The deaths of great men and women are public affairs. It is easy to imagine being asked, in some future year, “Where were you when Nelson Mandela died?” Where I was, was a pitiful reminder of the ongoing struggle for liberation.
I am writing this on Friday morning, a cold and grey morning after. I don’t know how a reader might answer the question – whether you were listening to the radio, or watching the television; whether you were alone, or with family, or with friends – but I do know where I was last night, at a quarter to midnight.
The lobby of the Johannesburg Central Police Station is not a welcoming place at any time – but the hours around midnight are particularly bleak. The light is harsh and medicinal. The uniformed men behind the counter are tired, disinterested, and suspicious. A woman in a blood-stained shirt rests her head against her forearms while she waits for someone to notice her, to speak to her. Earlier, a man collapsed and lay there, writhing, un-noticed and un-aided.
I was there with my husband, and with a dozen of his colleagues. We were there because Nomzamo Zondo, an attorney at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI), had been arrested that afternoon while trying to enforce a new order of the Constitutional Court. That order had been handed down at 14.30 in the afternoon, and interdicted the Johannesburg police from interfering with about two thousand of the city’s informal traders. These traders had won the right to return to their stalls, and resume trading until further notice.
At about 17.00, Nomzamo was called to the corner of Hoek and De Villiers Streets, in the Joburg CBD. Officers of the Johannesburg Municipal Police Division (JMPD) were harassing traders who had heard of the court victory and set up their stalls. Once there, Nomzamo tried to tell the JMPD officers about the court’s order.
Then they arrested her.
The afternoon’s euphoria collapsed in an evening of disillusion. The Constitutional Court’s decision to dismiss the city of Johannesburg’s cynical arguments about the ‘convenience’ of removing traders from the city’s streets – regardless of the personal costs – represented a victory for compassion and common-sense. It proved that our system could work: that everyone can get representation and can be vindicated. It proved that people’s rights must trump the city’s convenience in the new South Africa – and that the exercise of political and administrative power would not be allowed to proceed untrammelled.
And then, about two hours later, Nomzamo was arrested trying to enforce it.
The arresting officers showed an absolute disdain for the Court’s ruling. They told her that the JMPD ‘does not take orders from civilians.’
Perhaps they meant that they did not take orders from her. Perhaps they meant that they would not take orders from the Constitutional Court itself. I don’t know.
Nor does anyone else.
Last, night, the JPMD’s spokesman told the media: “As for today’s court ruling, the JMPD will be advised by the legal department of Johannesburg.” Which seems to imply that he and the police imagine that there may be an available option other than immediate compliance.
He also admitted that the JMPD had been sent in force to disrupt informal trading, and that they had used rubber bullets to dislodge the traders.
He told the media that Nomzamo had been arrested because she had been “inciting traders to act against officers.”
He could give no details of how she had been doing so. Neither could the police at Johannesburg Central – the old John Vorster Square. In the hours that followed, lawyers remonstrated with the cops to little effect. Nomzamo was held in a back office, her wrists cut and bruised from handcuffs. She had one shoe on – the other had come off as the police had wrestled her into the back of their vehicle.
She was refused police bail, which meant that she had to apply for prosecutorial bail – which could only be discussed once she had been charged, and if a prosecutor was willing to come out in the evening. For hours, the police could not identify an investigating officer; nor could they say what she would be charged with. Maybe this is not unusual – but it is surprising for an attorney to be arrested in the course of her duties, refused access to her own lawyers for hours, to have bail denied and delayed, and for charges to be so slowly drawn up.
Around about 22:00 we were told that Nomzamo would be charged with Public Violence and with Malicious Damage to Property. No one could give us the specifics of the charges – what violence? What property? – perhaps because there were no such specifics to give. Regardless, charging her meant that the system could resume and – over the next two hours – a R500 bail was negotiated.
Just before midnight, Nomzamo walked out the station – shaken, tired, cut and bruised around her wrists, and missing one of her shoes.
After she left, as we were waiting for a taxi to take us from the police station back to our own home, the news of Mandela’s death came through.
It’s hard not to think about legacies in moments like this – and hard not to ask what has become of Mandela’s legacy, two decades after he became South Africa’s first black president.
Nomzamo’s ordeal – mild as it may have been, in comparison to many others’ – was pointless, a brute exercise of the police’s power to intimidate those who challenge them. Hundreds of men and women without Nomzamo’s access to lawyers, to activists, and to the media are arrested on equally specious charges.
Johannesburg’s informal traders are back on the street this morning. Already, rumours of police harassment are spreading. I can’t believe that much time will pass before the next arrests, and the ones after that; the next court case, and the one after that; the next attempt to force the city and its police forces to obey the law – to respect ‘civilians’ and civilian authority, to respect the rights of Johannesburg’s poor citizens as much as the rights of its richer ones.
Nomzamo appeared at the Magistrate’s Court in the morning, and all charges against her were dropped because they had no prospects of success.
If we want to look for Mandela’s legacy, we cannot simply look at what has been achieved – because, for all of the massive changes since 1994, we simply have not succeeded in creating a just society in which the state serves all its citizens.
Instead, we have look at people like Nomzamo and the traders she represents. These are people who have dedicated their lives to struggle – whether it is the struggle to help, support, and represent South Africa’s poor or whether its is the struggle for personal dignity, self-respect, and recognition.
This is Mandela’s legacy. A legacy of struggle – public and personal, political and private. The state he once led still, often, fails to live up to his ideals and his example. But that doesn’t mean that we should accept its failures as normal, unremarkable, and inevitable. Neither does it mean that we should despair in the face of the state’s failures – its violence, its corruption, its recalcitrance.
It means that we have to embrace Mandela’s life of struggle as our legacy. We have to continue to fight for our own dignity, and for the dignities of others. We can no longer rely on the distant figure of Madiba to reassure us of our country’s successes, and to remind us of the ideals on which our South Africa was founded.
It means that we have to act and struggle for ourselves, now.
When someone asks me, ten years from now, where I was when Mandela died, I hope that my answer will not be, “Watching the police abuse their power,” but, instead: “Watching someone else pick up the struggle where Mandela left off.” DM
Julian Brown is a lecturer in the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.
"Go down this set of stairs and then just run - run as fast as you can." ~ Lt David Brink, 9/11