Freedom never came to the forgotten people

File Picture: A service delivery protest in Tembisa, August 2022. Picture: Oupa Mokoena / African News Agency (ANA)

File Picture: A service delivery protest in Tembisa, August 2022. Picture: Oupa Mokoena / African News Agency (ANA)

Published May 2, 2023


By Luke Sinwell

Nearly 30 years have passed since the black majority in South Africa voted in the elections, but many never found the democracy and freedom they dreamed of.

When the Reconstruction and Development Programme called for “people-driven” development, many black people understandably held onto hope that they would be the first in line to benefit. Some believed that ward committees, development forums, and imbizos would enable them to take important collective decisions at the local level.

But with the adoption of neo-liberal or market-oriented policies in 1996, the state was rolled back and residents in townships and informal settlements faced further marginalisation.

One example of this that illustrates the frustrated freedoms of the forgotten poor is Thembelihle, a black informal settlement in the Indian township of Lenasia. After reportedly being told to “take what belongs to you!” by the ANC in the mid-1980s, the area is now home to more than 25 000 people living in 7 000 to 8 000 shacks.

Nelson Mandela is reported to have visited Thembelihle in the mid-1990s to promise upgrading and infrastructure, and the settlement became a beacon for residents who flooded into the area with the hope of a better life.

But the divide between Indians and Africans that the apartheid system instilled did not vanish. Instead, the occupation of relatively poor people within a predominantly Indian community illuminated racial tensions and inequality. The local municipality led by the ANC took a decision that, like a “black spot”, the settlement needed to be removed.

The formal logic pointed to dolomite (sink holes), but residents came to believe that this was part of a plot to remove the poor from the surrounding middle-class area. In contexts such as this, the first wave of social movements in post-apartheid South Africa emerged in the early 2000s. The Landless People’s Movement and Anti-Privatisation Forum resisted against the imposition of cost recovery policies and the resultant water and electricity cut-offs and evictions.

In Lenasia, the people living in the informal settlement developed their own home-grown form of grass roots democracy called the Thembelihle Crisis Committee. When the Red Ants came to evict people from their shelters in 2002, many mass meetings were held.

Apartheid-style forced removals began to take place under the new democratic government. The residents were instructed to leave their homes, but those standing outside their shacks would not do so.

The leaders of the delegation of Red Ants proceeded, despite the lack of consensus. Physical conflict ensued, leading about 4 000 residents to take to the streets. The community realised that their own ANC councillor, Dan Bovu, had given the go-ahead in what seemed like the ultimate top-down decision. They had witnessed their own democratically-elected local government official utterly failing to represent them.

As would happen many times over the following two decades, activists and demonstrators were shot by rubber bullets and arrested. While several people burnt in their shacks over the years because of lack of access to electricity, for example when a candle fell, still others, including children, have died from being shocked by the makeshift wires that people constructed to access power directly from the grid.

In 2015, during a stay-away from work centred on the demand for formal electricity, one community member was murdered by live ammunition while more than 70 activists spent many nights in prison.

The next year, then-president Jacob Zuma announced that Thembelihle would finally be electrified, and many held hope, given the promises made at different levels of government, that the informal settlement would become a proper township with paved roads, houses, schools and clinics. Like many similar poor communities with few accessible roads, in Thembelihle, when one calls the ambulance, people are left to suffer quietly or, in some cases, to die.

Like Ficksburg, where the unarmed community leader and educator Andries Tatane was gunned down by rubber bullets by the police during a protest over water and sanitation in 2011, the state responds when the people disrupt the everyday economic activities in the surrounding areas. It looks like the carrot and stick strategy. People are shot at, arrested and occasionally concessions are offered by the state. Then the government’s broken promises become evident.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC held Freedom Day celebrations in the North West province, but the governing party seemed to ignore the fact that when the people of Marikana (in that province) call the police to respond to gender-based violence, rape and attempted murder, they are told that their community is violent by nature.

These geographical areas, which have a history of protesting and strikes, collective actions which result from political and economic exclusion, are paradoxically less likely to get the state assistance that they require.

Townships and informal settlements are not only poor, but when they stand up to attain the kind of democracy that they dream of, the people are bulldozed, brutalised, or ignored. In a context such as this, the decision to stay home or head to the streets is calculated, but one thing is for certain.

Until there is a fundamental alternative to the neo-liberal policies that reinforce racial capitalism, the poor will remain forgotten.

* Luke Sinwell is an Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Johannesburg. His new book is called “The Paradox of Participation: Between Bottom-up and Top-Down Development in South Africa” (UJ Press: 2023).

* The views expressed are not necessarily the views of IOL or Independent Media.