On the Casual Bulldozing of a Shembe Temple in Durban

By Richard Pithouse · 20 Jan 2011

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Picture: Lopolis
Picture: Lopolis

Whenever they find a reality that doesn’t suit them / they alter it with a bulldozer - Mahmoud Darwish, A State of Siege, Ramallah, 2002.

Mahmoud Darwish, a poet who wrote, especially towards the end of his life, with a real confidence in what he called the butterfly's burden, the social weight carried by delicate beauty, began his life in al-Birwa, a village in Galilee. He was seven years old when his family fled the Israeli military in 1948 and his life was spun between Moscow, Cairo, Beirut, Paris and Ramallah before he died in Houston in 2008. 

In his wandering exile he was able to visit Casa de Isla Negra, the cherished home of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. In a poem about his visit to Neruda's home he recounts his recollection, at Isla Negra, of a conversation with the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos in his home in Athens. He had asked Ritsos what poetry is and Ritsos had replied that it is the “inexplicable longing” that “makes a thing into a specter, and makes a specter into a thing. Yet it might explain our need to share public beauty.”

Here in South Africa the Constitution may declare that we are all, or least all of us with the appropriate papers, equally the public and equally entitled to find and share beauty as we see fit. But much of our shared life is dominated by business interests that appeal to markets rather than publics and not everyone is in the market for everything. This is not always a case of market logic rendering, as it often does, some people superfluous and therefore invisible. When the poor are out of the places to which they are supposed to keep, when a shack stands next to a suburban home or a poor child sits next to a richer child in a school, the mere presence of people without money can render them hyper-visible. People, with all their individual depth and complexity, are sometimes turned into objects onto which all kinds of contempt, fear and hate are projected.

One of the many places in our society where the fracturing in who counts as a full member of our national public and who does not is immediately visible is Motala Heights near Durban. Motala Heights is nestled into a valley between the factories on the outskirts of Pinetown and a steep hill that leads up to the expensive suburb of Kloof. Some of the people in the valley are poor and live in tin houses that they have built on rented land and some are middle class or wealthy and live in large suburban homes. There is also a shack settlement at the foot of the hill that leads up to Kloof. 

In 2006 the eThekwini Municipality tried to send in their men with guns to eradicate the shack settlement. When Bheki Ngcobo told them that their actions were illegal in terms of the Constitution he was tear-gassed and beaten to the ground. But, in the end, the squatters stopped the City's illegal eviction. The law is not everything but it is also not nothing. At the time the squatters were convinced that the eviction had been directed by a local landlord and businessman, Ricky Govender, and claimed that the municipal demolition team had been drinking in his pub before they set off up the hill to eradicate a community. There is no doubt that some municipal officials and police officers speak as if Govender, who boasts of connections to Jacob Zuma, has some sort of extra-legal authority over the whole community. Govender's plans to force out the poor in order to develop Motala Heights for private profit clearly carry a lot more weight than the demand of its poor residents that the state support them in building a community for all the residents of the area.

Govender has been trying, for some years now, to evict some of the people in the tin houses. They are often old and poor. Some have lived in their homes for as long as forty-five years. Like the municipality, he has failed because his attempted evictions have been illegal. This is public knowledge. Allegations that he has dumped dangerous industrial waste right outside activists' homes, threatened to have activist Shamita Naidoo killed for R50 and to bulldoze people's homes have been reported in the local press. Newspapers have also reported that Govender has been interdicted in the Durban High Court from evicting people without a court order, from assaulting and harassing his tenants and from bulldozing their homes. In 2007 The Mercury reported that Govender had threatened to kill one of their photographers. Yet the state has made no visible move to ensure that Govender and the residents of the shacks and the tin houses should all live under the obligations and protections of the Constitution. Money and political connections appear to have bought Govender a degree of immunity.

Last month the squatters' claimed that, after years of struggle, the Municipality finally sent a team to fix up the dirt road leading into the settlement. They say that Govender instructed the team to stop work and redirected them to his pub where the gravel was used for his own private maintenance work. On Friday last week a bulldozer shuddered up the hill adjacent to the shack settlement, went straight to the Shembe temple and obliterated it. There was no warning of what was about to happen. The driver of the bulldozer referred residents to his boss who referred them to Ricky Govender. The temple had been there since 1997 and has been used for worship every Saturday since then.

In A State of Siege, a poem written amidst the Second Intifada, Mahmoud Darwish wrote that “Whenever they find a reality that doesn’t suit them / they alter it with a bulldozer.” Palestine has endured a unique horror since 1948 but the arrogance of unrestrained power bulldozes all kinds of inconvenient realities across space and time. A few days after the American backed military coup against the elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende on 11 September 1973, Isla Negra, Pablo Neruda's home, was ransacked by soldiers who burnt his books in the garden. "Look around,” he famously said to them, “there's only one thing of danger for you here—poetry." 

After the 1913 Land Act, Sol Plaatjie wrote of the “roving pariahs” torn from their rural homes and unwelcome in the cities and we have, of course, our own body of poetry against the bulldozing of inconvenient realities. In 1948, Modikwe Dikobe, trade unionist, novelist and secretary of the Alexandra squatters’ resistance movement in Johannesburg, wrote in Shantytown Removal of being left “unfeathered,” “wingless” and “dumbfounded” in a “ruin” that once housed “a thousand souls / With its own administration.”

The bulldozing of inconvenient realities is not just a strand in the story of our past. Almost a hundred years after the Land Act millions of roving pariahs remain in the shack settlements on the edges of our towns and cities. They are often shunted around at the point of guns wielded by the state and private power. There are plenty of sixteen year olds who have never lived a day under apartheid but who have seen their homes, communities and, in Motala Heights, their temple, treated as nothing but an aberration to be bulldozed from the landscape.

When people put on their white robes and walk up a hill to pray in a temple under a tree they are reaching towards the sacred, bringing body and spirit together. This is one way of making poetry, of honouring the butterfly's burden.

In Motala Heights we could say to the police, to Ricky Govender, to the eThekwini Municipality, to the headmaster of the local school "Look around—there's only one thing of danger for you here—people." But saying that will count for nothing if enough forces cannot be marshalled to defend the  public good and push the logic of private profit into its place.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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Hlengiwe Khumalo
19 Jan

A Beautiful Article

Thank you for this beautifully written article. I wish that the articles in our newspapers were all written like this. Writing like this makes us think and feel at the same time.

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Jan Beeton
19 Jan

The Gone Shembe Temple

I agree with Hlengiwe - lovely, also challenging article - I love the the way you describe the sacred bringing together of the body and spirit in worship...this absolutely has to be respected across all our faiths in our country

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21 Jan

Shembe Temple

Thank you sir for your reportage. I usually avoid a newspaper but today your article gave my vision a compass baring. So often there are many forces against a community protecting those with less economic power from those who have resources to manipulate power. Wanting to help and knowing how or what to do is difficult but impossible without the information first.

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21 Jan

Beautiful and Powerful

This is first class writing - exceptional.

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