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.
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.
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?
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.
Another community member, Vusi, slept sitting on a chair next to the fire, with only a single blanket. Vusi used to be part of a well-known Cape Flats hip-hop group called ETC. He also used to work in the film industry and made enough money that at one stage he rented in Gardens, near the Cape Town CBD. Yet, for whatever reason, a few years ago his employers moved to Jo’burg, he lost his job, and he was never able to recover. Vusi explained to me the difficulties of trying to work while living in the townships without a car, yet needing to somehow get to film shoots by four or five in the morning. It is nearly impossible to keep a job in that industry if one lives in Philippi East without access to private transport. Without a job, things deteriorated so much for Vusi that he joined the Marikana land occupation.
Photo: Still asleep at 7am: Vusi on a chair next to a communal fire
Finally, there was Siphiwo, one of the community leaders. He did not sleep at all because he sat next to the fire watching over the community the entire night. I wonder what he was thinking about the whole time. His family? His job? Was he trying to figure out a way for them out of this terrible situation? Was he thinking about his two comrades, Avela and Unathi, who were in Philippi East police station for the entire weekend? (The good news – finally – is that Avela and Unathi had their case thrown out of court on Monday). Siphiwo is a shop steward with a small and obtuse trade union named UASA (or United Association of South Africa). He knows that one must fight for every bit of scrap he gets – that without collective action, Marikana is nothing.
I asked him whether UASA had provided solidarity to the community in any way. He was slightly confused; he said no. Marikana residents who were members of other trade unions such as NUMSA and NUM also have failed to get their organisations to take notice. How is it that most unions forget that the struggle exists in the community just as much as it does in the workplace?
The next day, I woke up and stayed around for a few hours chatting to people. They fed me breakfast: rice, potatoes, some gravy and a few tiny flakes of chicken – so little chicken, in fact, that the meal might as well have not had any at all. I went home around lunchtime to take a much-needed shower. Some community members also left to clean up at the houses of their friends or family. However, most stayed right there, sitting by the fire, contemplating what to do next.
I also contemplated how the City of Cape Town seems to be engaged in an asymmetrical war with its poorest residents. There is so much empty land in this city. Only small portions are being allocated to housing the poor. Most of the land is being sold off to rich developers and the rest is just being sat on until the land becomes valuable enough to sell. This is not to mention the huge swathes of City-owned land being used as a golf course or for fancy parks for the rich and middle class.
This city is not working – at least not for the million residents without adequate, affordable and stable housing. DM