Violence directed at Durban shack dwellers a betrayal of Covid-19 ethos of national solidarity

Emeritus Professor in Humanities at Rhodes University, Prof Michael Neocosmos with Prof Mbembe
Emeritus Professor in Humanities at Rhodes University, Prof Michael Neocosmos with Prof Mbembe

By Professor Michael Neocosmos

The South African national government has – like some other countries – shown itself to have been efficiently responsive to the crisis befalling the nation as a result of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. It has not procrastinated and has taken extraordinary measures, including a 21-day lockdown – during which people are required by a law of exception to remain in their homes – and announced countrywide testing to battle the virus. 

In order to confront the crisis, the language used has rightly been one of war against an enemy for which the resources of the whole country must be mobilised. This is always the case in times of war, irrespective of who the enemy might be. Given the vulnerability of millions of our people to the virus, including people already living with HIV and TB, and people living in shack settlements and hostels where self-isolation is not possible, the language of war is neither exaggerated nor inappropriate.

In times of war, a national compact has to be agreed on, precisely in order to draw all sectors of the population into what amounts de facto to a common struggle for survival. In other words, the common interest must, under these circumstances, take precedence over sectional interests. Trade unions are asked to moderate their wage demands, bosses are asked to restrict their profits and to provide financial aid to a national war chest, a moratorium is put on evictions, the state provides subsidies to priority industries and the most vulnerable and so on, all in order to combat the national enemy.

Of course, we know that some interests, such as arms manufacturers, will benefit from the war, and correspondingly that international drug companies are poised to make a killing from responses to Covid-19. Nevertheless, the importance of national unity is still crucial in such times when the whole nation faces the real possibility of thousands of deaths. The much-trumpeted (but largely unthought) state slogan of “social cohesion” is crucial for the country at such times.

The executive of the state has rightly stressed unity in this context, although it has not always been able to restrain some of its more aggressive members at ministerial level from wagging their fingers at the public in a manner reminiscent of a previous president in a bygone era. Such individuals have been adept at referring to suspects as “criminals” long before anything has been proven against them in a court of law, forgetting the injunction repeated ad nauseam by our previous president, that people are, in our liberal democratic system, innocent until proven guilty.

Overall, however, the higher organs of state have been extremely good at reiterating the need for all without exception to contribute towards fighting the virus. President Ramaphosa himself has taken the lead in doing so, backed up by Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize, who has shown composure at all times. 

At lower levels, however, the general idea seems to be to coerce the poor into adhering to government directives. But the fact that the poor have, in a neo-colonial mode, largely been governed as a potential enemy rather than as full citizens worthy of respect, gives rise to an immediate problem of legitimacy. Given that the police, in particular, are often experienced as a threat in poor areas rather than as a solution to the problems of life, the need arises for the state to work hard on legitimising its power through consent in order to decrease the understandable prevalence of suspicion and untrustworthiness.

Therefore it is, in this context, particularly disturbing that despite numerous explicit statements by the executive, various arms of the state, in particular those charged with coercion, have exceeded the bounds of their duties in exercising power over individual poorer members of the nation. In Durban, the municipality, long notorious for its disregard for the law and brutality, has gone out of its way to systematically engage in forcibly removing shack dwellers from their homes. 

Hearing the language of criminality constantly directed towards the poor by these state apparatuses, one should perhaps not be surprised. In principle, redress is available through the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, Ipid, for cases of police violence against individuals, although in reality the process often fails complainants.

But what of collective violence such as the continuing forced removals in the eThekwini municipality? These have not only been illegal in that they have not been accompanied by a court order, but in addition have contradicted the government’s injunction for people to remain at home by systematically demolishing their homes. One is therefore entitled to ask if this is an attempt – undoubtedly criminal in intent – to physically destroy a powerful movement of the poor that is part of the South African nation, by criminal elements ensconced in power in that municipality? This question is not far fetched, and fear of the poor – an ingrained neo-colonial demophobic attribute – seems to be as valid a conjecture as any other given the circumstances of a wild pandemic. Are the (organised) poor to be treated like rodents were during the bubonic plague?

On the following days – March 27, 29, 31 and 2 and 3 April 2020 – settlements where Abahlali baseMjondolo has been organising were attacked by a private security company (Calvin and Family Security Services) along with the police, and on Friday they were even accompanied by the military. People’s homes were destroyed and building materials broken into pieces. Several people were injured and required hospitalisation. In all cases, the violence has been orchestrated by the eThekwini municipality and directed explicitly at Abahlali baseMjondolo members. 

This is the latest manifestation of municipal-state orchestrated violence against this movement which has been ongoing now since 2005 during which time 18 members of the movement have lost their lives. Over 15 years, coerced removals have been carried out without court orders making them illegal and criminal acts. While police actions are legally under Ipid surveillance, the same does not apply to private security companies.

Recently the central government in the form of the Minister of Human Settlements Lindiwe Sisulu appealed for these eviction practices to be halted, but to no avail. The violence unleashed by the municipal state continues. It is clear that those in charge of the municipality have a different agenda to that of the national state, which includes the destruction of democratic popular organisations in their jurisdiction. 

There is, of course, a culture of violence against the poor in this country going back to colonial times. South Africans should recall the massacre of the 34 miners at Marikana in August 2012. The possibility of this recurring should be taken very seriously. There is little point in presidents apologising to their people – as has recently happened in both India and Kenya after violence was let loose during Covid-19 lockdowns – in conditions when that violence was perfectly predictable. 

President Ramaphosa has already apologised once to the families of the Marikana miners. In this instance, it is the eThekwini municipality that has engaged in “dastardly deeds” that require “concomitant action”. He must at all costs act accordingly.

During times of war, the state requires the support of all its people; it requires a united nation so the slogan of “social cohesion” cannot suddenly be forgotten. The nation is prepared to help once all understand the severity of the issue and the need for national mobilisation. 

However, the quid pro quo must be that the state should treat all its people in the same way, and with dignity, in order to bring them on board. There is no room, in such circumstances, for recourse to neo-colonial practices which are totally counterproductive. Should this not happen, those undermining the unity of the nation should be dealt with severely, especially if they emanate from within the state authority itself.