You don't need presidential palaces, or generals riding in tanks, or even the CIA to make a coup happen. Democracy can be overthrown with far less pomp, fewer props and smaller bursts of state violence. But these quieter coups are no less deadly for democracy.
At the end of September, just such a coup took place in South Africa. It wasn't the kind involving parliament or the inept and corrupt head of the ANC (African National Congress), Jacob Zuma. Quite the opposite. It involved a genuinely democratic and respected social movement, the freely elected governing committee of the shack settlement at Kennedy Road in Durban. And this peaceful democracy was overthrown by the South African government.
First, some background. As South Africa prepares to host the 2010 World Cup, the poorest South Africans are still waiting for the end of apartheid's predations. The country is spending US$1.1 billion just to build new stadiums, while those who fought apartheid wait in shack settlements for running water and electricity. Levels of human development are now lower than in 1994, and South Africa has overtaken Brazil as the country with the widest gap between rich and poor.
But not everyone is waiting patiently, hands outstretched, for the government to drop something into their palms. Some people, particularly those living in shack communities, have organised to bring the dividends of housing, water, education, healthcare, employment and food to their communities. When some communities organised to protest against their government, using the freedoms enshrined in one of the most open and supportive constitutions to be found in any modern democracy, the government responded by initiating its bloody coup.
In the middle of the night on Saturday 26 September, men armed with guns, knives and even a sword, descended on Kennedy Road, and into a shack settlement housing about 7,000 people. These men chanted slogans of ethnic cleansing, pitting Zulu against Pondo. With these words, they summoned an ethnic politics that was unthinkable even in apartheid's darkest days. Even the 1980s battles between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC were political rather than ethnic clashes. But under Jacob Zuma's South Africa, the Zulu nationalism that was once anathema to the ANC has now become its standard operating procedure.
Four people were killed. The violence continued under the eyes of the police and local ANC officials. Once it was over, the democratic leaders of the Kennedy Road Development Committee were arrested (even though many weren't in the settlement at the time of the attacks). Thousands of shack dwellers have now fled the settlement and many shacks have been destroyed.
It has now become clear that the thugs were backed by the local branch of the ANC and their leaders. Jackson Gumede, the chairperson of the Branch Executive Committee of the ANC in the electoral ward containing Kennedy Road, has now taken over the settlement where those remaining live in a state of fear. The ANC provincial government has also become a willing partner.
It has also become clear that the target of the attacks is the autonomous and grassroots democratic shackdweller organisation - Abahlali baseMjondolo - which has grown over the past four years into the largest poor people's movement in South Africa. Abahlali has become a significant thorn in the side of the ANC provincial government in KwaZulu-Natal.
What particularly irks the ANC is Abahlali's refusal to let the shackdwellers continue to be a vote bank for the ANC at election time. Rather than supporting any political party, Abahlali has promoted a 'No house, no land, no vote' policy. As well as rejecting the legitimacy of the local ANC councillor, Yacoob Baig, Abahlali has taken the provincial government to court over the constitutionality of the government's Elimination of Slums Act and spoken out against the forced relocation of shackdwellers to transit or temporary camps outside the urban areas.
Abahlali have also had successes, which have annoyed local politicians. Through their activism, they forced the Durban municipality to agree to upgrade some of their settlements. Controls over the settlement means control over the disbursement of funds. This is the prize that Yakoob Baig and Jackson Gumede covet.
The ANC's decision to destroy a grassroots poor people's movement has been condemned around the world. The South Africa Council of Churches (SACC) has called the incident 'an attack on democracy' and has issued a statement of alarm at how community leaders are being criminalised. Bishop Rubin Phillip, the chairperson of the KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council and Anglican Bishop of Natal, who had visited Kennedy road, was 'torn with anguish' by the attack and spoke of the real social hope that Abahlali was creating. Around the world and in South Africa statements of solidarity and outrage continue to pour in and while these pressures may give the ANC pause in their actions against Abahlali, it is also clear that the ANC are not in control of the violence that they have unleashed.
At the settlement anyone associated with Abahlali has been threatened with violence and forced to leave. Already 2000 people have been left homeless. S'bu Zikode, the elected chair of Abahlali, is now in hiding after receiving a number of death threats. Writing on 29 September, Zikode understood that the attack was an attack on the voice of ordinary poor people: 'This attack is an attempt to terrorise that voice back into the dark corners. It is an attempt to turn the frustration and anger of the poor onto the poor so that we will miss the real enemy.' He ends by not only calling for solidarity but asking 'for close and careful scrutiny into the nature of democracy in South Africa'.
Zikode is right, of course. This is why he has been targeted by the militia, and why his safety must be guaranteed. And the attack augurs ill for South Africa's future. The demons of ethnic hatred had no harbour in South Africa. But once unleashed, they could very well tear the Rainbow Nation apart. Without swift and transparent justice to right this grave wrong, the future looks grim. History makes one thing very clear: small coups beget bigger ones.