30 January 2012

South Africa: Rondebosch Common Becomes Site of Battle Over Inequality

Photo: Nombulelo Damba/WCN
Police confront protesters who tried to hold a summit on housing, jobs and land on the Rondebosch Common in a wealthy suburb of Cape Town.

Scores of people were bundled into police vans on Friday when police forcibly prevented organisations from setting up a planned three-day summit on Jobs, Land and Housing on Rondebosch Common as a means of highlighting inequality in South African society.

After having gone through the application procedures to host the event on the common - an area organisors say represents the "exclusion from land and from the city" felt by poor people - and inviting Executive Mayor Patricia de Lille to participate, the network of organisations under the banner of Communities for Social Change, were denied permission to host the summit there.

Organisations included Passop, Proudly Manenberg, Gugulethu Anti-Eviction Campaign, the South African NGO Coalition and the South African Council of Churches.

Determination to reclaim the common as a public area nonetheless led to clashes with police who sprayed water cannons loaded with blue dye at the demonstrators, a move reminiscent of apartheid police spraying purple dye on protestors marching to Parliament on September 2, 1989.

The incident in 1989 led to the subsequent graffiti 'The Purple Shall Govern' becoming a witty, and prophetic, comment on the apartheid government.

When the social coalition participants arrived at Rondebosch Common on Friday after a stop at the Athlone Stadium they were met by a large contingent of police who gave them 20 minutes to disperse.

However, the participants sat down and refused to leave the area, claiming it is a public space.

A University of Cape Town student who lives in Rondebosh, Daniel Corder, asked the police why only white people are allowed to walk free on the common, but it appeared other people were not.

Corder, who was later hauled off by police, said, "This takes us back to apartheid era. I don't understand why these people are not allowed to sit here and have their meeting. I'm here as a citizen of South Africa, I also wanted to be here to see what was the meeting was about."

Rihanna Marthinus, 57, a participant from Manenberg, said the city had been promising to improve services in Manenberg for years but nothing was being done.

"I asked the city, they keep on promising that it will be fixed but they never fixed it. I'm here because I want better house, all these years this land has been here and nothing has been done in it, why they do not build us houses here? This is a public place, we have a right to be here, let the police arrest us."

In a 'statement by those who occupied the common' released on Saturday by Mike Hoffmeester, Yushra Adams and Melvin de Wee, they said police had mobilised to break up marches setting off from areas such as Manenberg, Athlone, Bishop Lavis and Kraaifontein, preventing them from getting to the common.

"They came for us in groups of 50, in groups of 20, ten, five and even two. They penned us inside our townships saying we were not welcome in the leafy suburbs. They arrested two of us in Manenberg. Our buses got rerouted back home," read the statement.

They said as a result, on "a few hundred" people made it to the common but this was nevertheless a "huge victory".

The trio stated that the city and police acted illegally in banning a protest without meeting with the organisors and determining that there was a credible threat of violence.

The organisors allege police were unnecessarily brutal in carrying out their actions on Friday.

Alleged acts included:

  • A young lady filming the protest was smacked while she was being taken into custody (caught on video).
  • An older man got pepper sprayed when he was already in the back of a police van.
  • The assault by Police of at least three young ladies before they were finally arrested (caught on video).
  • Police purposefully did not wear their name tags so that they could not be identified. However some of us were still able to lay charges thanks to the assistance of other, supportive police officers.
  • And finally, that the city's Anti-Land Invasions unit was particularly brutal towards us.

In a publicized statement de Lille has said the organisers were not being completely truthful about their objectives.

"This is not a stakeholder summit," stated de Lille. "The literature distributed ahead of this meeting called for the organisations to 'occupy' Rondebosch Common. What is more, that literature was littered with references to race, racial politics and a slew of other assertions regarding this city's society."

De Lille said the city was thus faced with a situation where an organization had "stated its intention to illegally occupy a piece of land as part of an agenda peppered with racially divisive rhetoric".

"I have said it before and I will say it again. This City will not abide illegal actions. We will not aid the agendas of those who wish to separate us," stated de Lille.

Police had not responded to questions at the time of going to press.

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