By Richard Pithouse · 19 Mar 2013
On Friday night Thembinkosi Qumbelo was gunned down in a local bar where he was watching a football game on television. It was a well organised hit on a man who had, for years, been at the centre of a local struggle around land and housing - the keenest point of conflict between citizens and the local state – in Cato Crest in Durban.
Qumbelo made a remarkably bold entrance onto the local political stage on Freedom Day in 2005. Thabo Mbeki was set to speak in the King's Park stadium and Qumbelo led hundreds of people out of the shacks in Cato Crest with the aim of blockading the freeway leading into town and preventing Mbeki's cavalcade from reaching the stadium. The police stopped them in Mayville, near the Tollgate Bridge. There were ten arrests and Qumbelo spent the best part of a year in Westville Prison where he said he was subject to serious assault.
After his release he claimed to be subject to death threats by the local ANC. His concerns for his safety were not exaggerated. In April 2006 two former SACP activists were assassinated in Umlazi after supporting an independent candidate against the ANC in the local government elections. But Qumbelo went straight back to organising and by 2007 his organisation, the South African Shack & Rural Dwellers' Organisation, was openly linked to the IFP. He later joined NADECO and then re-joined the IFP before joining the ANC in late 2011. At the time he told a local newspaper that “Anyone who is serious about being a politician should be with the ANC”.
Reports on Qumbelo's work in the ANC are mixed. Some people argue that he was brought into the party's networks of corruption and used to discipline people's aspirations and forms of engagement. Others argue that he became a voice for popular aspirations within the party. But it seems that Qumbelo's fate was sealed with the arrival of 'delivery' in Cato Crest.
Speedier and more efficient 'delivery' is often presented as both the only demand emerging from popular protest and the main challenge confronting government. In some respects concerns about the efficiency with which the state rolls out its programmes make perfect sense. Millions of people live in degrading and life threatening conditions and one study has found that the most common demands emerging from the on-going wave of popular protest are for urban land and housing. Yet parliament was recently informed that R886 million has remained unspent by the Department of Human Settlements.
In Durban, the City estimates that it is home to 410 000 people who are living in 150 000 shacks in 484 settlements while 11 000 families are what it calls the 'beneficiaries' of 'housing opportunities' in the form of transit camps – government built and managed shacks. Some officials in the City still talk of 'eradicating shacks' but one report puts the number of houses built by the City in the last financial year at 1 268.
While the City's housing programme is failing to meet even the most basic of its residents needs it is succeeding in making politically connected people into millionaires. It is also enabling the ruling party to extend the anti-democratic reach of the politics of patronage and clientalism. There are a lot of people in and around the ruling party who have a direct personal interest in maintaining the status quo.
But even when 'delivery' does arrive as planned it is frequently a tool for assuming control and effecting exclusion rather than meeting people's urgent needs. This is most obvious when it takes the form of forced removal to peripheral sites, often referred to as 'dumping grounds', or to transit camps which are often worse than self-built shacks and governed through local despotisms sustained by patronage mediated through the party. Another way in which 'delivery' can mean disaster is that when shacks are demolished shack owners are sometimes given houses, or a place in a transit camp, but tenants are usually left homeless. This has no basis in either policy or law but is useful for City officials wanting to reduce the scale of 'the backlog' by excluding tenants, often the poorest people, from the count.
This is exactly what happened in Cato Crest: 'delivery' meant mass eviction for tenants as their shacks were destroyed and they were, illegally, left homeless. Around two weeks ago people rendered homeless occupied vacant land in Sherwood, an adjoining suburb. They called their occupation Marikana. On Tuesday last week 18 partially built flats were also occupied.
The Municipality sent in the police but they, perhaps chastened by Marikana and the series of more recent scandals at police brutality, requested the politicians to negotiate a solution. The politicians appear to have done little other than to tell the occupiers that their occupation is illegal and to appeal for them to wait patiently for housing to be 'delivered' rather than taking matters into their own hands. This has not been well received.
On Tuesday last week a crowd, 500 strong and armed with pangas and spades attacked the home of Mzimuni Ngiba, the local ward councillor. The next day Ngiba and his family fled their home. The state routinely renders people homeless in the exalted name of 'delivery' and it’s becoming increasing common for grassroots activists to have to sleep outside of their homes for fear of assassination at the hands of local party structures. But, unsurprisingly, political violence, which has been a top down phenomenon for years, is now starting to move in the other direction too.
It seems that after the attack on the councillor's home the ANC asked Qumbelo to speak to the occupiers, call them to order and represent them in negotiations. He agreed, some say reluctantly, and it was reported that on Thursday he was called a traitor, stoned and attacked with sticks after he agreed to meet with police and officials to discuss the evictions and consequent occupation without a mandate from the occupiers. But it seems that he was caught between two imperatives. Later on the same day he was quoted as being highly critical of the evictions that led to the occupation. Also on the same day a member of Qumbelo's committee was shot in the arm. The following day Qumbelo was assassinated. A good number of people think that he was assassinated from above rather than below but at this point all kinds of sometimes-contradictory accounts are circulating. The only thing that is clear is that struggles around land and housing are becoming increasingly violent in Durban. Both the representation of popular aspirations with a mandate from below and attempts to contain these aspirations with a mandate from above are increasingly dangerous tasks. This is unlikely to change for as long as the City continues to treat the gathering intensity of the popular aspiration for urban land and housing as an essentially criminal matter rather than a question of justice.
On Saturday Mayor James Nxumalo addressed a hostile crowd at the Marikana Occupation. They were carrying sticks and other weapons and singing 'sohlala siyinyomfa', a declaration to remain out of order. Nxumalo told the occupiers that they were breaking the law and should “Just allow the process to take its legitimate course.” He said nothing about the illegality of the evictions that left them homeless in the first place, the reality that most people living in shacks just can't afford formal accommodation or that, if current realities continue, plenty of people are likely to die waiting for the process of 'delivery' to 'take its course'.
One of the occupiers, who asked to be known as James, came to Durban from Bizana in 1995. He stayed with his brother in the Lusaka settlement in Reservoir Hills where he found bits and pieces of work. In 2006 the settlement was 'eradicated' and, after sleeping rough for a while, he found a shack to rent in Cato Crest. Now he has been evicted again. This time he is determined to hold the land that has been occupied. The power of the political symbolism of the journey from Lusaka to Marikana is undeniable.