In political terms, there is a strange juxtaposition in Durban. This is the city from which Jacob Zuma’s rise to the presidency was planned and organised by the late John Mchunu, the former chairperson of the ANC in Durban. It is also the city in which political assassinations, state violence and the intersection between municipal governance and gangsterism has descended into the worst crisis of any city in the country.
But Durban is also home to a vibrant grassroots politics, including the largest and best-organised movement of the poor to have emerged since the end of apartheid. Before the government’s Covid-19 lockdown, Abahlali baseMjondolo had an audited and paid-up membership of close to 80 000 people in the city.
Political assassinations are not unique to Durban. They happen in smaller towns across KwaZulu-Natal, and have also happened in provinces such as Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape. But there is no doubt that KwaZulu-Natal is the epicentre of the problem, and that Durban is at its heart.
A 2013 report by researcher David Bruce concluded that there had been at least 450 political killings in KwaZulu-Natal since the end of apartheid. During the apartheid years, political violence was mostly owing to the war between the United Democratic Front (UDF) and Inkatha. Since the end of apartheid, political violence has been primarily about conflict within the ANC over access to political office and tenders. But it is important to note that autonomously organised grassroots activists have also been assassinated, especially when they get in the way of access to political office or tenders.
The Moerane commission of inquiry into the killing of political office bearers in KwaZulu-Natal released its report in 2018, throwing some light on the seriousness of the problem. Greg Ardé’s new book, War Party, has done the same. But generally speaking, the national conversation in South Africa is far more concerned with the issue of corruption than with the level of political assassinations.
Violence against the impoverished
Political violence is not just a matter of assassinations. In Durban, the police, the army, municipal security and private security companies contracted to the municipality all engage in systematic violence against the impoverished, with organised formations being victims of particularly relentless and brutal attacks.
Of course, violent evictions are common in cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg. But the difference is that in Durban, the municipality does not even make a pretence of following the law. Evictions are routinely carried out without court orders, and people protected by court orders are evicted in violation of those orders. The state relates to impoverished people in a way that is systematically criminal.
The intersection between municipal governance and criminality has been well documented in some small towns and in Port Elizabeth. But in Durban, the merger between a political and criminal elite has been staggeringly brazen. The most notorious figures in the local taxi “mafia”, men who are acknowledged to be extremely dangerous, have exercised significant power over the municipality. Former mayor Zandile Gumede was openly associated with the Delangokubona Business Forum, a mafia-style organisation that shakes down construction projects at gunpoint.
If South Africa’s future looks anything like Durban, it would seem that there is little hope and that we need to simply accept that our dreams of a democratic and just future are simply dreams. Durban is far more like a Central American city than anything approximating the vision in our Constitution.
But while this is true, it is not the whole story. Durban is also home to an array of vibrant grassroots organisations, including street traders, migrants, inner-city flat dwellers, shack dwellers and the residents of Wentworth, the Bluff and Merebank who are organised against pollution. These organisations work together in a coalition of the impoverished and regularly, and effectively, shame the municipality and big business.
They have won numerous victories over the years, and each time they win something they learn to be more effective and win more members and more respect. The largest of these organisations, Abahlali baseMjondolo has a huge membership and, before the Covid-19 lockdown, could easily mobilise thousands of people to march on City Hall on a weekday. Its big rallies had to be held in football grounds. Abahlali baseMjondolo will celebrate its 15th anniversary later this year. The organisation has survived severe repression, including the killing of 18 of its members.
The scale of popular organisation
There have been some important initiatives to build grassroots organisation in Cape Town, but no city in South Africa has anything like the scale of popular organisation that we see in Durban. It has often been asked why this is so, but the answers are not clear.
Some have suggested that it is a response to the degree of corruption and violence in the municipality. Others have suggested that the roots of the current scale and quality of organisation go back to the “Durban Moment” of the 1970s, with its focus on democratic organising. Some have even suggested that in Durban, impoverished people have been able to build their own organisations because there are far fewer non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the city than in Johannesburg or Cape Town. The suggestion here is that NGOs tend to co-opt popular organisation before it can really get on its feet.
But whatever the reason for the scale, sophistication and duration of popular organisation in Durban, it does offer some hope in a moment in which deep pessimism is widespread. In Durban, Gumede tried to project herself as a champion of the poor, a standard strategy for the looters in government. But that fell flat on its face when thousands of impoverished people marched against her and demanded her resignation. When she was eventually removed from office, she could not pretend that she had been removed because of her “radical” ideas.
If our worst fears for the future are that the whole country could start to look like Durban in terms of political violence and corruption, perhaps our best insurance against this is to look to the resistance to this that has been built among street traders, migrants, flat dwellers, shack dwellers and people living close to toxic refineries in Durban.
The EFF is as compromised as the ANC in terms of corruption, and former Western Cape premier Helen Zille has yanked the DA towards a hard-right position that has no future in South Africa. For the moment, the ballot box does not offer any real hope for a better future. But if the kind of popular organisation that we see in Durban could be supported, grown and expanded across the country, it could constitute a real counterforce to the corruption and violence that has rotted the ANC.
This was the vision of the UDF, which never understood democracy as solely being about sending representatives to Parliament. For the UDF, popular democratic organisation was supposed to be a permanent feature of a post-apartheid society, one that would enable ordinary people to participate in democratic life on a day-to-day basis. It would also offer a force to counter capital, imperialism and the inevitable rot in what was once a national liberation movement.
Perhaps Durban presents us with both a nightmarish vision of the future and a vision of our best insurance against that future.