Political repression in South Africa

Instead of allowing a robust democracy to emerge, the ANC has viciously quashed self-organised popular movements since coming to power.

A history of violence

The last years under the apartheid regime and the period of transition to the new order were extremely violent. The urban rebellion that began with the Durban strikes of 1973, and then gathered intensity with the Soweto uprising of 1976, had drawn in millions of protagonists by the 1980s. It was subject to severe repression.

From 1984 to 1993, there was often violent conflict between forces broadly aligned to the African National Congress (ANC) and the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo), a black consciousness formation. Between 1985 and 1995, there was sustained armed conflict between Inkatha, a conservative Zulu nationalist organisation, and the UDF, and then later the ANC. Often referred to as a civil war, this conflict, cast in Cold War terms with Inkatha backed by the apartheid state, is usually estimated to have cost more than 20 000 lives. It was fought most intensely in what were then the province of Natal and the KwaZulu Bantustan (Bantustans were spaces created on the US model of reservations for the removal or exclusion of African people from white South Africa), but there was also significant violence in and around Johannesburg.

8 October 2018: Police officers barricade the entrance to City Hall during a march of thousands of members of Abahlali baseMjondolo protesting against political repression in Durban. (Photograph by Madelene Cronjé)

One result of this conflict is that politics in what would become the province of KwaZulu-Natal in 1994 became significantly militarised under the authority of a set of local power brokers, some of whom would carry their influence into the new order. This violence, although largely ignored by the bourgeois public sphere, never stopped. A careful 2013 study by David Bruce, a researcher, counted 450 political assassinations in KwaZulu-Natal since the end of apartheid in 1994. The violence prior to the transition to bourgeois democracy had seen hundreds and, on occasion, even thousands of men mobilised into battle. After apartheid, assassinations were carried out covertly by professional assassins and were increasingly motivated by access to state resources rather than ideological differences. The bulk of these assassinations were the result of competition for power and resources within the ANC.

1 June 2020: Street vendors at the Bara Taxi Rank as South African National Defence Force and South African Police Service members patrol in Soweto during the Covid-19 lockdown. (Photograph by Michelle Spatari/ AFP/ Getty Images)

The first stirrings of independent organisation

The campuses of historically black universities were among the earliest sites of organised popular contestation with the new state. The Freedom Charter, adopted by the ANC on 26 June 1955, after a process of collecting and collating popular demands, had declared that after apartheid “Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal”. However, after apartheid formally ended, the ANC followed the World Bank model and insisted that impoverished families must pay fees to access university education. Every year, from the beginning of the postapartheid period, students facing exclusion due to their inability to pay fees would organise to remain in the universities.

There was an attempt to demilitarise police after the end of apartheid, but they continued to make routine use of colonial policing technologies such as rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades. Student protests were routinely met with police violence. In some instances, universities also brought in militarised private security companies. When there were media reports, students were frequently cast – in high colonial fashion – as irrational, threatening and, ultimately, barbarous.

On 30 November 1998, Simon Nkoli, an anti-apartheid militant who had also been a leading figure in the movement for gay liberation, died of an HIV-related illness in Johannesburg. On 10 December of that year the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) was founded by a group of activists in Cape Town in response to Nkoli’s death. The TAC campaigned, ultimately successfully, for access to medication via the public healthcare system for people living with HIV and AIDS. Like Nkoli, Zackie Achmat, who emerged as the public face of the new organisation, had a strong history in both the struggles against apartheid, during which he was repeatedly imprisoned as a teenager, and for gay liberation.

7 August 2018: Treatment Action Campaign activists march to the Gauteng Legislature in protest against Qedani Mahlangu and Brian Hlongwa’s re-election to the ANC provincial committee. They were embroiled in a healthcare scandal in which 143 people died. (Photograph by Sandile Ndlovu/ Sowetan/ Gallo Images)

In 1999, then President Thabo Mbeki – responding to the racism that saturated much of the popular and scientific discourse around HIV and AIDS – took a catastrophic misstep and denied the scientific evidence regarding the aetiology and treatment of AIDS. As a result, the TAC waged a growing struggle against both the pharmaceutical companies and Mbeki’s denialism.

The TAC aligned itself to the ANC and had strong support from the ANC-allied trade unions. It engaged in exclusively nonviolent forms of protest and made effective use of the courts, public protest and the bourgeois public sphere, where it had powerful supporters and was generally well-regarded. Nonetheless, in an overture to the paranoia that was to have deadly consequences down the road, the TAC was presented within the ANC as a vehicle for a foreign conspiracy to undermine the party’s authority.

On 16 May 2000, Michael Makhabane, a student, was shot dead by the police at point-blank range during a protest against exclusions on the campus of what was then the University of Durban-Westville. The police and the then head of the ANC Youth League, Malusi Gigaba, lied about the murder. The police, using a deeply racialised fear of car hijackings to legitimate the murder, falsely claimed that Makhabane had attempted to hijack a passing car. In fact, he and other protestors had been unarmed.

In 2000 and 2001, a number of organisations were formed that would join the TAC to become the first generation of social movements in postapartheid South Africa. This was a period in which popular grievances – in particular the failure of the ANC to deal with the land question, urban evictions and disconnections from water and electricity – began to express themselves outside of structures affiliated to the ruling party.

2006: Political graffiti in Mandela Park in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. (Photograph by Toussaint Losier)

In July 2000, the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) was formed in Johannesburg to oppose a move towards the commodification of services by the municipal government. The APF brought together a mixture of middle-class radicals, students, trade unionists and grassroots affiliates and rapidly grew into a vibrant movement with pockets of support scattered across Johannesburg.

In November 2000, grassroots activists founded the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, usually abbreviated to the Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC), in Cape Town to oppose evictions and electricity disconnections. The AEC, which would go on to inspire the formation of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign in the United States, became a significant actor in parts of Cape Town and engaged in militant forms of direct action.

12 August 2015: The Red Ants, a private security company whose name comes from the red outfits its employees wear during evictions, remove 1 500 residents in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. (Photograph by Cornell Tukiri/ Anadolu Agency/ Getty Images)

In July 2001, left NGOs led the formation of the Landless People’s Movement (LPM) as a national network of NGOs and grassroots groups concerned with questions around land. At the same time, the Concerned Citizen’s Forum (CCF) was formed in response to evictions and disconnections in the Bayview and Westcliffe neighbourhoods in Chatsworth, a township in Durban. It was led by a charismatic middle-class intellectual.

In October 2000, then president Mbeki told the ANC caucus in Parliament that the CIA was part of a conspiracy to promote the view that HIV causes AIDS. This paranoia would be extended to all of the new movements that emerged outside of the ANC, a number of which acquired solid evidence of state surveillance and penetration. Jane Duncan, an academic, writes that “The heightened activities of … [state intelligence] agents coincided with the establishment of social movements struggling for land and against the commodification of basic services”. Since this period, there have been numerous accounts of people in community organisations and social movements being approached with offers to provide information to, or undertake work for, state intelligence.

The APF, AEC and CCF successfully politicised the widespread existing practice of making self-organised electricity connections, and the AEC developed a practice of mounting direct resistance to evictions and returning evicted people to their homes. These actions were seen as confrontational by the state and by much of the bourgeois public sphere and were frequently presented in criminal terms. Despite its links to the ANC, its avoidance of confrontational tactics, and its support from powerful public figures, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the TAC became a target of police violence. On 20 March 2001, its members were seriously assaulted by the police in Durban, resulting in the hospitalisation of five protesters.

1 May 2016: A member of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa sings during a May Day rally at Tembisa stadium on the periphery of Johannesburg. (Photograph by John Wessels/ AFP/ Getty Images)

Arrests on charges that could not be sustained in a trial but required multiple court appearances before charges were dropped or the matter went to trial became a routine experience for activists. For instance, on 6 April 2002, a bodyguard of then mayor of Johannesburg, Amos Masondo, fired live rounds on a protest organised by the APF against water and electricity disconnections, injuring two people. People in the crowd attempted to defend themselves with stones and 87 were arrested and were made to appear in court multiple times before an application to dismiss the state’s case was finally granted on 5 March 2003.

The AEC had emerged from a long and bitter history of struggle for access to land and housing in Cape Town. This had continued during the period of the transition. On 24 June 1992, the Solomon Mahlangu and Makhaza branches of the ANC in Khayelitsha, Cape Town organised a march to protest against rent increases, accompanied by a rent strike. On 22 July, one of the leaders of the march, Nelson Sithole, was assassinated in his home by masked men asking, “Why do you tell people not to pay rent?” The assassins were assumed to be police officers.

By the time the AEC was formed in November 2000, there was already sustained conflict between residents and the local state. With hundreds of people, the majority of them women, participating in open assemblies held twice a week, the AEC became a genuinely popular force first in Mandela Park in Khayelitsha, and then elsewhere. On 26 June 2001, hundreds of AEC members went to the office of the provincial minister of housing in central Cape Town to request a meeting. They were tear gassed and 44 people, including children and the elderly, were arrested.

As with the mass arrest of APF supporters, the implication was clear – the ANC would treat the self-organisation of the black working class outside of the ruling party as a criminal matter rather than as an opportunity to deepen democracy and build popular power.

March 2009: Women protest against evictions and ‘relocations’ to a new housing development in the Siyanda shack settlement in Durban. (Photograph by Kerry Ryan Chance)

This is an excerpt from a dossier first published by Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

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