Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Soweto Riots of 2007

Post-apartheid South Africa looks and feels just like apartheid South Africa for millions of poor Blacks and so called 'coloureds' who live in deplorable shanty towns all across the country. In recent weeks, the people who live in these shanty towns have taken to the streets to demand that the government do something about their appalling living conditions.

These street protests have resulted in scenes that look just like the ones drawn from the apartheid era. There have been clashes between protestors and police. There have been mass arrests.

And there have been violent deaths.

In the month of August, protestors took to the streets of Soweto (Protea and Kliptown) outside of Johannesburg, to complain about the lack of municipal services.

In Kliptown the protests turned violent. A protestor was killed while rioting crowds blocked a highway, burned tires, and threw stones at the police.

The ANC-led government of President Thabo Mbeki has no doubt inherited a lopsided state. The poor are still mostly Black. And the rich are still mostly white.

The ANC-led government is like a referee in a match-up between old oppressions and new expectations. The game is that of transition, orderly transition, with all its assumptions of neo-liberal progressivism.

But even as the transition moves along, the government can't ignore the streets. The streets are where the very legitimacy of the transition is precariously kept. Kept like a "promissory note", not too different than the one Martin Luther King Jr. described in his "I have a Dream Speech" (August 28, 1963).

King said: “... the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination ... America has defaulted on (its) promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned."

Kings' "promissory note" spoke of a constitutional duty to all Americans. But right before his assassination he also spoke of repair, rehabilitation, and reparation. In these terms he had moved beyond the idealistic beckon of his "I have a Dream" speech. The greater "promissory note" he began to reference was more of an "I know a Reality" declaration.

The Soweto Riots of 2007 delares the same unworkable breach.

Thirteen years into the post-apartheid era, this second decade of democracy is not a flowery dreamland of "Rainbow people" huddled together for the common purpose of an orderly transition. Much has changed from those early "honeymoon" days in 1994.

The reality on the streets is dirty, inhumane, and degrading. The taste of oppression has hardly left the mouths of the impoverished even as the new rulers and white South Africa fight over access to this and that aspect of the economy.

On the streets of Soweto the economy is the same as it ever was. A familiar bleakness blocks dreams of clean water. Housing. Basic health care. Safety. The inspirational contents of the “promissory note” that the ANC government helped to write in the same streets of Kliptown have faded considerably.

This "promissory note" is known as the Kliptown Charter and it became the Freedom Charter on June 26, 1955. It proclaims to all that:

There Shall be Houses, Security and Comfort!

All people shall have the right to live where they choose, be decently housed, and to bring up their families in comfort and security;

Unused housing space to be made available to the people;

Rent and prices shall be lowered, food plentiful and no-one shall go hungry;

A preventive health scheme shall be run by the state;

Free medical care and hospitalisation shall be provided for all, with special care for mothers and young children;

Slums shall be demolished, and new suburbs built where all have transport, roads, lighting, playing fields, creches and social centres;

The aged, the orphans, the disabled and the sick shall be cared for by the state;

Rest, leisure and recreation shall be the right of all:

Fenced locations and ghettoes shall be abolished, and laws which break up families shall be repealed.

Sadly, the promise has been breached. The people still live in "fenced ghettoes" made up of shacks. Slum life is Black life.

And the gesture of "free healthcare" is a mirage. And even a patent lie.

But notice has been served. Just like it was during the struggle against apartheid. South Africa cannot be peaceful while the contents of the Freedom Charter remain masked behind the agenda of neo-liberal enrichment.

Please don’t get me twisted here. I am not even suggesting that the government is seeking to enrich itself at the expense of the masses.

What I am saying is that the ANC-led government has traded in its ideological guild for the flimsy materialist promises that is supposed to trickle down from Western interests.

This is proving to be a costly strategy. One that is driving a wedge between the street and the government.

And so the masses have moved to the streets where the struggle against apartheid was waged.

Then the purpose was to make South Africa ungovernable. But I want to believe that there is still time now. Time before that fire that will burn too intensely.

Mbeki and his ministers would be wise to pay urgent attention to the protestors. But even as I say this I am haunted by a greater understanding of the global dynamics that befall meaningful developmental progress in South Africa. For the most part, the state is a managerial entity tied to the ebb and flow of global pressures.

It is a ghastly realization. Predicatively pessimistic in its assessment of the state as an agent for equitable human development. I am, therefore, both conflicted and naively hopeful.

But then again, I do not live in squalor. I can afford hope.

Onward dear Baba!

Picture Credits


Rhonda said...

"A riot is the language of the unheard." Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thank you for this excellent information, Ridwan. Do these people have ostensible representation in the SA government? What other means to be heard were employed before hitting the streets? I wonder because of the parallel to the "unheard" between those living in ghettos in SA and in other, say, New Orleans.

The most hope I have is the idea that you gave me that the nation-state is on its way out, with the attendant rich/poor polarity. But there will be much more blood shed to get there.

Ridwan said...

Hello Rhonda:

In the mythology of the state, representation would be forthcoming from the municipal government who, in turn, would be reliant on the provincial government for a budget.

That budget would be tied to national priorities.

That is the problem. The poor landless, lumped, people are not a pressing priority for government.

NGOs like the Anti Privitisation Forum have worked hard to press the condition of the protestors.

But the leadership are spellbound by the Washington Consensus. Growth at the top works it way down to the masses they concur.

So they protestors are caught seeking a way out of their misery, but also dependant on the government to help.

Frantz Fanon said that the peasants, the people the state has no use for, are the vanguard of the revolution.

I am starting to appreciate what he may have meant more and more.

They have nothing more to lose but their sheer numbers can't be ignored.

They are not just idle masses. They are working poor. They clean and carry for the rich, the petty rich, and the wannabee rich.

They know all about the state and its workings, but they remain largely unknown.

This is a revolutionary situation. Revolutionary because the masses in this sense are creative, political, inspirational, and above all, committed to enduring change.

They can't be otherwise.

And in South Africa it has always been so. No-one should be deluded to think that apartheid was over-thrown by exiled guerillas. Hell no.

The Soweto Riots of 1976 was made up of tender ages. Children, some no older than 9, took to the streets in defiance.

These kids were the fire. The resolve to stand and fight.

One of the slogans:"Liberation Now and Education Later" defined what they did in the streets all the way through the end of the 80s

Many of those kids were killed. Many went into exile. The vast majority are to be found living in the squalor of shanty towns.

The very revolutionaries who forced De Klerk to rethink the shape of apartheid, are still its greatest victims.

In this sense, many are extremely bitter about the neo-liberal drivel that is South Africa's national agenda.

The lies are clear. The turn away from the Freedom Charter and its promises.

This is the real state of post-apartheid South Africa.

Not contrived business deals and long discussions with white farmers about the land they supposedly own.

The main discourse is still with the people. Black and poor people.

The people whose politics has always been represented on the streets.

They represent themselves in this sense.

Thanks for looking in Rhonda. I appreciate you making me think.