Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version the past month the Durban shack dwellers movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, has been systematically harassed and criminalised by the local police and municipality. Five Kennedy Road members of Abahlali have been arrested and detained. The five have been released on bail following a twelve day hunger strike. Raj Patel provides a brief background to the recent events and the response of the shack dwellers.

Unwanted and derided by their municipalities, the billion people who live in the world's shacks and slums are used to being called criminals. But the minute they stand up to such accusations, the minute that the poor reclaim their dignity, the state rains violence on their heads.

This is what members of the KwaZulu-Natal-based Shack dwellers Movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, have discovered since they began their struggle in 1995. It has been confirmed, unnecessarily and brutally, in the past month. Five members of the movement, all from the Kennedy Road settlement in Durban, are now recovering from a twelve day hunger strike, after their incarceration in the city's notorious Westville Prison. The plight of the Kennedy Road Five illustrated the South African government's new plan to deal with the emerging politics of the poor: criminalise it.

The story begins on 15 February 2007. While out for a training jog, Thina Khanyile, a resident of the Kennedy Road settlement and a marathon runner, was attacked. His watch and shoes were stolen and he was stabbed eighteen times. He would have died had not a passing truck driver from the settlement picked him and brought him home, where help was called.

In the words of the Kennedy Road Development Committee, the democratically elected organisation representing shack dwellers from the settlement, this is what happened next:

'On 18 February a well known and dangerous criminal living in the settlement told people in the community that Khanyile's attacker was in the Kennedy Road settlement. Those people restrained the suspect without causing any hurt to him and sent for Khanyile. Khanyile recognized him as the man who had almost killed him. At that point some people in the community began to assault the man who we now know was Mzwakhe Sithole from Ntuzuma.'

The committee continues:

'Members of the Safety & Security sub-committee in the Kennedy Road Development Committee immediately called the police. They called the police because even though there are such bad problems with most of the police here we still have to go to the few good police officers for serious cases like attempted murder and murder. When the police arrived the man looked to be fine. The crowd of more than 50 people all saw the police assaulting the man with kicks and punches as he walked to the van and climbed inside.'

Khanyile then tried, twice, to register a case against his attacker. Nothing was heard from the police until Human Rights Day on 21 March 2007. Nine residents were arrested at 3am. They were told that Sithole had died a week after his arrest and that they were being arrested for his murder. After a two day women's protest, five people were released. And then another person was arrested. Among the five who were charged was Khanyile himself, together with Cosmos Nkwanyana, S'thembiso Bhengu, S'bongiseni Gwala, and M'du Ngqulunga.

According to Police Supt Vincent Mdunge, the Sydenham police had rescued Sithole, who had been 'seriously assaulted', and 'because of the seriousness of the situation, he was taken through to the police station for safety reasons'. One week later, according to the police, Sithole died right outside the station after a successful escape.

Five members of the Kennedy Road Development Committee who the police allege were involved with the assault now stand charged with murder. It is they who were until recently behind bars and who, on 1 April, decided to go on hunger strike to bring attention to their plight, and to the open repression of democratic, but non-state-authorised, organising in Durban.

The Sydenham police, under the command of Senior Superintendent Glen Nayager, remain adamant that they are serving the causes of justice. The police's story, just to be clear, it this: Sithole was assaulted so badly that five residents of the Kennedy Road settlement are now charged with his murder. On the other hand, a week later Sithole was spry enough to break out of a high-security holding facility at Sydenham Police Station, to which he had been taken 'for his own safety', only then to drop dead just outside the gates, where Nayager and his men rushed to save him but, alas, too late.

'It's the same lies as they told under apartheid', said one shack dweller, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal. Shack dwellers offer another story. They point to the fact that, other than Khanyile, the other arrested men are all key members of the Kennedy Road Development Committee, an organisation that has been systematically targeted by Spt Nayager.

Shackdwellers observe that one of the arrested men, M'du Ngqulunga, was only himself detained and charged after claiming at a protest the following day that the arrests were political. Local residents also recall the history of arbitrary arrests of shackdwellers by Spt Nayager, and the number of shackdwellers who have been brutally beaten by the Sydenham Police. They also note that Spt Nayager's arrests are always accompanied by tirades of political abuse and public promises to drive the 'Red Shirts' -the ANC's name for Abahlali baseMjondolo - out of this area.

The hunger strikers' statement asserted that they were political prisoners protesting their wrongful arrest and demanding their immediate release.
Their refusal of food was the only way, they claimed, of asserting their dignity and withholding their consent to their imprisonment.

When Anglican Bishop Ruben Phillip visited the hunger strikers, he told journalists that he was deeply moved and humbled by their courage and conviction. He also said that he feared for their lives, especially those of the two who were seriously unwell when the hunger strike began. During this visit, M'du Ngqulunga explained that Nayager had personally tried to force him to shout ANC slogans while he was detained in Sydenham but that he had refused.

The community twice tried to march on Sydenham Police Station in protest at the arrests. The first march was broken up by the police. Spt Nayager illegally banned the second march but, at a meeting with Abahlali leaders held under pressure from a vigorous protest, eventually conceded that the law unequivocally allowed for 14 or fewer people to legally present him with their demands.

The community-delegated representatives were able to present him with their memorandum, which included documentation of incidents of racism, theft of photographic evidence, threatening journalists, and ignoring 'real crimes against shack dwellers but acting as though it is a crime for shack dwellers to speak for themselves'.

Finally, on Friday 13 April, the Kennedy Road Five got their bail hearing. The Investigating Officer, whom Nayager openly boasts about giving orders to, had been pushing a hard no-bail line. But pressure from the protests, the media, the church support and the river of red T-shirts running through the corridors of the court had softened the prosecutors. By 10am, they were ready to make a deal, but the bargain was still hard.

Bail was set at R5,000 (US$700) per person. For penniless and unemployed people, the sum was preposterous, and only made possible through a series of generous donations. On top of that, the prosecutor claimed that she had information from the Investigating Officer that the 5 were planning to intimidate the witnesses. Because of this, they could not return to their homes or their community. So they have been banned from their homes and their communities, from the places where they might find work, and where they would volunteer their time in their democracy.

This banning order, in which they are specifically restricted from particular urban areas on the pretext of 'health and safety', but on the grounds that were they to return there they would engage in politics, is a rather direct throwback to Apartheid-era tactics. The five, having spent a night in hospital on a drip, are now homeless. They are unlikely to be convicted - fifty people saw Sithole alive and well as he entered the police van. But the state's attempts to smash poor peoples' organising have escalated. The wanton use of police and judiciary to silence the poor augurs badly for social movement organizing in South Africa.

* Raj Patel is a sisiting scholar at the Center for African Studies, University of California at Berkeley. Perhaps more to the point he once had his camera stolen by Superintendent Nayager (see .)

* Listen to the [email protected]