MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED
SANDF’s attacks on Gauteng’s Happiness Valley: A stark reminder of racialised denials of dignity and the limitations of the law
As South Africa marks Freedom Day on 27 April, many of its citizens are still unable to exercise their right of access to space, belonging, safety and economic security. This article calls for a response from society to bring an end to this constant dehumanisation.
At two in the morning the banging starts, on the door at first and then all around the walls of the shack. Bulelani* wakes up, terrified. He looks over at his girlfriend Nomvula* and sees fear in her eyes. Over the past few years, this fear has become an unwelcome but frequent visitor in their lives.
The shouting starts: “Come out! Now!” His five-year-old sits up. By now, the child knows how to crawl under the bed, how to cry without making a sound, how to pray until the banging goes away.
The door crashes open. “Where is the man of this house? We are going to cut off your neck when we find you.” The men in uniform start in the corner of the shack used as the kitchen, throwing cooking pots on the ground. By the time they get to the plates Nomvula is holding his hand so tightly that it’s gone numb. He slides out from under the bed, bracing himself for what is to come.
The next time he sees his family the sun has risen, his clothes are heavy with mud from being forced to swim in the river, and his face is swollen. This was his punishment for refusing to disclose the location of his community leader. Nomvula is sifting through the rubble of what was once their home, looking for anything that they can keep. This is the second time in eight months that they will have to rebuild their home.
This is the reality for Bulelani and the people of his community, Happiness Valley, a small informal settlement next to the Marievale Military Base outside Nigel in Gauteng. It has been in constant conflict with the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) for years.
The conflict started when the SANDF attempted to evict community members in 2017 in a series of evictions that were found to be unlawful. Subsequently, community members have been subjected to torture, assault, malicious damage to property and constant intimidation by SANDF officers.
Most notable are incidents in which they are forced, at gunpoint, to swim in the muddy river behind their homes at odd hours of the morning until they reveal information that could be used to intimidate their community leaders, or until SANDF officers are satisfied with their intimidation efforts.
The fact that these residents have to flee their homes during the night to seek refuge in the surrounding bushes should force us as a society to interrogate our failures in providing dignity and security to the most disenfranchised among us.
In the Constitution, the concept of human dignity is supposed to create a society that affirms the inalienable, inherent and intrinsic worth of every individual. This idea has taken a central place in South Africa’s constitutional jurisprudence as it arguably plays a larger role in the South African Constitution than in any other one. Yet as a society there are innumerable examples of how we have, time and time again, fallen short in ensuring the actualisation of this right.
The law is a useful tool in ensuring that our society embodies these values. It sets up a standard we should all aspire to, but is limited as it cannot fulfil this goal. It simply provides restitution and hopefully justice when parties fall short. The limitations of the law have consistently been highlighted in South African constitutional jurisprudence.
Countless communities have brought cases to court after living in insecure conditions for months or years, with many receiving legal redress, but still dying in the very conditions that caused them to approach the courts.
Happiness Valley is proof of the limitations of the law. After countless court orders and months of mediation between parties, the lived reality of these people is still one of insecurity and looming catastrophe. Their day-to-day lives are being overshadowed by the reality that they may at any time come home to a pile of rubble where their homes had been.
Katlego*, an active member of the community, is still uncertain as to when he will enjoy the peace and justice that the courts are set up to ensure. “I’m afraid to go to work because I have a kid at home. I don’t want them [the SANDF] to try to attack [my house] with my child in [it].”
In South Africa, the administration of dignity has come to exclude people who are black and poor. Historically and presently these groups have been subject to inhumane treatment and been the victims of the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence.
The argument that redistribution of land and the security it allows us to attain are fundamentally part of the anti-racist movements in South Africa has become commonplace for all equality-minded people. Even our president has attested that land reform is a way to “restore the dignity of our people”. In the case of Daniels v Scribante, the Constitutional Court agreed that land is inextricably tied to human dignity by stating: “There can be no true security of tenure under conditions devoid of human dignity.”
Activists make claims about the importance of the land reform movement by stating that to be black is to exist in a constant state of landlessness, to be fundamentally dispossessed.
But the land question — as it has been framed — is more than simply about the physical embodiment of land. It is about access to space, belonging, safety and economic security. To achieve land equity is to live in a society based on humanness.
Through the actions of the SANDF, the people who live in Happiness Valley have been deprived of all these things. Their right to exist peacefully is constantly undermined by violent reminders that they do not belong and that their homes — their spaces of refuge — can be taken away from them by a man with a gun experiencing a fit of anger. And that he can do so because the state gives him power.
Recently, in our country and the world, we have been forced to reckon with the reality of racialised denials of dignity. From the American Black Lives Matter movement to the response to the SANDF killing of Alexandra resident Collins Khosa, we have engaged in the process of questioning the inhumanity and indignity of seeing black people brutalised by the state. The outrage arises specifically because black people haven’t done anything to “deserve” this treatment.
Confirmations of the undignified reality that most poor black people exist in are expressed on two fronts. Being black and poor means that your possessions and your home are in constant states of insecurity, but it also means that your physical body can at any time be subjected to brutality. This state of precarious existence leads to what writer Tsitsi Dangarembga has coined a “nervous condition” as it relates to the psychosocial effects of colonisation.
The community members of Happiness Valley are no strangers to these “nervous conditions”. Sipho*, an 11-year-old who was at home alone with his two-year-old brother during a recent raid by the SANDF, said that he was unable to sleep after the raid. He was so scared after a member of the army cocked his gun at him that he is having nightmares. His grandmother cries while retelling the story. She is so traumatised by the consistent harassment that she has not been eating.
This lack of dignity is an indictment of the South African state and a demonstration of its failure to redefine its interactions with its people. Years after anti-apartheid activist Stanza Bopape was killed in police custody and his body dumped in the Komati River, the state has named a street, a sports complex, clinics and a monument after him.
Yet only an hour-and-a-half away from Stanza’s childhood township, Mamelodi, Nandi*, a resident of Happiness Valley, reports being slapped and threatened by a senior SANDF officer when she questioned the harassment of her neighbours.
It seems that the political weight of the death and brutalisation of black people has not become heavy enough for their claims to dignity to be actualised.
Many pictures exist of the residents of Happiness Valley being brutalised. The tearing down of their houses is also well documented. The image of a black man covered in mud accompanying this article serves as proof of their claim to brutalisation. This proof, if enough people were to see it, can become a clarion call for the change that we wish to see. It is not enough that the community members of Happiness Valley have had to experience constant dehumanisation. They must further embody it for us to be angry enough to demand change for and with them.
How do we define ourselves as a country that holds dignity as one of our core values when children as young as two will grow up with the mental image of the barrel of a gun being pointed at them as one of their formative memories?
As Nandi* says, simply: “It’s too hard in this place.” DM/MC
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of community members. The account of the harassment of Bulelani and Nomvula combines and amends a number of statements from community members, to protect their identities.
Adenike Fapohunda was an intern in the land and housing programme of Lawyers for Human Rights at the time of the writing of this article.
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