Logo of Abahlali baseMjondolo movement (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Jacques Depelchin reflects on the ties that bind Haiti to South Africa and asks: “In a country
where the lethal combination of racism and competition has left a legacy of gross injustice, is it too late to suggest that those who were trampled upon should be listened to with the greatest care possible?”
This is a brief report from a visit to Durban, specifically to see for oneself places like Kennedy Road, Motala Heights, to meet with people like S’bu Zikode and Shamita Naidoo whose words continue to impact us in a way which is still generating new thinking. We were on our way to meet people who can be described as the staunchest defenders of the poor, and, by extension, of humanity.
Driving with Pauline from Maputo to Durban reminded her of her native lands in the Caribbean: sugar plantations after sugar plantations. However, for her, that was the 50s. Now, this was 2008, in the Province of Kwazulu-Natal, where Jacob Zuma, the newly elected President of the ANC, comes from. For those who do not know, it is worth remembering, in the name of always connecting the dots, that President Jean Bertrand Aristide presented a thesis in linguistics at the University of South Africa (Unisa) comparing Isizulu and Creol. I am still reading the thesis which can be found on line and downloaded. It was presented in November 2006. I hope and pray that President JBA does get invited/encouraged to visit the place from where so many Haitians originally have came: DRC. We could then look forward to another comparative thesis on Kikongo and Creol and another step in the process of reconnecting those who should never ever been separated from each other
Thanks to Richard Pithouse we were able to meet a few among those who constitute the heart of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), including Shamita Naidoo at Motala Heights and S’bu Zikode at Kennedy Road. Besides wanting to see the faces behind the names we had heard about, we wanted to understand how people like S’bu Zikode and his companions had attracted such wrath from Durban City officialdom in general, and from the Superintendent of Police Nayager, in particular. We wanted to understand how in the country where Apartheid was defeated, some of its practices are still alive and well.
Here were people who, living among the poorest of the poor, standing up and insisting on being treated with respect and dignity, as called for by the South African Constitution, but who, strangely, were being charged, beaten up and arrested by the police as though they were criminals. How could a police force, under the political leadership of the ANC, behave in a way that is reminiscent of the apartheid police?
This question could be formulated differently, and maybe, more generically, in a region and in a world where such drastic turns are no longer the exception: How do good people or, more precisely, people who could have become heroes/heroines of Goodness/Love took a wrong turn somewhere. Some may not like the jump, but visiting places like AbM could help understand how a Mugabe, in Zimbabwe, became what he is today, i.e. turning against his own people. Is it that easy to loose one’s moral compass?
In a world where governments are stating their objectives of wiping all forms and degrees of poverty from extreme to mild, from endemic to periodic, one might be forgiven to think that the poor themselves would be the most important allies in such a project. Unfortunately, not so when one listens to AbM. Instead what one hears and what one sees leads one to a frightening conclusion. That is: how something akin to ethnic cleansing emerges, against defenceless people. The average person might balk at such an assertion. After all, cleansing has been more easily associated with genocidal behaviour against another ethnic group. Some might find it offensive and out of line to suggest that an ANC government could be accused of ethnic cleansing against the poorest of its citizens. Is it not better to think of a most outrageous hypothesis so that those who are currently responsible for its probable outcome might pause, pull back and change course?
What would it take to stop the violence against the poorest of the poor (pop)?
One of the possible explanations for the extreme hatred shown by Superintendent of Police Nayager, can easily be understood once one understands the context of the soon to be held in South Africa Soccer World Cup: in 2010. FIFA may not have stipulated that all efforts must be exerted to keep all and any signs of extreme poverty out of sight but the message comes through and RSA is doing everything to hide the offending communities away. It is not difficult to understand the reasoning behind this: people who come to be entertained by the Soccer extravaganza must not be allowed to be disturbed by the sight of shacks. Such a sight could lead some of the visiting entertainees, not to speak of the performers themselves, to ask themselves about the appropriateness of spending such huge amounts of money when significant segments of the local citizenry does not have access to adequate housing and amenities, such as water and electricity.
2010 being just around the corner, South African officialdom, at least some of them, are implementing the most radical option in keeping poverty/poor out of sight: removing the poor from the landscapes which could be in the visitors’ line of vision. In the process, these poverty/ethnic cleansers have affirmed, in various and modulated ways, that the poor are not worth listening to, that their voices do not count.
In a country where the lethal combination of racism and competition has left a legacy of gross injustice, is it too late to suggest that those who were trampled upon should be listened to with the greatest care possible? Is it too late to suggest that while the TRC was a step in the right direction, it was bound to fall too short of the task at hand? Is it too late to suggest that those who understand their profession as that of repressing, oppressing and beating up, should be retrained to listen, attentively, and, wherever possible, with compassion to the poor? Surely it is not too late to suggest that as long as the poor are not free from the consequences of apartheid, no one is free. In parenthesis, that is why on Freedom Day, they, at Kennedy Road, marched to remind the South African Nation that, for them, this was Unfreedom Day.
It will be a while before I digest all of the words from S’bu Zikode and his companions, but there is a phrase I shall never forget: “We do not want money”. This is the crux of the matter. In a world driven by the profit motive, competition, greed, selfishness, S’bu reminded those who would listen that they are not interested in what the self appointed discoverers of poverty would like to eliminate via charitable gestures. They want to be treated with respect, justice and dignity. In those cases where the law is broken, e.g. trying to get food, water and/or electricity, they are saying to the government “look at our situation. It is an unacceptable one to any self-respecting human being”. Is such a demand so outrageous that it has to be met with the unleashing of extreme violence? Is such a demand so unreasonable that it cannot even be listened to?
When so much still remained to be said we asked S’bu Zikode “what is the way out?” “Healing”, he said. Needless to say, given Ota Benga’s motto –for peace healing and dignity—a very long exchange followed. In a post Apartheid South Africa, in a South Africa where the TRC had raised such expectations and led to such disappointments, is it too late to listen to those who articulate the spirit of reconciliation with the conviction of a Mandela or a Tutu? People like Nayager, Sutcliffe, Govender and many others who share their understanding – misunderstanding, really—of the poor, surely are in deep need of healing because in their minds the poor are not worth anything.
Is it too late, in the name of humanity, to slow down the race to join in globalization, the race to be part of the first world, with the collateral damage of maiming, torturing, killing those who are not strong enough to keep pace? It is our hope that the voices of S’bu, Shamita, and their growing supporters, such as Bishop Rubin Philipp, will re-energize, re-awaken the flagging spirits of those who had a different vision of Post Apartheid South Africa, one which was more in line with the prescriptions being enunciated with such clarity from the favelas of South Africa and many other parts of the world. Those voices are refusing to accept the transition which has taken South Africans, poor and rich, from the end of apartheid in South Africa to Global apartheid.
Seeing the citizens of Kennedy Road, of Motala Heights reminded us of their brothers and sisters in Haiti, in Brasil, India, and cities all over the world whose only prescription is to be listened to with respect, and justice as human beings. As they keep repeating over and over: they do not want charity, they want solidarity. They do not want to be treated as a humanitarian issue, they want to be treated as human beings. To them we say thank you for being strong, thank you for reminding us of our common humanity, thank you for your courage and serenity.
* Jacques Depelchin works with the Ota Benga Alliance for Peace Healing and Dignity. He is currently visiting Professor at the Centre for Afro-Oriental Studies at the Federal University of Bahia, Salvador, Brazil