The destruction of Kennedy Road: A precursor to Marikana

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Kenneth Good on how the temerity of the organised poor was met with a ferocious counter-attack from the state.

It was widely believed that the end of apartheid would mean the end of shack or squatter settlements, developmentally, consultatively, not by destruction and coercion. The need was pressing as the country's new constitution of 1996 recognised. Section 26 declared that ‘everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing', that ‘the state must take reasonable legislative and other achieve the progressive realisation of this right', and that ‘no one may be evicted from their home, or have their home demolished, without an order of court made after considering all relevant circumstance. No legislation may permit arbitrary evictions'.

Additionally, the Prevention of Illegal Evictions Act of 1998 provided procedural safeguards against evictions to those living in informal settlements. All evictions must be authorised by an order of court and must include ‘written and effective notice of the eviction proceedings on the unlawful occupier and the local municipality not less than 14 days before a court hearing of the eviction proceedings.'

Nevertheless, several municipalities have engaged in illegal evictions without due process. Mahendra Chetty of the Legal Resource Centre in Durban, said in 2007, that Durban city, ‘as a matter of regular and consistent practice, acts in flagrant breach of the law' on illegal evictions.

Moreover, many evictions are carried out with callousness and cruelty.  As Richard Pithouse recorded: 

‘An eviction normally occurs very swiftly...There is no discussion with residents...[They] happen without a court order, without consultation, without adequate notice...It is typical for houses to be knocked down while people's possessions are still inside. Once houses are flattened, machines are brought in to pulverise the building materials and often...a fire is then set to burn away the last remaining evidence that there has been a settlement there.' In Johannesburg and Cape Town, the municipalities did not evict without court orders, but Durban simply disregarded this requirement.

Into the 21st century living conditions in many settlements continued to be appalling. An indication of the realities of settlement life was offered by S'bu Zikode when he invited lawmakers to experience life in the jondolos (shacks) for themselves. Explaining that "those in power are blind to our suffering", he said "they must feel the mud...share 6 toilets with 6,000 people...dispose of their own away the rats and keep the children from knocking [over] the candles. They must care for the sick when there are long queues for the tap..." In the early 2000s, when Durban's population totalled some 3.5 million people, almost 800,000 lived in substandard, inadequate housing.

In 2001, the newly established eThekwini Municipal Council for Durban launched a Slum Clearance Project, proudly declared its intention to turn Durban into a ‘shack-free' city. This almost invariably involved the relocation of shack dwellers to new sites on the outskirts of the city, far away from job opportunities and basic services like schooling and health available in town.   

Zikode had experienced the cost and other advantages of a settlement located in central Durban. He worked in a petrol station earning about R200 a week while paying rent in Elf Estates of R600 per month. But when he moved to the informal settlement of Kennedy Road his rent fell to R80. He and his partner acquired "our own place and we could even save some money...we could live close to work and schools at an affordable cost."

Yet he was fully aware that this was not an acceptable life. A settlement organisation nominally existed, but according to Zikode, there were no committee meetings, elections or discussion of political and developmental issues. At the first election in the settlement in 2000, Zikode, age 25, became chairperson of the Kennedy Road Development Committee (KRDC), and set about "restructur[ing] everything in terms of democracy."

According to Bishop Rubin Phillip, Zikode and the KRDC ‘mobilised the young people', with an emphasis on the need for elections and democracy. He and his colleagues concentrated too on working with ANC organisations-Zikode had been a branch executive committee member in ward 25 in Clare Estates around 2002-and with the City of Durban, to try and address the problems the community faced. But in Phillip's words, ‘the repeated lies and failed promises' of the party and the city ‘built up', and a commitment eventually followed to ‘taking action on the people's own terms.' After ‘yet another promise of better housing turned out to be a betrayal', two big events occurred almost simultaneously. The KRDC blockaded a major road nearby, and a new organisation was formed by and for shack dwellers, Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM).  

On 19 March 2005, hundreds of residents of Kennedy Road blocked the six-lane Umgeni Road and held this blockade for four hours, generating big media coverage and resulting in fourteen arrests. Zikode noted that anger in Kennedy Road had been growing and people decided to block the road. It had become clear to the KRDC that "the only space for the poor in the ANC was as voters." They knew that there was no politics of the poor in the ruling party. The blockade and the break with the ANC was no surprise to them: "what did become a surprise", Zikode said, was to see "a protest becoming a movement, to see other settlements joining us."

In the immediate aftermath, the settlement was occupied by the police, and an attempt to march on the police station was beaten back.  They eventually marched in order to say to the police, ‘release them all or arrest us all'. 1,200 people marched to Sydenham police station, facing tear gas and dogs. Ten days of prison and court appearances later, the Kennedy Road 14 were freed.

Zikode says that those in KRDC accepted that they were on their own. People insisted "that they could not be ladders [for ANC politicians] any more". The new politics, he went on, "had to be led by poor people and be for [them too]: that nothing could be decided for us without us. The road blockade was the start...We learnt as we went. We discuss things until we have decided on the next step and then we take it."

From his experience in the ANC and on the branch executive committee, Zikode "knew people in the other settlements, and we were all having similar problems so it was actually easy to build up this movement." He was confident because he was "now fighting for what [he] strongly believed was right. When you are thousands you are not intimidated."

The Formation of AbM

In the period between the blockade and the appearance of AbM, a series of marches were organised at which local councillors were symbolically buried, and the political autonomy of the settlements from all top-down ANC party control was affirmed.  Malavika Vartak added that ‘intense mobilisation' followed from the release of the 14, and ‘led to the birth of AbM.' From the 2005 blockade, Abahlali came to represent tens of thousands of people in at least 30 settlements, upholding the principles of organisational democracy and of autonomy: the latter being the driving force behind the movement.

 AbM elected its leadership on an annual basis through a secret ballot. "We believe in real democracy", says Lindela Figlan. "Decisions to take a particular action are only made after the membership is given full information...and asked for their inputs." Where special knowledge and skills are necessary, AbM calls for expert assistance, but it is the membership which ‘make the final decision on the way forward.'

Pithouse added that ‘people who represent the movement in the media, in negotiations and various forums, must be elected, mandated, accountable and rotated.' Like the United Democratic Front's (UDF's) ‘Principles of Our Organisational Democracy' in the late 1980s, AbM insists that their project must not be undividualised, and that leadership is collective and replaceable. 

On the basis of such principles, Abahlali successfully ‘democratised the governance of settlements, stopped evictions, won some concessions around services, illegally connected electricity, built homemade toilets, set up crèches, and through a variety of other community-based initiatives and actions, worked to reduce the exclusion of poor people from the life and amenities of the cities.

Spontaneity, again like the UDF, was one of its operating principles. Zikode: "We did not start with a plan-the movement has always been shaped by the daily activities of the people that make it...It is the environment that we breathe [and] that shapes how we carry our politics forward." It amounted, he believed, to "a living politics", which both "arises from our daily lives and the daily challenges we face", and that is "easily understood" by the people for that reason. The basis was the full and real equality of everyone without exception" regardless of ethnicity, race and nationality. It means further "a very active and proactive community...that thinks and debates and demands."

Victory in the Constitutional Court and the Assault on Kennedy Road

In 2007, the Kwazulu Natal (KZN) legislature introduced new draconian measures against shack dwellers and the homeless poor: The Prevention and Re-emergence of Slums Act of that year. It gave landowners the right to evict persons who were illegally occupying their land, and aimed in general at removing the practice of informality from urban areas and preventing its re-emergence in any possible form, according to Vartak.

Owners of informally occupied land were mandated to institute evictions, and owners of vacant land were encouraged to prevent informal occupation through fencing and the use of security guards. The Act intended to ensure that large numbers of the urban poor would remain homeless (until the state caught up with the huge housing backlog) and also put the burden on those living in already over crowded spaces to accommodate the homeless.

When AbM, assisted by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies in Johannesburg, took the Slums Act to the Durban High Court, Judge President Vuka Tshabalala found the Act to be fair. AbM therefore approached the Constitutional Court, which determined in October 2009, in a majority decision, that section 16 of the Slums Act was unconstitutional and struck it down. It showed again that an organisation formed and led by shack dwellers had the legal and political capacity to hold government to account. 

The temerity of the organised poor faced ferocious counter-attack from the state. Beginning on the night of 26 September 2009, a group of men, varying over time between 40 and 500, armed with guns and bush knives, attacked a meeting of the KRDC. They appeared to be looking for specific people: according to Amnesty International, for certain KRDC members and for the President and Deputy President of Abahlali. Zikode and Lindela Figlan were forced to flee for their lives. Two people were killed, and scores were injured. The attackers tried to create an impression that ethnic divisions were involved, but in reality ‘only the shacks of AbM office bearers were targeted.' Activists said that the attack was instigated by local ANC leadership intent on reversing the AbM's achievements and rising popularity among the country's urban poor.     

The police responded slowly to calls for assistance, and when they arrived they ignored the attackers and arrested members of the KRDC. Eight people were arrested on the morning of 27 September and another five were apprehended over the following two weeks. All 13 were supporters of Abahlali. After the arrest of the eight on 27 September at Kennedy Road, an armed group of some 500 ‘went on a rampage, throwing petrol bombs,' Amnesty International reported.

The assault drove the leaders and families of the two movements out of the settlement, and ‘left thousands' homeless. Eight months later, five of those arrested remained in Westville prison. The crimes against property and persons committed in September remained largely unaddressed. When hearings on bail applications by the accused were held in the Durban Magistrate's Court in October and November, demonstrators inside and outside the court, some wearing ANC insignia, ‘made specific threats of violence against Abahlali members and supporters, should they be released of bail.     

The eventual trial of ‘the Kennedy 12' (charges against one person had been withdrawn) proceeded with conspicuous slowness. After five days of the state leading its evidence in late November 2010, it was clear, said AbM, that ‘it had no case against any of the 12.' All that emerged clearly in the hearings was that the accused were being framed by the state. But the delays were highly disadvantageous to AbM. The accused members were unable to continue with their lives, and Abahlali had to divert its energies to the trial.

Local ANC figures, who had appeared soon after the assaults occurred, were in control in Kennedy Road. The Provincial Minister for Safety and Security, Willies Mchunu, and the Provincial Police Commissioner, Hamilton Ngidi, issued a statement that the settlement had been ‘liberated.' According to Paul Trewhela (Politics Web, 29 August 2011), Mchunu, who was also a senior member of the South African Communist Party, had ‘organised the ANC take over', announced the disbandment of Abhalali, and ‘organised the frame up of the Kennedy 12.  People without ANC party cards were excluded from public life while AbM members were effectively banned from the settlement. What had been a strong and living community was in 2010 ‘a place of darkness and fear.'

In July 2011 all of the charges against the 12 were dismissed. Magistrate Sharon Marks found the state's witnesses to have been "belligerent", "unreliable" and "dishonest", and she noted the atmosphere of what she called ‘gross ethnic chauvinism' which the attackers had created during their assault. Arising from the magistrate's findings, Bishop Phillip said that suspicions had been raised about ‘the role of political parties in condoning-perhaps even actively and covertly engineering-the violent suppression of independent movements of the poor.' The two-year process had been politically motivated and unjust, but Abahlali throughout remained united, strong and steadfast. They had the moral strength of "those who know who they are...what they stand for...and speak the truth."

Before the state's assault, AbM had developed linkages with other organisations of the poor as well as expanding itself both nationally and provincially. In July 2008 it had launched a Cape Town branch, and in September it joined with the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign in Cape Town, the Landless People's Movement in Johannesburg, and the new Rural Network in KZN to form the Poor People's Alliance. And by the beginning of 2009 ABM was represented in 53 settlements in the province of its birth four years earlier.

AbM continued to act and speak politically. It issued a press statement on 25 November that year refuting ‘lies being told about us'.  This noted, among other things, that AbM president, S'bu Zikode, remained displaced and ‘living in an undisclosed township', after his home was destroyed in September 2009. He had ‘lost two jobs as a direct result of his commitment to AbM' and he remained unemployed and without an income.

Struggle remained an unavoidable necessity for the organised poor. In a letter to Mayor Patricia de Lille of Cape Town in late 2011, Mzonke Poni of AbM of the Western Cape, noted that there were then 450,000 families needing houses in Cape Town, while the city was only building 7,000 houses a year. ‘We need to be clear', Poni declared, ‘for as long as the state is failing to provide water, electricity and sanitation, people must be encouraged to appropriate these services for themselves... For as long as Cape Town is dominated by elite interests the poor need to refuse all instructions to be patient our collective strength to challenge [those] interests.'    

AbM responded quickly to the enormity of the Marikana massacre in August 2012. Together with the Unemployed People's Movement, it met with the striking workers and with the struggling residents of the Wonderkop shack settlement.

Kennedy Road and AbM had been dealt a savage blow by an elitist and intolerant ANC. They were responding with resilience, integrity and determination.  The outcomes at the start of 2013 were unclear.

Note: All points of fact and opinion in this article are based on public sources. It is particularly reliant on the published work of Richard Pithouse. All errors are of course my own.

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Kenneth Good is adjunct professor in global studies at RMIT and visiting professor in political studies at Rhodes University. This article was published on