Friday, 18 October 2013

Durban Poison

Richard Pithouse, SACSIS

On the last day of September Nqobile Nzuza, a seventeen year old girl, was shot dead by the police near Cato Manor in Durban. She was unarmed and she was shot in her back and the back of her head. She was part of a large group of people who were gathering to organise a road blockade in protest at both oppression, in the form of violent and illegal evictions at the hands of the eThekwini Municipality, and the repression of resistance to the evictions in the form of two assassinations. The police claimed that they had fired at the protestors in self-defence. Witnesses vigorously contest this and insist that a police officer, who they have named, fired at the unarmed protestors without provocation or warning.

The police have an undeniable record of dishonesty when it comes to giving accounts of their own violence. This has become clear to the general public in the aftermath of the Marikana massacre but their dishonesty is nothing new. For instance in 2006 when Monica Ngcobo, a young woman on the cusp of her adult life, was shot dead in E-Section, uMlazi, also in Durban, at a protest the day after the local governments elections the police claimed that she had been shot in the stomach with a rubber bullet while attacking the police with a stone. The autopsy showed that she had been shot in the back with live ammunition. Witnesses said that she was on her way to work, and not a participant in the protest, when she was shot. Like Nqobile Nzuza, Monica Ngcobo was shot dead by the police at a protest that followed the assassination of two activists. In both cases it is difficult not to conclude that an implicit sanction for murder on the part of both the police and assassins was tied to the fact that people had the temerity to organise outside of the ANC.

The KwaZulu-Natal police Commissioner Mmamonnye Ngobeni justified the murder of Nqobile Nzuza in terms of “a constitutional mandate to maintain law and order”. He warned the public that the police “will use necessary force to execute this constitutional mandate”. He said nothing at all about the failure of the police to act against the unconstitutional evictions in the area or the equally unconstitutional violence by the state, death threats against activists from local party leaders and the murders at the hands of shadowy assassins. Ngobeni, just like the average middle class person leaving a comment on a news site, implicitly defined a whole group of people as outside of the law. The result of this is that violence against these people is made to appear legitimate to the point of not even requiring comment while their protest at gross, unlawful and at times murderous oppression is made to appear inherently criminal and anti-social. The lines of continuity between Ngobeni’s view, which is of course entirely at odds with the constitution, and an essential feature of racism are clear.

In a similarly cavalier fashion Police spokesperson Solomon Makgale removed the protest on which Nzuza was shot dead from the political sphere and placed it in the criminal sphere. “I don’t think we can call it a protest.  It stops being a protest when a crime is committed - then it is a crime. The police restrained themselves.” For Jay Naicker, also a police spokesperson, there was “some sinister motive” behind the protest. “The allegations (sic) that they were protesting at four o’clock in the morning in winter, in a dark corner, when everyone is sleeping; this can’t be protest action.”

Of course a road blockade can, just like a policing operation, degenerate into violent and criminal behaviour. But it can also be a form of civil disobedience. In fact the road blockade is, around the world, a tactic that is widely used by the urban poor because this is a group of people who are often excluded from authorised political institutions and it, like the strike for workers, enables disruption. The road blockade has become a common feature of protest in South Africa and will remain so for as long as authorised modes of engagement are either not accessible to the urban poor or simply don’t work for the urban poor. When Naicker raised the spectre of a ‘sinister motive’ animating the protestors he said nothing about the fact that their attempts to use authorised democratic institutions, like the courts, had only confirmed, in practice, that the Municipality considers them to be beneath the law – people that can be evicted, beaten and shot with impunity. Even when they had won orders from the courts expressly prohibiting illegal evictions these were simply ignored.

When the police try to set the stage for their own violence, unlawful violence, to be socially authorised they have often had enthusiastic allies in the media. Newspapers seem to more or less invariably report a protest at which there was police violence as a 'violent protest' even when the only violence came from the police. As a result police violence is made to appear necessary, and sometimes virtuous, even when it is gratuitous, sadistic or plainly deployed against society and in the interests of the ruling party. Road blockades, especially when tyres are burnt, are routinely reported as violent even when no harm is done to any person.

Moreover newspapers have frequently reported police accounts of their own violence as if they are fact. Given the documented frequency with which the police have lied about their own violence this is an outrageous dereliction of basic journalistic duty. In some cases reporting on the murder of Nqobile Nzuza that simply assumed that the police had told the truth about their own violence continued even after accounts that vigorously dispute police claims had been made public. On the 4th of October the ENCA website ran a Sapa article that declared that “On Monday a 17-year-old girl was shot and killed as two police officers, whose vehicle had been surrounded by protesters, fired live rounds to escape.” This report not only uncritically reports the police statement on this killing as fact but it also ignores a press statement from Abahlali baseMjondolo issued on the 3rd of October in which it is reported that witnesses have an entirely different understanding of how Nzuza came to be shot in the back of the head.

The attempts by the police to win public support for state repression often appeal to the prejudices of the middle classes, prejudices that at times are deeply inflected with racism. Naicker speaks in a manner that clearly assumes that the citizens he's supposed to be protecting are middle class. He recently observed that "Law-abiding ratepayers from various communities in the province are also up in arms as these criminals are blocking roads to their neighbourhoods, damaging property and [ratepayers] are requesting police to deal decisively with these violent criminals.”

Naicker may have no regard for basic democratic values or the law but he certainly knows his target market. In suburban areas where road blockades have been erected in protest at the murderous repression of an increasingly authoritarian local state residents’ associations have described themselves as being 'under siege' and there have been calls for the Public Order Policing Unit to be replaced with the Tactical Response Unit, the same unit responsible for the Marikana massacre, or the army. There is no record of these residents’ associations expressing any concern at the unlawful and violent treatment of their neighbours at the hands of the state and party structures.

The response of the eThekwini Municipality to both the urban crisis in general, and the housing crisis in particular, has never been remotely adequate. 'Delivery' has always been an authoritarian and often violent project that has frequently re-inscribed spatial segregation. But in recent years it has been so decisively captured, from top to bottom, by the ruling party's patronage machine that it has become entirely dysfunctional. It is clear that the local party structures are trying to contain this crisis with violence rather than to resolve it with negotiation and reform. It is equally clear that this decision enjoys the enthusiastic support of the police and some currents in the media and middle class society.

In 1952 Aneurin Bevan, the Welsh coal miner's son who became Minister of  Health in the post-war British government and founded the National Health Service, famously observed that “either poverty will use democracy to win the struggle against property, or property, in fear of poverty, will destroy democracy”.  If the alliance that the police are seeking to cement between the paranoia and virulent prejudices of the middle class and local political elites is not challenged property will throttle democracy in Durban in the name of law and order, the constitution, the rights of ratepayers and decisive action against crime.