Thembelihle: Ten years of struggle

2011-09-11 10:00
Andile Mngxitama
After week-long service delivery protests in Thembelihle squatter camp near Lenasia, south of Johannesburg, I called a community leader to find out what was going on.

His response was an almost dejected: “We are fighting for the same old things you know about.”

These “same old things” are basics that most people take for granted – water, electricity, housing and secured tenure. It’s been more than 10 years now of ongoing struggle for these people .

This squatter camp came to national and international focus in 2002 and 2003 during both the World Conference Against Racism and World Conference for Sustainable Development.

Thembelihle then was a beacon of hope and testament to the indomitable spirit of a people.

This community bears testimony to racism and to the social and environmental assault that apartheid visited on the majority of blacks.

But it was also a statement about the failure of democracy to respond to the needs of the people.

What elevated Thembelihle in the eyes of socially aware media people, including the Canadian writer Naomi Klein, was that it was not just a place of marginalisation but of struggle as well.

The legend of its establishment speaks of resistance – people occupied land owned by a white farmer during apartheid.

After the dawn of democracy Nelson Mandela is said to have visited it and promised a better life and secured tenure.

All the premiers under the ANC from Tokyo Sexwale, Mathole Motshekga and Mbhazima Shilowa to the current one know of the massive and relentless struggles of the people.

They even boycotted elections in 2004. Back then they said: “No land no vote!”.

The response of our government has been total repression, arrests of leaders and rubber bullets. Last week we saw pictures of young children shot in the face with rubber bullets.

Ten years ago I went to the place and felt like I was walking in a war zone. On a bright Saturday morning the council sent in the police with Casspirs.

It looked like the invasion of Iraq. The Casspirs arrived at the community centre, which was being occupied by community organisations.

The might of the state against its people was demonstrated by the way the Casspirs knocked down the locked gates of the centre and reinstalled the ANC councillor by force.

It was therefore not surprising to see the current councillor address her constituency from a police vehicle.

That’s how democracy works in that area.Once we had to deal with the case of a community leader who had been abducted by the police.

For days his family and the community didn’t know where he was being kept or whether he was unharmed.

The struggles of Thembelihle echo similar struggles waged by movements such as AbahlalibseMjondolo in KwaZulu-Natal.

Increasingly we must say that our democracy seems incapable of responding to the needs of the people creatively and with care.

We remember the brutal murder of Andries Tatane. He too died for “basic services”.

Maybe we may have to agree with veteran British writer Terry Eagleton when he says: “It’s a sign of how bad things are when even the modest proposal that everyone on planet earth gets fresh water and enough to eat is fighting talk”.

» Mngxitama is a coordinator of the September National Imbizo to be held in Durban from September 23 to September 25