24 November 2011

South Africa: Occupy Cape Town Attempts to Decolonise Thibault Square


Jared Sacks gives an update on the Occupy Cape Town movement, suggesting that it is also becoming 'about decolonising this city; about reversing the dispossession of Cape Town from its inhabitants and making visible those that become hidden between the skyscrapers'.

On 28 October, the Mail & Guardian published a critical reflection I wrote on our first attempt at building an Occupy Cape Town movement. This piece, titled 'Why are some 'occupiers' more equal than others?', attempted to engage our organising practices and the manner in which we attempted to inspire South Africans to join this worldwide movement against inequality and oppression by the '1%' of people who politically and economically control the rest of the world.

A number of the occupiers who read my article not only flat-out disagreed with what I had to say, but they were also particularly upset that I chose to 'go public' with the criticism. They believed that it would undermine the movement we were attempting to build.

However, many of those who have remained involved in Occupy Cape Town, and have participated in our actions on a weekly basis, have taken such constructive criticism to heart.

Moving forward, there has been a shift from attempting to speak for other people's struggles towards speaking first and foremost for ourselves as people who are every day experiencing a broken, upside-down world.

In the past few weeks, we have shifted our site of occupation from parliament's Company Gardens to another site of elitist power in Cape Town: Thibault Square.

Louis Michel Thibault (1750-1815) was a French-born South African architect, engineer and cartographer who played an important role in expanding the British presence in the Cape Colony. It is telling that the colonial government commissioned Thibault to survey land on the peninsula and organise it into land that was privately owned by Europeans and land that was to be the property of the colonial government. In doing so, Thibault was instrumental in not only building the most important buildings in this growing outpost of the British Empire, but also in the administrative and legalised dispossession of the Cape Peninsula from the native Khoisan who originally inhabited the space.

It is apt that this square that has been named after such an important figure of colonialism has also become a citadel of South African neo-colonial capitalism, hosting ABSA, FNB, Standard Bank, Engen, BP, and various other large corporations and foreign consulates.

Shifting our occupation to Thibault Square has also shifted our mindset from being interested in having a liberal 'give peace a chance' picnic orientation to a more serious occupation of privatised space - a political act that has often found itself on the wrong side of the law. While this has meant a significant drop in participants - particularly those from a privileged middle-class perspective - the movement has coalesced around an increasingly diverse and radicalised group of participants. We now realise that even though we are the 99 per cent, our oppression varies according to the extent of our privilege (or lack thereof). We can't merely assume solidarity with others. This solidarity must be negotiated as we simultaneously look inward and dismantle our own contribution toward the oppression of others.

Last Friday, 11.11.11 (a date which had a strange spiritual and cult-like significance to some), 100 or so people, mostly from areas such as Mannenberg and Mitchell's Plain, descended on Thibault Square to stage a colourful occupation and protest, complete with music and dance. The most diehard among us (about 20 activists) set up camp and remained in the square to occupy it through the night, attempting to maintain our occupation. Our relatively diverse group was joined by homeless residents of Thibault Square, with whom we connected in a shared desire to ward off the wrath of Central City Improvement District (CCID) security guards.

While the original purpose of our occupation was to say something about inequality, the big banks and the 1 per cent, the occupation quickly became a critique of the privatisation of public space by corporations. No longer was Thibault Square only a space for bankers and other working professionals to sit and have coffee. Nor was it only for well-funded organisations to fork out thousands of rand to rent out the square for the day. Now 'the public' -especially those among us who had no 'business' being there - could usurp the space for our own use.

At 4am, however, we were woken from our sleep and surrounded by security guards, who had called the police to remove us from the square. The police that arrived claimed that because we had fallen asleep we had violated a City of Cape Town bylaw and had to leave the square.

As we drove home that morning, my main concern was where our homeless comrades were going to sleep, as they too were removed from the square. One of the things I learned as an activist during that occupation was just how difficult the basic necessities of life are for the thousands of homeless people living on Cape Town's streets. Their only source of income is their everyday hustle on the streets of the CBD. Yet, they are not welcome here. They have no right to this city as they are not considered human enough to occupy public space. When they sit in Thibault Square, they are deemed 'loiterers' because they do not contribute financially to the businesses that control the space.

Comrades Colin and Mava, who joined us that evening at the occupation, told us about their nightly experiences of attempting to sleep in public space in the CBD: every hour or so the CCID security guards wake them up, harass them, sometimes beat them, and then tell them to move to a new sleeping location. Where were Colin and Mava, native Khoisans and amaXhosas, whose ancestors were dispossessed from their land in South Africa, meant to sleep after we had left for our homes?

Says John Holloway: 'All rebellious movements are movements against invisibility...The first step in struggling against invisibility is to turn the world upside down, to think from the perspective of struggle, to take sides.'

Along with thousands of residents of Cape Town's CBD who live on the streets, Colin and Mava are invisible, even as they are forcibly moved around the nooks and crannies of the CBD.

Perhaps then, Occupy Cape Town is also becoming a movement about decolonising this city; about reversing the dispossession of Cape Town from its inhabitants and making visible those that become hidden between the skyscrapers. The more space becomes privatised in the CBD, the more we as people become invisible and the more we will find it necessary to reclaim our right to the city.

Jared Sacks is a Cape Town-based activist working with community-based social movements and the Occupy Cape Town movement.

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