South Africa


Balancing the Narrative in Zwelihle, Hermanus

Balancing the Narrative in Zwelihle, Hermanus
Zwelihle township, Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia

This past Friday’s events, if anything, place a large question mark over the popular portrayal of the violent protests that have rocked the coastal town.

Marauding bandits”, “criminals”, “savages”, “hooligans”, “rogues”, “thugs” and “terrorists” are some of the popular portrayals that have been used to describe the “ringleaders” of the Zwelihle protests that have received the recent attention of Police Minister Bheki Cele in Hermanus.

It is the same small group of “thugs” that is ostensibly responsible for orchestrating a community-wide “Hostage Drama” which has generated avaaz petitions in response to “liberate the people of Zwelihle”.

Much of this narrative – that of a small group of rogue thugs holding the community hostage – has been captured in the relevant Facebook Groups and in the Western Cape Premier’s tweets. This past Friday, during an engagement with concerned groups in the presence of the Police Minister as well as the Premier, this same language filled the auditorium of the Overstrand Municipality with one contributor, DA Deputy Mayor for the Overstrand, Archibald Klaas, comparing protesters to Boko Haram terrorists.

The response from Minister Cele was a commitment to increasing the numbers of police in the area and to establish a police base within Zwelihle, making it clear that he intended to “apply the authority of the state.” In turn, the Premier welcomed the Minister’s hard talking stance and – electing not to use the platform to double down on her party’s call to #SendTheArmyNow – instead congratulated police on avoiding another Marikana in the face of such provocation.

The affected parties in attendance – comprising representatives of tourism, the business chamber, various political parties, religious organisations, the Concerned Citizen’s Forum and police women and men residing in Zwelihle – appeared mollified by the Minister’s words and vigorously applauded the possibility of deploying the police’s tactical response unit – which, as the Minister reminded the gathering, are not issued with softer alternatives to live ammunition. Promptly departing to his second engagement in Zwelihle, the minister assured the meeting that “we are going there, not to ask, but to tell”.

Yet, as the second half of the day’s engagements proceeded in a public meeting on the Zwelihle sports fields, the narrative of a “thug-led hostage drama” became increasingly difficult to balance. For one, as notables were one-by-one introduced by the speaker, the only titles met by the crowd’s disapproval were the three ANC local councillors for Zwelihle, and the Premier, whose name elicited a unanimous chorus of “voertsek” and not the welcome cries reserved for hostage saviours.

In addition, the analysis with which one left the Overstrand municipal offices struggled to find purchase in Zwelihle, especially when the “thugs” themselves emerged. Following the previous night’s arrest of four more members of the leadership group known as Zwelihle Renewal, the remaining leaders walked towards the stage erected on the sports field, past the community seated opposite the stage, and sat in the chairs reserved for dignitaries. One young Zwelihle Renewal member, wearing a #HandsOffGcobaniNdzongana T-shirt, strode with a fist raised and received triumphant applause from the crowd, with some rising out of their seats in acknowledgement.

This past Friday’s events, if anything, place a large question mark over the popular portrayal of the violent protests that have rocked the coastal town. Moreover, the preliminary results of our research over the last two months in Zwelihle and surrounds are also at odds with this narrative.

Drawing on this research, we hope to provide a contextual and nuanced perspective that balances the narrative, enabling a critical appraisal of all stakeholders.

With the support of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), we have been conducting this research in two areas – Protea Glen in Soweto and Hermanus in the Western Cape – around a question of “Urban Land & Violence” in South Africa. The intention of our research has been to provide a preliminary overview of some of the conflict dynamics that arise in dissimilar contexts where there is competition over urban land. We see this as a small and important contribution to the broader “land question” in South Africa that draws out the nuance and complexity of this question vis-à-vis urban land. In the next weeks, we hope to present some preliminary recommendations in mitigating against violence in what is becoming an increasingly inevitable multi-stakeholder conversation in urban spaces.

Before addressing the most recent iteration of what is an ongoing and changing conflict in Zwelihle, it is important to briefly sketch the genealogy of the developing grievances there.

At the start of the research period in May, the core grievance in Zwelihle was land. This demand has been diversely expressed as dissatisfaction with the allegedly unlawful sale of the adjacent Schulphoek site to private property developers, as well as a broad and diverse call – from unemployed people to mixed-income earning “backyard dwellers” – for land and housing. This call has been echoed throughout the Overberg and in the neighbouring communities of Mount Pleasant and Hawston as well as by a diverse group of middle income earners that cannot afford rental housing within Hermanus.

In Zwelihle, this grievance has been partially attended to in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding detailing the provincial intentions to repurchase Schulphoek and develop the site for low cost housing. In addition, interim measures to erect temporary housing in Zwelihle has been underway to alleviate the conditions faced by backyarders. The date of occupation of Schulphoek, types of development and those on the list to receive houses (both temporary and forthcoming in Schulphoek) were (up until the start of the most recent protests) the subject of ongoing discussions with Zwelihle leadership and a housing task team made up of municipal and provincial representatives and SAHRC Commissioner, Chris Nissen.

A key development in Zwelihle’s success in “winning” the Schulphoek site has been a rapid transformation in local politics and the emergence of an unelected but popularly supported group of young leaders under the banner of “Zwelihle Renewal”. Originally a Facebook group of the same name concerned with local development initiatives, the group has transcended its virtual influence and filled a governance gap left by the ineptitude of the area’s ANC ward councillors and the neglect of a non-consultative DA municipality. The group is represented by some 15-odd members, most of whom are young, educated and employed. The most prominent member of Zwelihle Renewal is Gcobani Ndzongana – someone who was once the EFF provincial co-ordinator in the Western Cape before reportedly falling out with national leadership.

A controversial leader for (at least rhetorically) espousing an anti-capitalist and Fanonian agenda in an area not known for revolutionary ideology, Ndzongana stands accused of inciting public violence and malicious injury to property following his call for and alleged involvement in the removal of a newly erected fence that separated Zwelihle from the neighbouring mostly-white suburb of Sandbaai. #FenceMustFall and the subsequent arrest of Ndzongana have sparked the most violent iteration of protest in Zwelihle as residents have campaigned for the release of their leader which has seen the serious destruction of buildings and infrastructure, the death of a two week old baby from tear gas inhalation and a brutal axe attack on a police officer.

One analysis of the escalation in protest violence is consistent with the view that recognises protest as consolidating the authority of self-established local elites. This narrative is not unusual in contexts of poor local governance. Research by Loren Landau and JP Misago has illustrated how, in the absence of proper local governance, the phenomenon of “nested political orders” and a de facto “local government” have emerged in South African townships where “violent protest is used to claim or consolidate power and authority [of the de facto leadership] while furthering political and economic interests.”

This analysis may well have some veracity in Zwelihle. An additional view however, and one repeated by interviewees, describes the open and popular support for Zwelihle leadership notwithstanding leaders’ personal aspirations. While some interviewees recognise that their leaders have political ambitions, they were quick to say how that did not concern them and that they would prefer their “new leaders” to the existing councillors. In addition, many interviewees described their pride in the young leaders who they felt articulated their feelings of anger and frustration with a municipality and broader community that was hostile to their presence.

Acting to consolidate economic and political gains or acting from a selfless commitment to altruism need not be mutually exclusive drivers of what motivates emergent leadership in Zwelihle and it is likely that there is veracity in both motivations. The more pertinent question is whether the aspect of self-interest that motivates the emergence of such leaders discounts one, their popular legitimacy in the eyes of the community and two, their capacity to act on their community’s mandate?

The preliminary evidence suggests not. Indeed, there are certainly those in Zwelihle, most especially police women and men who reside there, who have been victims of intimidation and who do not support the protests. Yet it is increasingly evident that this group does not represent the majority view. It is patently clear that regardless of personal ambition – or even the devil’s advocate stretch of mal intent – Zwelihle Renewal have the support of a significant portion of the Zwelihle community. The question is then, to what end does the narrative of “terrorist” and “hostage” serve?

In the Western Cape, as the Khayelitsha Commission has evidenced, crime and violent protest are popular political football in skirmishes between the ANC and the DA – something that is an open secret receiving greater attention as the 2019 elections draw nearer. That this violent protest in Zwelihle, unlike many others across the province, served to unite the ruling and opposition party in joint and vociferous condemnation of the protesters is the first indication that something is amiss.

Zwelihle Renewal, far from Boko Haram, represent a popular political presence in the absence of local governance. To criminalise protesters as thugs is to delegitimise them and strip them of political agency allowing for the continuation of a lesser discomfort: the familiar and unchallenged DA vs. ANC political status quo. When Minister Cele announced in the Overstrand Municipality auditorium that “we need to remove politics out of this [issue]”, it was perhaps the most political statement of the day. In essence, the uncanny collusion between the two parties was nothing short of a mutually beneficial elite pact in one of the country’s wealthiest coastal strips where Zwelihle is regarded by its neighbours as a blight that threatens the allure of “Little Monaco” – as Hermanus is often dubbed.

Aside from the political expedience of the DA and the ANC, the condemnation of Zwelihle is consistent with a majority view in the area that is wholly unsympathetic to the daily indignities suffered by Zwelihle residents. The racism that permeates the area has been captured in a stats SA report which found the Overstrand Municipality to be the most racially segregated municipality in the country. At the heart of this is a question of identity and belonging in Hermanus as the white residents of the area defend the town’s conservative Anglo-Afrikaner culture against a perceived tidal wave of in-migration of black people and the changes that they might bring to bear on the town’s identity.

While European “swallows” and wealthy South African holidaymakers are welcome migrants that belong, those from the Eastern Cape and across Africa do not. Such hostile sentiment, permanent suspicion of criminal intent and reminders that “they” are unwelcome – backed by a show of force from the police, law enforcement, private security and neighbourhood watches – have left Zwelihle residents angry, pained and bitter. One woman in Zwelihle, interviewed by a news reporter, tearfully expressed her anger and sense of betrayal. Asked her name by the reporter she replied, “Primrose,” before saying, “No, I can no longer be Primrose, scratch that name out, I’m Bulelwa.”

The criminalisation of popular leadership, calls and commitments to increase the militarisation of the police response in Zwelihle and an upwelling in indifference and persecutory intent by Zwelihle’s neighbours is a powerful and dangerous concoction. While it is a combination that stands to benefit the power plays of the ruling and opposition party in a governance vacuum, it is also a combination that can have lethal consequences for de facto leaders and their supporters.

In short, the confluence of these developments serve to exacerbate the conditions conducive to another Marikana, rather than preventing one. DM

Daniel Hartford is an Independent Research Consultant, Journal Fellow, International Journal of Transitional Justice

Professor Malose Langa is Senior Researcher at CSVR | Senior Lecturer at Wits University.


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