friday 15 March 2013 for the seventh time, but without knowing what charges are being brought against him. Moyo was arrested on Friday 19 October 2012, while trying to work with the local authorities to organise a “legal” march to protest against the selective justice, inefficiency and brutality of the police at the Primrose police station.

Moyo had been working with the community of Makause (an informal settlement in Primrose on the East Rand) to get permission for a protest march since mid-September 2012, but despite being given the go ahead to protest by Metro law enforcement officials in mid-October 2012, the decision was summarily overturned by the Primrose police.

“I was in court on Monday 11 March this year again for the sixth time, but no complaint information was presented by the state who is the complainant in this case,” says Moyo. “The matter was postponed once again, and our legal representatives are trying to get the information about our case from the state, but no information is forthcoming.”

The Makause activist – who has been petitioning with his community for land rights, improved service delivery and more recently against state violence – was arrested with a civil society worker from an NGO, and two residents from the informal settlement. Moyo and these two community members were made to strip to their waist and stand half naked in the police station because their T-shirts were deemed offensive by the police. One of those arrested, a woman, tried to cover her breasts but she was admonished by an officer who said: “I don’t know why that woman is acting so shy. It is in our culture, it is natural to show breasts.”

As Moyo waits, month after month, for his court case to proceed, he has been repeatedly threatened by the police and it has been intimated that community members would be hired to assassinate him. While at the Primrose police station, an officer warned him that if he staged a march against the SAPS there would be “another Marikana”.

Using the state security apparatus (and sometimes even the justice system) to intimidate, detain and harass activists is nothing new, but it appears to be increasingly prevalent at a time when the SAPS is coming under sharp criticism for increased acts of violence against society in general, and protestors in particular.

Mercia Andrews, a director at the Trust for Community Outreach and Education, an NGO that supports farm workers, witnessed first-hand how the police and justice system is used against protesters. She was arrested some months ago while trying to protect workers from police violence.

“In November and December I was part of a group that was monitoring the farmworkers’ protests and strike action. At the time I was in a very remote area in the Koo fruit growing valley ­ situated between De Doorns and Montagu,” Andrews tells Daily Maverick on the phone from Cape Town. The NGO for which Andrews works helps to support the Mayibuye Land Rights movement as well as a small trade union based largely in the Cape called the Commercial Stevadoring Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU) with their civic work.

“We were detailing the workers’ demands and recording the march on Tuesday [4 December 2012], when we saw the police from a distance. At the time I thought it was good that we were present so that we could play monitoring role and protect the strikers from the police,” she says.

The farmworkers had been marching since dawn, and by 9:00 there was a strong and growing crowd, despite the remoteness of the area. “As the crowd grew, we witnessed the build-up of a police presence in the area,” says Andrews. “At first there were two police vans driving in front of the march, escorting the march, but when workers approached a fruit pack house to call workers there to join the strike the seven or eight police vans came forward in an attempt to herd the crowd,” she says, explaining that the workers were going from farm to farm in the area, calling on labourers to join the strike action.

As the police vans pushed into the crowd, Andrews approached the police and asked to speak to the officer in charge. “The police were from the public order unit, much like the old riot squad. I went to the policewoman in charge and asked her why she was intimidating the people because it was a peaceful march. As I did she called on the police to gear up and get ready to take action.”

Andrews warned the officer in charge that she would call the media and would record any police brutality, because the march was quiet and orderly and, in Andrews’ view, the police action was provoking the crowd.

“The farmworkers didn’t have an intention of violence but as the police geared up they got noticeably agitated. That’s when the commander barked out that the police must be ready to fire teargas,” says Andrews.

The protest monitor picked up her camera to record the police action, but before she had time to focus the lens the burly police commander handcuffed her, picked her up, and put her in the back of a police van. “When the van was full this woman dispatched us off, and then gave the command to the police to fire the rubber bullets,” Andrews says.

The activist feels she was targeted because she is in contact with the media and has the technological tools to record police brutality or action. “There were five of us, and we were taken to the Montagu police station where six other farmworkers had been arrested.” Since then Andrews has made three court appearances related to what she calls “nonsense charges”.

“I am mobile and my work enables me to go to court for these matters, but farmworkers and organisers must take days off and travel long distances to get to court, even though they don’t really have the money for this extra transport,” Andrews says. “We’ve been giving the farmworkers we were arrested with money for transport and legal support because the state just doesn’t care about them.”

In her paper “Voice, political mobilisation and repression under Jacob Zuma”, Professor Jane Duncan of Rhodes University writes about how threats against government escalate as the state is unable to cater for citizens. In this paper, written a couple of years ago, she predicts protests that challenge the ANC and South African president’s power base would reveal “the true repressive potential of Zuma’s security cluster”.

Duncan argues that there was a centralisation of power during the Mbeki era, and that Zuma, the populist, promised a new era characterised by an open system, particularly for “workers, the underemployed and the unemployed who had been marginalised by Mbeki”.

Duncan writes that at the time there was a hope that, “Zuma’s ascent to power would see a shift away from the elite and intolerant politics of the Mbeki period, and towards a more open and responsive ‘listening government’ that took the grievances of the electorate seriously, especially those who had been marginalised by the Mbeki administration’s neoliberal trajectory.”

As Duncan attests, the honeymoon period of Zuma’s presidency offered some reason for hope because his administration appeared eager to open democratic processes so as to de-escalate conflicts. The thinking was to encourage public participation and service delivery debates before they spilled into protest. Zuma’s more consultative style at the onset of his rule bolstered the hope that this was a president that would open up South Africa’s democratic spaces.

But in many ways the death of Andries Tatane on April 13 2011 was a watershed moment a symbol that centralised state power and a brutal security cluster overshadowed any gains made in terms of opening South Africa’s democracy. The Marikana tragedy cemented what was already evident to activists and civil society: South Africa, a state stretched by service delivery demands and bedevilled by labour issues, would chose to use the security cluster (police, defence, state security and to a degree the justice system) to snuff out any real threat to its power.

Part of controlling or snuffing out threats entails dealing with activists who bump up against national, provincial or local government. “The state is increasingly using violence and intimidation not only against protestors and activists, but ordinary people who are standing up for what’s right or who are trying to make a living in a way that inconveniences government,” says Durban community activist Desmond D’Sa who is associated with the Right2Know Campaign and the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) an environmental watchdog.

“We are seeing rising violence, intimidation and police action against activists in the townships, but more particularly in Umlazi [a township situated south-west of Durban],” D’Sa tells Daily Maverick during a telephonic interview from Durban. “Bheki Buthelezi of the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) was arrested in June last year, but the charges were withdrawn because the state had no case against him,” he says.

“Bheki and other UPM activists were detained because they challenged the local councillor – they wanted her programme for development, to see her budget, and were working to make this local government official accountable for service delivery failures,” D’Sa says. “There was another activist called Bhekimuzi Ndlovu who was shot at and injured at that time, and many other people went underground because their lives were threatened. All the people wanted was electricity, water, and houses.”

Instead, those who agitated against local government failures were arrested, injured, had their lives threatened and were forced into hiding.

“The same thing is happening in Clairwood now, where people who are in opposition to the city of Durban’s proposed spatial development plans were told that they were not allowed to form meetings. What we are seeing here is that if communities stand up against government’s structural plans they are threatened politically.”

D’Sa says community activists in the area expect the worst. “We fear that if we stand up and speak out, or protest against government’s infrastructure plans we might even be captured and killed. People in this community have been told by the security forces that if the community protests there will be another Marikana.”

Everyone in South Africa who pays any kind of attention to the news knows what happened at Marikana. It lives like a dark shadow that terrifies those who dare defy the state power buoyed by the security cluster, or a ghost that haunts those who come between the political elite and their money making machines. At Marikana those who defied the state were shot and killed, some as they fled, others as they begged for their lives.

Now Marikana is proving an effective warning that is beginning to echo from Germiston to Durban as the state’s security forces tell strikers, agitators and activists: “Mess with us and you’ll end up dead.” DM

Read more:

  • Death by a thousand pinpricks – South Africa’s ever-vanishing right to protest, in Daily Maverick
  • Inside Rustenburg’s banned protests, in Daily Maverick

Photo: Police arrive to disperse miners at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in South Africa’s North West Province September 15, 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko


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