The Increasing Use of Collective Violence: The ‘right’ to assert the dignity of the poor

By Thapelo Tselapedi

Philosopher and poet, Petrović Njegoš, claimed the immortal maxim that the most sacred of man’s duties is ‘to place a foot upon tyranny’s neck’. Taking this much further, the Brazilian educator-philosopher, Paulo Freire, said that the oppressor’s violence is grounded in the desire to pursue the right to be human and so is not a negation of one’s humanity which is characteristic of how the ruling class governs. But that was the 20th Century and the lessons learnt then, was to explore the possibility of peaceful change. Hence apartheid South Africa emerged post-1994 as a constitutional democracy so that conflicts, be they in the workplace or on the streets, be guided by the rule of law.

In contemporary South Africa however, for the urban and landless poor and for the exploited migrant labourer, collective violence is seemingly becoming the central instrument against market and state forces that render their lives insignificant. As such, in an attempt to assert their dignity and enable legitimacy to their demands, a 2011 report records a community protestor saying that it was 'the smoke that calls them', referring to the elite.

In The smoke that calls: Insurgent citizenship, collective violence and the struggle for a place in the new South Africa report, a Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) and Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP) project, lies a report that spans over 3 years from its initial conceptualisation in the aftermath of the 2008 Xenophobic attacks to July 2011 after the acceleration of mobilised violence, in the form of ‘running street battles with the police’ against the state. The report was assembled by a team of 7 researchers who investigated 7 communities spread across the country. Consequently, the scale of this undertaking and the ensuing conjectural overtures that the report highlights makes a damning indictment on the health of the governing ANC and its moral weight in South African society.

The report says that ‘the ANC itself has sufficiently far-reaching legitimacy to simultaneously present itself as the governing authority within the town councils and as a popular movement outside the state, able at times to represent popular pressure on the state’. It further notes that many community protests or community-based organisations, at least in the cases that are investigated, are organised for various reasons, nefarious or virtuous, to ‘reconfigure power relations in the ANC’. More so these reconfigurations are made possible, as the report notes, through the use of collective violence as a political force.

Regrettably these actions have had a negative impact on the institutional memory of local councils and have interrupted even at times, eschewed service delivery roll-outs. All of this, the report notes, indicates that the ANC has become an incredibly unstable organisation. In such cases of community mobilisation, there is ‘no interest in establishing any kind of autonomous organisational presence which might empower the community to engage more consistently in struggles for service delivery’. As a result, the popular energy unleashed in the protests was channelled into electoral politics. In other parts of the country, however, there are attempts to mobilise and sustain this energy outside electoral politics.

Against the popular energy released by grassroots organisation Abahlali BaseMjondolo (AbM) and recently witnessed by their occupation of vacant land in Philippi, Cape Town, there is a growing awareness of the need to sustain socio-economic claims outside electoral politics. The story of Operation: Rooigrond in Mahikeng; of Thembelihle Crisis Committee (TCC) in Lenasia or of Marlboro Warehouse Concerned Committee (MWCR) in Alexandra, to mention a few, is indicative of this emerging trend. However, the struggle to sustain socio-economic claims outside electoral politics has been accompanied by an increase, in the main, of violence on the streets and litigation in the courts; a fluctuating cycle which at times appears to have no end. To some extent, these need to be understood as part of an extended conversation between community-based groups and their municipalities because of the latter’s inflexibility to the needs of the former and their constituencies. Nevertheless, in such cases, courts have tended to endear municipalities to be more considerate of communities needs by encouraging them to re-open channels of communication with them. The story and history of the aforementioned community-groups is evidence of this fluctuation.

For the TCC which began in 2001; the MWCR, in 2004 and Operation: Rooigrond, in 2009, years of neglect had begun to set in and the irritation of residents manifested itself in various (and unequal) ways. As a result, the emergence of these organisations has served to sustain and channel this energy but it’s not come without its own violence. For the TCC and Operation: Rooigrond, the suspicious eviction of the entire Thembelihle community and the lack of municipal support for community outreach programmes, respectively, had to be confronted before these organisations could make claims on socio-economic rights. Furthermore, the lack of housing solutions for Marlboro residents, who occupy warehouses in the industrial heartland of Alexandra, forced them to invade privately-owned land which sat unused next to them. At different times and with differing constraints and opportunities, these community struggles have made use of collective violence, many times in response to police violence or municipal officials’ discourteous response to communities’ interests.

Richard Pithouse observes that the ‘state has no capacity to provide most people with access to land and housing and so to insist that people wait patiently, for the state to deliver is untenable because people form families and children grow up’. Furthermore in managing community protests, the police have only sought to uphold the now unravelling myth that the state can provide for all. In such a state of affairs, collective violence exercised by protesting communities has been used to constitute the poor and landless as equal and legitimate actors in their own development. As such and in many ways, sustaining the struggle for socio-economic claims outside electoral politics increasingly means the continued use of collective violence. And the intransigent behaviour of local political and state players has meant that the 20th Century lessons are being unheeded.

The big question for us all is to what extent are we going to endure more violence before we recognise the humanity and dignity of those who invade land, steal electricity or make use of collective violence to be heard? More importantly, when will we be able to align our political culture, in the manner we engage with each other or resolve conflicts, with the spirit of our constitution?

Thapelo Tselapedi is a research and advocacy officer at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI), but writes in his personal capacity