The ANC’s Winter of Discontent

Couple of weeks back, I wrote about the march by folk in the Kennedy Road informal settlement, who protested with other residents of their ward here in Durban to unseat their ANC (previously Democratic Alliance, and National Party before that) councillor. A full article’s up at the Voice of the Turtle, co-written with the estimable Richard Pithouse. So here’s an update. The ANC responded valiantly and bravely to criticism last week, calling one of the community leaders at 4pm to tell him that he’d been summoned to a meeting at 7pm. The community rocks up at 7 on the dot, and are told to wait outside because the ANC is caucusing. The ruling party caucuses, and then invites the informal settlement residents in. “No,” they say. “We’re caucusing too.” “Sorry,” says the ANC. “We’ve got some very important people in here. You can caucus later.”

So in they go. And see, arms folded, grinning, the very councillor they’d protested against. In the ensuing meeting, the residents are lambasted, excoriated, hauled over coals, have their throats shat down, and in various other ways made to feel the ANC’s extreme displeasure over being embarrassed in the papers by the actions of the constituency. The meeting runs until 2am. The Kennedy Road folk get home at 2.30am. They leave for work at five.

Let’s not be too harsh. It wasn’t all shouting. The ANC also asks questions. At one point, the ANC asks “Was there a third force behind the protests?” For those unfamiliar with South African politics, this is a reference to the Inkatha Freedom Party – the ‘third force’ in KwaZulu-Natal politics under and since apartheid, puppeted in part by the apartheid state. The ANC’s paranoia is boundless, but it’s also strategic. In raising the spectre of the third force, they’re prompting South Africans to recall and relive a moment in South African history, but not as the history actually happened. The apartheid struggle involved a good many forces, not just the ANC. Since 1994, those other forces have been written out of the struggle. One of the ways the ANC has achieved this is precisely through this kind of exercise of memory, resurrecting past pariahs to reconstitute the present.

The present is, however, a foreign country. We do things differently here. And the ANC would know this if they weren’t so insulated, ideologically and materially, from the rest of the world.

On Friday, there was a fire at the Kennedy Road settlement. Fourteen shacks were consumed by the blaze. I’ve never seen a fire department act with such languid abandon, strolling down to the flames, and then pottering up to the fire truck to plug in a hose. I’m told that this behaviour fits into a pattern, one in marked contrast to the response to housefires in wealthier communities. The Kennedy Road folks are once again looking for housing material to rebuild their shacks – one estimate from a second-hand building parts dealership put the cost of replacing a 3m x 4m shack at R2000. (If anyone can help, do drop a line. Big props go to the Jaggarnath family for sorting out blankets – in a case like this, the local Disaster Relief authority is prepared to provide one blanket per now-homeless-person made out of what feels like sandpaper.)

One reason that the shacks caught fire is because there was no electricity in that part of the settlement. The city won’t extend the connection there. So the residents have to make do with candles and paraffin stoves, in shacks built of wood, tin and sometimes plastic. Of course there are going to be fires. But the other reason that the shacks burn this time of year is that it’s cold – winter is digging into the settlements. If you live in a plush house, you’re not going to notice. If you live in the settlements, you certainly will.

The ANC is busy looking for a third force, wondering why it is that people living in substandard housing, after eleven years of quiescence and compliance are rising up across the country. Well, goodness. What sort of force is it that affects a wide geographic area of poor people living in substandard housing with some kind of temporal synchrony? The third force, after more than a decade of patience, is winter.