Opinionista Jared Sacks 22 May 2013

Welcome to Marikana, Cape Town

Earlier this month, I spent a night with the Marikana community in Philippi East, Cape Town. What I found was a community fighting hard to protect itself – and others – from the might of the City of Cape Town, which has forcibly evicted them over half-a-dozen times. For these people, who are down to one tent to protect them from the elements, the struggle is only beginning.

On Saturday 18 May, I was invited to stay the night with the Marikana community in Philippi East, Cape Town. If my current count is correct, the City of Cape Town has now evicted them at least seven times – sometimes with brutal force. As legal experts such as Sheldon Magardie, Stuart Wilson and Pierre de Vos have said, these evictions are illegal and unconstitutional. Yet the people of this new community are still living each and every day on the land. Why? Simply because in this uncaring city, they have nowhere else to go.

I parked my car safely in the yard of some friends of the Marikana community. I then walked towards the settlement, passing their new “Welcome to Marikana” signs at the entrance and minding my way past the remnants of yet another illegal eviction only the day before.

Photo: Marikana residents erect their own welcoming for visitors

It was already dark and cold, so people were huddled around a pair of gallies (bonfires). Staring into the fire, they tried to take their minds off their predicament. The local “clown” (as he called himself), named Sbu, was the most vocal. He spoke about his time working as a “chef”, preparing food to be cooked at a few restaurants in town. He debated well into the night with another resident, who used to work in the kitchen of another food joint.

Sbu reminds one of Dave Chappelle: a goofy comedian who makes social criticism a consistent part of his act. Yet, when it is time to be serious in defence of the community, there is no one more firm and fearless than he. People look up to Sbu for his bravery.

Then there is Makhulu, who braaied me a couple of rostiles over the fire a few days before. She is old enough that one would expect her to at least have a roof over her head rather than still be fighting for the small piece of land that she has now made her home. She is living proof that even elderly citizens in this country are treated without respect. In Marikana, Makhulu seems to be one of those dignified and seasoned community members who makes things right during community conflicts.

Photo: Makhulu with dry bread and tea for breakfast

Sitting by the fire, I can see how every community member is playing a vital role in making sure their struggle for land and housing moved forward. No one is expendable in Marikana. Even while there are certain unjust hierarchies being reproduced inside the community – especially where sexism forced women into certain roles – women in the community are still valued as leaders and take an active role as such. The same cannot be said for the city of Cape Town as a whole. Certain people in this city, such as the people of Marikana itself, are expendable and deemed a nuisance to be forcibly removed, beaten, and jailed.

Why is it that the roof-less residents of Marikana can treat one another with respect and dignity, when wealthy and sheltered government officials and politicians have so little regard for people like Sbu and Makhulu?

Photo: A crucifix watches over residents of Marikana

Near midnight, the women (about 15 of them) went one by one to the large tent to sleep. This tent is put up every evening and taken down every morning so that the Anti-Land Invasion Unit isn’t given another excuse to harass and attack them. They cannot let government take their only protection from the rain and wind.

I eventually went to sleep in a small open-air shack that fits five people at most. My bed was a hard wooden bed frame covered by a single blanket to provide minimal padding. I would have preferred to sleep straight on the floor if it weren’t for the threat of scorpions crawling into one’s blanket. Yet I slept with more comfort than Sbu, who slept outside, and whose makeshift bed was a collection of beer crates.