Capitalism was born from expropriation, genocide and enslavement. The commons were first enclosed in Europe, and then in the colonies. The expropriation of land, an ongoing process in much of the world, was a constitutive feature of the closely entangled development of capitalism and colonialism.
In the settler colony, eviction and regulation of space, both violent processes, were central to the process by which race became spatialised and space racialised. Each city had separate and radically unequal spaces for the coloniser and the colonised. This reality is the starting point for some of the best known anti-colonial and anti-racist texts, ranging from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth to Angela Davis’ autobiography.
Unsurprisingly, many of the iconic accounts, images and events that make up the collective memory of colonialism and apartheid in South Africa pertain to evictions. Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa, the song Meadowlands, photographs of the destruction of Sophiatown, and memories of the destruction of District Six, South End and Cato Manor are deeply rooted in popular memory.
The apartheid state undertook rural and urban evictions on a massive scale. But from the late 1970s, the period when the long urban rebellion began, through the 1980s, land occupations began to challenge the state’s capacity to regulate access to land. Attempts by the state to contain land occupations often resulted in major conflict and on occasion, as in the case of Crossroads in Cape Town, became international scandals.
In Cape Town and Durban, the state did not only use its armed force to try and oppose land occupations. It also allied itself with conservative and violent forces within the new shack settlements, including the witdoeke and Inkatha. The shack settlement became a site of mass popular disobedience and intense political contestation.
In this period, people organising and defending urban land occupations frequently allied their struggles to the ANC. It was common for shack settlements to be given names such as Joe Slovo or Lusaka.
Failure to address impact of apartheid evictions
Towards the end of apartheid, urban land occupations came to be seen as political acts by forces allied to the ANC. The Congress of South African Trade Unions issued a poster that read “Occupy the Cities” and the same slogan was installed on a huge banner in the foyer of the ANC’s first office in Johannesburg after it was unbanned.
But after apartheid, the ANC failed almost entirely to address the ways in which a history of eviction had fundamentally shaped society. In the rural areas, there was an overwhelming failure to address the agrarian question. Not only was there no significant redistribution of land but the ANC also actively allied itself with traditional authority rather than democratic forms of self-management. It also stood by as vast numbers of African people were evicted from white farms.
In the cities, the ANC took what is now widely seen as a neo-apartheid position on the urban question. Centrally located land occupations were subject to violent state evictions and when people were moved to new houses, they were tiny homes inferior in every way to the homes built by the apartheid state, and even further from the cities than the townships built under apartheid. New land occupations, some of which were insurgent challenges to the apartheid spatial order, were met with state violence.
In 2004, when mass protests – usually organised from shack settlements and taking the form of road blockades – began to spread across the country, the state responded with violence rather than negotiation, often killing unarmed people during protests. Frequently referred to as the “rebellion of the poor”, this cycle of popular protest would face increasing state violence as it continued year after year.
Communities, such as Thembelihle in Lenasia, that have sustained protest and organisation for years, have been subject to repeated repression. Abahlali baseMjondolo, the movement that emerged from the rebellion of the poor, has been subject to severe and brazen repression, including frequent assassinations as well as murders by state officials.
There is currently a generalised popular disobedience across the country, with ongoing land occupations and self-organised connections to services. At the same time there is a generalised and rapidly escalating militarised state response to widespread land occupations. After the massacre of striking mineworkers at Marikana in 2012, Marikana became a common name for new occupations, indicating a profound existential rupture with the ANC. eNkanini, another common name for land occupations, indicates a reliance on a stubborn and forceful determination from below as the route to accessing land rather than the state.
Brutal regime across the country
Today, most of the big municipalities rely on militarised forms of private security and their own, also militarised, specialised units set up to deal with land occupations. This is as true in Cape Town as it is in Durban. During the Covid-19 lockdown, the military has also been brought in to effect evictions. These militarised organisations operate in a consistently illegal and violent manner.
It is tempting for some to focus on the situation in Cape Town, but the reality is that ANC municipalities are just as brutal. It is generally agreed that the municipality with the worst record of carrying out violent and unlawful evictions is the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality in Durban. Any attempt to pretend that this evictions crisis is a DA problem is either a matter of political opportunism or bad faith. The reality is that there is no substantive difference in how the DA and the ANC respond to urban land occupations.
Any government that governs its most vulnerable people with the routine use of militarised force faces a serious legitimation crisis. Colonial states, by definition, rule as if the people as a whole are the enemy. When a democratic state does the same and still confronts mass disobedience, it has failed, fundamentally, to achieve a democratic resolution of pressing social issues. It is no exaggeration to describe the response of both the DA and the ANC to the urban question, which is also an urban crisis, as neocolonial.
There is no political party in Parliament that has proposed a democratic resolution of the urban crisis rooted in negotiation rather than state violence. However, the struggles from below, whether organised only at the level of single occupation or in a broader popular movement, have shown extraordinary resilience. It is not unusual for an occupation to endure 20 or 30 violent evictions without abandoning the land. This popular resilience, which is often led by women, is slowly, and often at great cost, winning a bitter battle against the state to access urban land and contribute to shaping our cities from below.
A genuinely democratic and progressive state would appreciate the social value of these land occupations, engage them with democratic discussion and negotiation rather than violence, and, where possible, offer them support in terms of resolving legal issues and providing services and decent housing.