Maureen Mnisi is not your typical DA councillor or even party member. She continues to live in a shack in Protea South in Soweto and her political trajectory started with the 1976 Soweto uprising and includes a long period as a leader of the Landless People’s Movement (LPM).
Her life and journey – from insurrectionary popular resistance to the ANC, the LPM and finally the DA – has been fundamentally marked by violence.
The mother of five, fondly known as Poppie, explained that she was born in Zola, Soweto, on 24 September 1961 to Nobayeni Mnisi and Mndeni Kunene, who never married. Mnisi didn’t know her father, who hailed from Wasbank, a small town in the Umzinyathi District Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal.
“I remember seeing my father once in primary school and I never saw him again after that. I later heard that he had died. I was told that he was a chief in Wasbank.”
Nobayeni struggled to raise her four children in Zola on a domestic worker’s salary. “It was tough growing up. We didn’t have the help of a father. Life was difficult because we all relied on my mother.”
The family sometimes went hungry and their house was overcrowded. “There were 17 people sharing that house, including extended family members.”
The nature of her mother’s job meant that Mnisi and her siblings sometimes had to fend for themselves and this created conflict in the family. The children had to do piecework after school so they could put food on the table. She explains that one of her sisters, Martha, began shoplifting at the age of 18 so that the family could sell the stolen goods to buy food.
Even though the situation was bleak, Mnisi had big dreams of becoming a social worker. “I always had a yearning of wanting to help others and I found out that that is what social workers do.”
In her formative years, Mnisi attended Esithebeni Primary School and went on to Zola High School. At the end of grade 10, she had to quit school because her mother could not afford the fees.
In 1975, the state forced the family out of their home on the grounds, she says, that her mother was not married. They moved to White City in Jabavu. In June the following year, at the age of 15, she was one of thousands of children swept up in the Soweto revolt.
“I had already dropped out of school, but I heard about the march and I went to join the march. Students damaged municipal offices and torched them. We also proceeded to burn liquor stores, then we went to damage shops in Rockville.”
Mnisi’s recall of police shooting at fleeing children, and her escape, is vivid and searing. “I turned to go back home because I had heard that Vusi, my brother, had been shot and killed. I went to look for him. He came home later that day and that is how I survived.”
The following year, Mnisi participated in a rent boycott, which resulted in the family losing their home again.
She fell in love at the age of 17 and quickly married. The marriage, she says, was marred by violence and she ended it after four years. She was now a single mother without a home.
In 1989, after a number of difficult years, she ended up living in a shack in Protea South that she bought for R2 000. The following year, with the promise of change in the air, residents were called to join an association that said it sought to better the lives of the community. Each resident was asked to contribute R10 to connect water from formal houses in the area to the shacks.
Mnisi says it was later discovered that their money was not being used properly and that some had decided to stop paying. Mnisi says she confronted the association’s leaders “and that is how I became a bad person in Protea”.
ANC branch member
She turned to the now unbanned ANC and became, she said, a founder member of the ANC branch in Protea South.
“In 1995, it was February 12, there was an ANC meeting. The association in the community also had a meeting, but in a different venue. Our meeting happened to be well attended,” she recounts. “On the 15th, I was coming back from work and while I was cooking, a young girl came rushing saying, ‘Poppie. They are coming to kill you. You must leave.’ I did not believe them.”
The leader of the association, armed with a gun, had brought a mob to her home. “People started throwing stones and the door was broken. A person threw a brick into the house while another poured petrol all over me in the house.”
Mnisi begins to cry at the recollection of this stage in her story. It takes a short break and a glass of water for her to recover her composure.
She grabbed a Coke bottle, she says, and confronted the association leader. He ducked and she ran to the gate.
“When I got to the gate, people moved out of the way for me to run. The leader of the association shot at me and he missed. I continued to run and I felt something hit me and I fell. I saw men carrying pangas over me and I covered my face with my hand and they hit me on the neck, hand and someone else stabbed me with a spear,” said Mnisi, pointing at her scars.
Her shack was burnt, along with all her worldly goods. She spent three weeks in hospital. She says she later learned that the plan was to kill the entire local leadership of the ANC.
“The ANC,” she says, “didn’t even assist me with anything.” Despite this, she continued to work with the party after her release from hospital. “I truly believed that the ANC would better the lives of shack dwellers…”
Breaking with the ANC
In 1996, she got a job with Pikitup at the City of Johannesburg, where she worked for 12 years, riding on the back of a rubbish truck.
“I liked it, the job, even though it was tough. I was happy that I would get a salary to look after my children. I would clean illegal dumps, picking up litter. I would ride on the trucks and there were stenches on a daily basis, but we wore protective gear.
“Sometimes people relieved themselves in plastics because there were no toilets. So they will throw those plastic bags in the bins and the rubbish dumps. This is where we worked.”
Her break with the ANC came in 2000, when the party started evicting people from their shacks in extension one in Protea South.
“It was that year that my mind shifted. I went to the scene and there I found the Red Ants and people were being evicted without an eviction notice. I knew then I was failing the community as a leader. I didn’t say anything or do anything and that was not my intention. I did not know how to intervene.
“I did not know their rights, I did not know how to help them. I called Prima Naidoo [from the ANC] and I found that it was my own party that sent people to bulldoze.”
This was the point at which she broke from the ANC.
“During the evictions, I started asking myself why would an organisation that I love not stop this … That is when I lost faith in the ANC. It became a party that did not look after the poor.”
Skills and networking
She started working the night shift so she could join the resistance to the evictions during the day. She and others in the community then turned to the LPM, which had formed in July 2001. Through the movement, she rapidly acquired the skills and network required to effectively oppose evictions.
In 2002, the local ANC structures in Protea South, working closing with The Homeowners Association that represented residents in formal bank-bonded houses, actively began to seek the eviction of the shack dwellers and their forced removal to Dornkop, described as a remote “human dumping ground”.
In 2004, the LPM shocked the ANC and many of liberal opinion by refusing to vote in the national election, using the slogan “No Land! No Vote!”. Mnisi was among 62 LPM members arrested on the day of the election and she and three others were assaulted and tortured at the Protea North police station.
In 2007, the Freedom of Expression Institute reported that Mnisi and other LPM activists had been oppressed by the police, including false arrest, suppression of the right to protest and unwarranted violence.
In 2009, she was involved in winning a major case against the City of Joburg when the court ruled that the City should develop rather than destroy the shack settlement in Protea South. “We eventually got electricity, water and toilets and other services,” says Mnisi. But in the same year, she was among eight LPM members from Protea South who were arrested.
In 2010, it was reported that an armed group said to be linked to the Homeowners’ Association had attacked LPM members in the settlement. A number of people were injured, two were shot and one person was killed during the attack. Following the attack, the police arrested five LPM members, including three of Mnisi’s children.
In 2011, with local government elections looming – and acutely aware of the dangers faced by people opposing the state from within popular organisations working outside of electoral politics, including the brazen attacks carried out against Abahlali baseMjondolo in the name of the ANC in Durban in 2009 – she made a decision that surprised many. She joined the DA. After the elections, she was awarded a position as a proportional representation councillor of the party.
Strong opposition required
She says the ANC needed strong opposition on the terrain of formal electoral politics. She is not the only grassroots activist to have turned to the DA after experiencing repression at the hands of the ANC. But the DA’s policies on xenophobia, racism, the land question and, of course, capitalism, are considered to be highly questionable by progressives.
Mnisi continues to hold a radical position on the land question, referencing the gains won by the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil.
Her views on the land question do not seem to have been shaped by her time in the DA. But she offers a defence of the party’s stance on xenophobia that sounds similar to views expressed by Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, which can only be termed reactionary.
“The DA’s position is that foreign nationals who come to South Africa without proper documentation must go back to their countries to get proper documentation … The population is high and that means development and services are strained. Foreign nationals must respect South Africa. They cannot just do as they please with no control.”