Uniting the community

Cosatu’s jobs and poverty conference resolved that Cosatu must work with communities. Numsa News spoke to Numsa national education and training coordinator and SACP Mamelodi activist, Alex Mashilo to see if the SACP’s recent involvement with squatters in Mamelodi could provide such a model.

What greeted you when you tried to go to work that day in June?Protesters had started blockading the roads from 1am with burning tyres. I was too late to get through. The police came to try and open the roads but protesters fought back and police could not open the roads.

What sparked the violence?There is a security company called Joint Venture (JV) on stand-by to prevent the expansion of informal settlements. The Friday before the violence this group went to a popular place called Lusaka to demolish shacks and carry out evictions in a section named Alaska without offering people alternative accommodation. The community fought back. They burnt some of the trucks used by JV. Reportedly people died in the process of fighting back.

The community of Alaska had been evicted on two occasions since December. Now they had decided “We are not going anywhere!” On Wednesday, together with other sections demanding houses, they were to hold a meeting with the city council to discuss the matter. But the city council had released a statement through Pretoria News that said ‘come what may, those people will be evicted’. That caused agitation and around 1am on the Wednesday that they were due to meet the council, these communities went out to barricade the road.

Did they get support from the community? Yes, they got support from those that are backyard dwellers – those that rent a shack in the landowners’ backyard and others who had begun identifying with their demand for houses.

Did everyone support the protesters?The whole thing became violent and not everyone supported. There are those who believed their freedom of movement was violated – they couldn’t go to work, to school, tertiary institutions, to hospitals. A pregnant woman whose time had arrived could not go to hospital. Criminals used the moment. Cellphones and goods were stolen from community members trying to go to work and women complained their handbags were grabbed as well. If you use a car, there was no way you could get to work that day!

What is the difference between marches now and back in the 1990s?The difference is that earlier communities did not use violence, they would ensure that the property of others was secured, that roads were not barricaded and even if they marched, they took one half of the road only while ensuring order through their marshals. From 1995 they applied for permission if they wanted to stage marches, they marched to the Union Buildings. Where they could not apply to stage marches, they had illegal marches. And the ANC and SACP were to some extent sympathetic to these communities then. Most of the squatter camps were named after leaders of the ANC like Mandela, etc.

Why is the ANC distancing itself from these mass struggles?The ANC is now no longer just a national liberation movement – it is the majority party in government. However there seems to be some sort of arrogance from some quarters. We elect councillors but when they are there, instead of accepting for instance that poverty, unemployment and landlessness force people to do this, they completely ignore prevailing social conditions and talk legal language – ‘Don’t put a new shack in your yard, it is illegal’. That has brought hostility between residents and the council. When we were saying we will hold a meeting with the MMC, they said ‘no ways’. They had a press cutting where the MMC said ‘we will evict you’. How are you going to deal with someone that says this?

Since the big barricade you have got involved in the issue. Why this involvement?We (SACP) wanted to make sure that there is better organisation and a better way of taking forward the demands without violence, other opportunistic acts of crime and stopping people from going to work. We wanted their struggles for provision of services to be peaceful. We prefer these struggles to avoid antagonising their potential allies like students, those with houses, those who have already obtained subsidies from government and those who are working. We cannot oppose any member of the community that stands up to demand houses. A big portion of Mamelodi East is a product of informal settlements that have now been made formal. It would not make sense for these people to oppose others who are now demanding the same.

How did you analyse the cause of the violence?We called a meeting as activists to analyse the reasons for the violence. We came to a conclusion that there are imbalances in land ownership. Some land is owned by the city council some of which is occupied by squatters. A big portion of land for future development is privately owned by a few whites. Historically black people were prevented form coming into urban areas. You could come only if you had work and a place to live. After 1994, those restrictions were removed which was good. The majority of people from rural areas began to disperse to urban areas to look for jobs and seek education. People come through their relatives, they rent from them, they look for jobs, they don’t find them then they end up being evicted. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFSAS) cannot accommodate all those students wanting bursaries so they struggle.

What other factors create such a high demand for housing?Some of those squatting are the children of those in permanent stands. Some are sisters and brothers of those in permanent stands. For example in 2000 during the development of Mamelodi Extension 22 they were under 21, now they are older but they are unemployed, some of them with families, they need their own homes. The problems in Zimbabwe have added more people and there are those that come from Mozambique and Swaziland as well.

What specific problems did the leaders of the informal settlements identify?When we visited Alaska there were about 1500 shacks but only one tap that supplied all of them.

And toilets?They dig holes and then they make toilets there.

What did they say about the criminality during the violent protests?They denied barricading roads, they said they were not criminals, they said that those that did crime did not belong to them. They condemned such things.

How is the organisation amongst the squatters?People themselves make stands and streets. They coordinate it very well. They have a list of who belongs where. The chairman of the squatter camp said that no-one is earning more than R1300 per month while the majority are unemployed. Shacks in Pretoria are very different he told us. The automotive and other industries deliver parts from overseas with wooden pallets. These pallets are taken to build shacks. Small tradespeople use the pallets to make and sell chairs. Small metal sheets come the same way. But the chairman said that they were seeing black plastic for the first time. In one case a mother was living with 4 kids under plastic. He called a meeting of the community and suggested that they take money that the community collects to pay lawyers, to transport leaders to meetings and to pay bail of those arrested and use it to buy the family planks and metal sheets. So they took the money and managed to buy for others shacks as well.

What is your immediate plan?We still have to bring all leaders together and draft a common programme on how to move forward. Once we agree that the rights of everybody embodied in the constitution are respected, then we will have peaceful demonstrations. And these must deliver. If they don’t deliver, people will run out of patience. We need the municipality and the provincial department of housing to come with a plan saying ‘this is where we are going’ so that they can see the plan is being implemented, never mind the pace. We must make sure that there is better organisation and a better way of taking forward the demands without stopping people from going to work, barricading the roads, crushing train carriages so that trains cannot move.

Uniting the communityEmva kokuqubuka kodlame okusandukwenzeka eMamelodi, abe-SACP bahlangana nabaholi bomphakathi basemikhukhwini ukuzama ukuhlanganisa imiphakathi elokishini. Izenzo ezinjalo zinganikezela ngesibonelo sokuthi iCosatu ibandakanyeka kanjani ukuze isize imiphakathi emizabalazweni yayo

Uniting the communityNa onlangse voorkoms van geweld in Mamelodi het aktiviste van die SAKP leiers van die plakkergemeenskap ontmoet in “˜n poging om die verskillende gemeenskappe in die township te verenig. Sulke optrede kan as model dien vir hoe Cosatu gemeenskappe in hulle stryd ondersteun.

Uniting the communityKa mora merusu ya moraonyana tjena mane Mamelodi, baitseki ba SACP ba ile ba teana le baetapele ba baahi ba baapehi ho leka ho kopanya baahi ba fapaneng lekeisheneng leo. Diketso tsena di tla fana ka mohlala wa ka moo Cosatu e sebetsang ka teng ho tshehetsa baahi boitsekong ba bona.