As some of you know, maybe too well, I’ve been doing fieldwork on community organising — the formation of grassroots organisations among residents to advocate for / take care of communal matters like safety and development — in a new informal settlement in Cape Town. That informal settlement exploded in violence over the last week of May, just after I concluded my fieldwork. I sent a letter off to the Cape Times for publication, explaining my view of matters. It was shortened and published on June 8, 2015 as “Active engagement between City, Marikana could’ve averted violence,” but here’s the full version.
The events of the last week in Marikana informal settlement in Philippi, Cape Town, powerfully illustrate the saying that when elephants dance, the grass gets trampled. Innocents died, scores have been injured, many houses burnt, and countless lives disrupted. As a student-researcher who has been gathering information on community organising in the Marikana settlement for the last six months, I have had deep conversations with all sides of the current fracas. In my opinion, both the leaderships of Marikana and the City of Cape Town deserve the strongest possible condemnation; the Marikana side for their actions, the City for their inaction.
Cape Town’s Marikana began as an occupation of undeveloped, unfenced, mostly privately-owned land which was a known hotspot for illegal activity and violent crime. The land occupiers wanted to meet their own housing needs, while denying criminals the space to kill and rape. After intense periods of confrontational eviction activity in April 2013 and August 2014, the land occupiers and the City settled into an uneasy accommodation. As court cases against the Marikana settlers ground on, life in Marikana became more settled, even routine. Local street committees and the SAPS brought violence, infighting, and crime in the community under control. People began to build lives there.
All this changed in the last half of May. Residents in nearby Klipfontein began protesting against electricity cuts, and people from Marikana joined in solidarity. Now, direct action—barricading, stone-throwing, toyi-toying—was back on the table. Even so, a crisis could have been averted—but instead, Marikana leaders decided to ride the momentum, stoke the flames. On Monday, 25 May, they called for their own community to mobilise. But by barricading roads, burning tyres, hurling stones and spreading rubbish, protesters only succeeded in alienating their neighbours, to whom they should have been reaching out as allies. They disrupted the daily routines of people throughout Marikana, Philippi East, Khayelitsha, and other areas, making it harder for honest, hardworking citizens (including many in their own community) to safely get to work and school for a full week. In fact, people of neighbouring Lower Crossroads, fed up of the disruption, retaliated over the weekend. Marikana leaders must ask themselves: was it worth it?
This is not the first time that violence has broken out in Marikana to the whole community’s detriment. I have been told by several independent sources that the City’s solid waste department was all set to provide refuse removal services to Marikana as early as last December. Unfortunately, some Marikana residents beat up municipal workers who were clearing household waste in an adjacent area. Since then, their programme has been withdrawn because the department did not want to place its workers in danger. This new bout of violence will undoubtedly set service delivery back yet again.
But the City is not blameless either. For the last nine months (longer for some of them), Marikana residents have been living in the throes of a humanitarian crisis. They wait up to two hours to get water at the few communal taps in the area. Their household waste piles up into stinking, rotting heaps along Sheffield Road, set alight now and then to chase away rats and other vermin. And walking around Marikana, it is impossible to avoid stepping on piss or shit. Meanwhile, Marikana leaders’ letters and requests for meetings with the City council, sent to various departments and levels of government, have produced no results. Instead, the City has mainly repeated two excuses: “wait for your court case to be resolved,” and “we can’t provide services on private land.”
Well, all but one of the court cases has already been resolved, and in fact the majority of Marikana land was never under legal review, because the relevant landowners had not initiated the process of evicting those residents. Since many Marikana residents have now lived there for more than six months, the Prevention of Illegal Eviction Act of 1998 grants them certain rights: if a court now decides that they must be evicted, it has to consider carefully whether the municipality has alternatives for them. In any case, an eviction operation against 30,000 people stands no chance of success unless they can be resettled, and the cost of resettling them would be prohibitive. In short, everyone already knew that Marikana would not go away.
The principle of not spending public money on private land has some logic to it, but the fact is that some of the Marikana land is municipal-owned. Occasionally, City officials have speculated about servicing the road reserve area—as has been done in Siqalo—but washed their hands of it because even that area had been built up by the community. But could they not have engaged and persuaded the community to move these houses?
In reality, the City’s answers display callous, bureaucratic, irresponsible disinterest. They ignore the fact that human dignity is impaired by the lack of basic services, and that the urgency of the health and sanitation problems in Marikana will grow as winter progresses. And though Marikana protesters do themselves no favours with the senseless violence, the fact is that everyone in South Africa, even an unlawful occupier, has rights conferred by the Constitution and the law. Among these are rights to human dignity and to an effective housing programme—rights that have been held in abeyance as the legal process winds on. The City’s dealings with Marikana might accord with the letter of the law, but they certainly offend the ethos of the Constitution.
Although Marikana leaders pulled the trigger, it is the disinterest of the City of Cape Town that handed them the gun. Active and visible engagement between the relevant elected representatives and the local leadership, aimed at producing a clear timeline for basic service delivery, could have averted the tumult of the last week. Now the Marikana leadership is in tatters, and the City must start building relations anew, probably with new leaders it does not know and who do not trust it. If both sides do not learn their lessons, last week’s violence is bound to repeat itself.