by Christopher McMichael, Mahala
This Friday communities around the Cape will march from Athlone stadium to Rondebosch commons for a three day ‘occupation’.
The aim is a public space to discuss solutions to a range of issues:
housing, rent arrears, evictions, political corruption and the ongoing
segregation in the city.
The chosen site is loaded with historical symbolism. Used once as a
military camp by colonial authorities, it was racially integrated before
the mass erasures of the Group Areas act. The community groups that
have chosen the commons are asserting the right to reclaim public space
in a city that, even more so than the rest of the country, is deeply
segregated by race and class.
Despite using the Occupy name, the initiative predates events in the
US. And contrary to the idea that this is about disaffected middle class
hipsters looking for something to do on the weekend, it is driven by civic groups and backyarder associations from some of the poorest areas on the peninsula.
Even if the commons is a pseudo-public space (for now) it remains a
site where ordinary people are constitutionally guaranteed the right to
gather and talk. But the City of Cape Town has behaved like other urban
authorities throughout the country when dealing with political
gatherings of this nature. Firstly, despite being given ample
notification of the event, city officials refused authorization.
Ignoring the Regulations of Gathering events which puts the onus of
consultation with organizers on state officials, mayoral representatives
axed an arranged meeting because some of the community delegates were
“15 to 30 minutes late’’.
This petulant refusal to do their job was accompanied by attempts at
pre-emptive criminalization. Completing her Darth Vader-like
transformation from firebrand activist to Empress Zille’s chief flunkey,
Patricia de Lille has claimed the commons occupation is a prelude to a land invasion.
At a City Council meeting this week she called the occupation an “apparent” invasion whose “agents of destruction will not be allowed to succeed.”
The subtext is come the weekend these “cowards” will be met with
arrests and an officially authorized clampdown. So much then for an
“inclusive” and “caring” Mother City.
This has been accompanied by scaremongering that protestors are planning to destroy the local environment. The “Friend of Rhondebosch Commons” have called for calm:
“While the intention of the organisers may be construed as
confrontational, we are appealing to community members to act with
restraint and let the City of Cape Town, SAPS and other role players
deal with the situation.” Of course, the call to act with restraint
begs the question of what kind of vigilante tactics the “Rosebank
Neighbourhood Watch” have been up to?
In fact it is the local government (and possibly a white upper
middle class neighbourhood watch) who are being confrontational. The
organisers have even invited De Lille to attend the Summit but it now
seems most likely that what was intended as a peaceful protest will be
met with a police clampdown. Alas this reaction will once again be
construed as the DA resorting to type and falling back into its tested
pattern of appealing to its mostly white, privileged electorate.
Invoking fearmongering claims about “land invasions” as subliminal code
for the swart gevaar. Behind this draconian and hysterical response is
the fear that public space will be used to highlight the fact that Cape
Town is still one of the most unequal cities in the world, seated at the
foot of one the most unequal countries in the world.
We need experiments, such as the Summit, to drag these issues of
race and class into the public sphere. Without it South Africa will
continue to replicate draconian state tactics and re-elect bullshit
politicians who pander to people’s worst prejudices.
As events of the last year, from Egypt to the woefully under-reported
Occupy Nigeria, demonstrate we are living at a time of profound
contestation of the hollowing out of public life. It is at the level of
urban space where economic elites and their willing political
“stakeholders” are being challenged. The real “occupation” doesn’t occur
at events like the Summit, it is in the texture of everyday life.
Occupation by a bellicose political culture of fear, occupation by a
decrepit and morally bankrupt economic system, occupation by overbearing
security systems and occupation by a consumer culture that bombards us
with inescapable imagery of the desirable.