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'You cannot be free if you are poor'

A glimpse at a grassroots nonviolent revolutionary movement in South Africa, as the country approaches the 20th anniversary of the end of political apartheid

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Press, supporters and passers-by stop to hear South African president Jacob Zuma at the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto.photo: Marcela Teran

With Nelson Mandela’s illness earlier this year, the eyes of the world’s media looked to South Africa. More specifically they looked to a single building in South Africa – Pretoria’s Mediclinic Heart Hospital, host to a man who more than any other represents the struggle against apartheid in the country. For months on end, herds of journalists held vigil under the canopy of gazebos they had constructed on the pavement, taking the same photos of the hospital gates again and again.

I have an admission to make: for an afternoon at least – in the course of making a documentary about South Africa – I joined them.

In some ways it was exactly the right place to be to experience the impacts of the anti-apartheid struggle. To even stand in Pretoria side by side with my black film-making colleague would have been more-than-unusual even 25 years ago. Now no one even bats an eyelid – testament to some of the changes that have taken place since the end of white minority government.

But in other ways it was exactly the wrong place to be. The international media and progressive movements have largely adopted a version of South Africa’s history which emphasises compromise over conflict (both violent and nonviolent), downplays the efforts of people in the 1980s to make themsleves ‘ungovernable’, and culminates in the elections of 1994. For today’s South African social movements, though, the movement is not over. The struggle for the story of the past is inseparable from the ongoing struggle for the state of the present.

Choose to look in a different direction from the mainstream media, and there is another story to be told.

Soweto today
Before he was jailed, Mandela lived at 8115 Vilikazi Street, Orlando West, Soweto. Short for ‘South West Townships’, Soweto is a product of apartheid. Black people were moved here away from previously mixed areas in the 1950s. It’s just close enough to Johannesburg to commute, just far enough that its inhabitants should be invisible to city dwellers. Once the hotbed of anti-apartheid activity, now every couple of streets there is a marker or memorial of significant events in the struggle.

New-build houses are even smaller than the so-called 'matchbox houses' of the apartheid era.

Asking Sowetans their reactions to the global media’s focus on Mandela elicits a variety of reactions. Some offer heartfelt concern, tears and thanks for the sacrifice he gave. Others worry that the focus on a single man might contribute to peddling the myth that most of the country’s problems were solved two decades ago. As one former anti-apartheid activist put it to me, ‘We are not free. You cannot be free if you are poor’.

It would be wrong to say nothing at all has changed since 1994. Nowadays, Vilakazi Street is a trendy haunt for Johannesburg’s new black elite, parked up with shiny cars with personalised number plates. Six new shopping malls have shot up around Soweto, and towards the edge a new theatre of outstanding architectural beauty stands proudly on open land. Elsewhere, newly-built houses are beginning to reshape the landscape.

On a short visit, it would be perfectly possible to be dazzled by the sheen of Soweto. But staying longer and digging deeper reveals layers of nuance. Sitting in the shade of a tree, on a street parallel to Vilakazi, facing the memorial to the first casualty of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, I met the sole councillor of the Operation Khanyisa Movement (OKM), one of the small grassroots political parties that have sprung up out of frustration with the pace – and the direction – of change under the governing African National Congress (ANC). She lives in one of the 180 informal settlements of self-built shacks that surround Johannesburg. Overall, she tells me, the number of such squatter camps is growing rather than declining, and the conditions people live in are unacceptable.

Some lucky ones do get access to new-build houses – but they’re even smaller than the so-called ‘matchbox houses’ that characterised the apartheid government’s maltreatment of its citizens. Worse still, with unemployment running at 25% (and closer to 50% in Soweto), the very poorest cannot afford the government’s charges for electricity and water, and get cut off. The response is inevitable: militant, spontaneous protests, so frequent that it is rare for a radio traffic bulletin to go by without advice on how to avoid demonstrators blocking the road.

Direct action SECC-style is quite unlike anything I've ever seen. No young people disguising their identities with hoodies.

To try and understand the story from the perspective of a grassroots movement, I opted to spend time with the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) – the movement from which OKM emerged, and one of the country’s best-known post-apartheid action groups. For them, the elections of 1994 were a milestone in a longer struggle rather than an endpoint. Even their name echoes that of the Education Crisis Committee of the anti-apartheid era. Formed in response to what they saw as the ANC’s abandonment of the social democratic principles of the Freedom Charter, the group works with the poor to find solutions to their own problems.

I found them in action in the township of Lewisham, holding forth at an open-air meeting under a peach tree. One by one residents stood forward to share their problems – electricity disconnections, water disconnections, someone demanding to see the long-lost title deeds to a person’s house. If SECC can link the affected parties up with a pro bono lawyer, they do. If they can’t, the group proceeds with plan B – civil disobedience.

Direct action SECC-style is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. No young people disguising their identities with hoodies here. Rather this is a solidarity group whose average age must be 50. Given the open confrontation with the state electricity company ESKOM, the most striking thing is how relaxed it all is. The SECC’s chief reconnecter is an understated man, clearly proud of the work he volunteers to do. He rolls up in a car to the address needing reconnecting, ambles out, stops for a chat, opens the box on the side of the house, re-connects the electricity, then ambles off again. It is all over within five minutes, but without a whiff of tension in the air. This extraordinary act of grassroots solidarity is, it would seem, an everyday affair. I find myself wondering whether the ‘ungovernability’ strategy adopted against apartheid in the 1980s was more tense.

Another mission with SECC organisers involves delivering blankets and supplies to the house of a former member whose shack has burnt down. The scene is galling. Nothing but a pile of ash and charred corrugated iron stands where the man’s home once was. I asked him how it happened. Denied access to electricity, his heat and light came from candles alone, with the consequences visible in front of us. As if to highlight the injustice, towering power lines buzzed overhead, overpassing but not reaching the homes of the poorest.

The Marikana miners
Perhaps one struggle above all attracts the solidarity of South Africa’s present-day movements – the plight of the workers of Marikana, at the Lonmin Platinum mine, 100 kilometres north of Soweto. Against the background of calls for a pay rise, 44 mineworkers have been killed, 34 of them in a single massacre during a strike last year. Raising spectres of the massacres of the apartheid era, many of the miners were shot in the back. Although largely absent from international headlines now, the issue is still very much live in South Africa, as different groups vie for control of the story, against the background of the government’s official commission of enquiry – itself marred by whispered accounts of witnesses too fearful for their lives to testify.

What didn’t make the international news is that underlying this is a common theme – discontent with the ANC government. Those who were shot were mostly members of the fast-growing Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which provides an alternative to the longer-established National Union of Mineworkers. The NUM always calls on its members to re-elect the government come election time. The fact that former NUM leader and anti-apartheid icon-turned-ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa was a non-executive director at Lonmin at the time of the massacre is indicative of the relationships bewteen government, business and some unions. The fact that Lonmin (formerly the London and Rhodesia Mining and Land Company) has its registered head office in London, is another reminder that while some of the visual aspects of apartheid may have receded, white control of the economic structure is to a large extent still in place.

The struggle for history
But for all this, few seriously doubt that the ANC will be re-elected in 2014, on the 20-year anniversary of the country’s first free elections. With the realities of apartheid still a lived experience for much of the population, and the personal sacrifice made by Nelson Mandela very much part of the public consciousness, the ANC maintains the mantle of The Liberator.

It is a link the party is keen to remind voters of. This was eloquently demonstrated when, filming South African president Jacob Zuma going from house to house in Orlando West, we were shoved out of the way by security guards to make space for the president to have photo opportunities at struggle landmarks, passing Mandela’s former house and culminating at Hector Pieterson Square, where the first child of the 1976 student uprising was shot.

Bestriding the waters of the memorial, the president paid tribute to Mandela, to the students of 1976, then, using the opportunity to contrive an analogy, linked the historic struggle against apartheid with the government’s present day ‘war on drugs’. I found myself asking the people around me if they saw the government’s drugs initiative as a continuation of the struggle. Some thought so. Others saw it as an attempt to shift the blame on to the poor for their own poverty after 20 years of the ANC failing to live up to their promise.

The struggle for the story of the past is most clearly visible on the streets. On the anniversary of the Soweto Uprising, there were no less than eight different marches and events across Soweto, each offering a different perspective on history. At the Maurice Isaacson school, where one of the marches started in 1976, I found two groups preparing to follow exactly the same route at more or less the same time, one associated with the ANC, the other with the Democratic Left Front — an umbrella body of South Africa’s independent left movements. Both see themselves as embodying the spirit of the struggle against apartheid — the government supporters singing the name of ANC hero Oliver Tambo, the others shouting the name of Steven Biko. Inevitably, the different marches soon merged into one, words indistinguishable against the distinctive thrumming of toyi-toyi-ing feet and vibrant African harmonies. The marches converged with others at the same destination – the metaphorically and literally contested space of the Hector Pieterson memorial.

While they weren´t present in Soweto, the opposition Democratic Alliance had paid for billboards along the route championing their predecessors’ opposition to pass laws and ID cards. The ANC is fighting back in the press. For them the memory of the anti-apartheid struggle and their ANC party is indistiguishable. At least implicitly, their 2014 election campaign might run with the message ‘do it for Madiba’ [Mandela’s Xhosa clan name – eds].

In one of his first statements after being released from prison, Mandela insisted that he was no prophet. Mandela’s personal contribution to the change that happened was considerable, but to understand the link between the past and present is to remember that the anti-apartheid struggle was more than just one man. It was a diverse and disunited movement of millions. Some of those people have now entered politics and some have entered business – each taking advantage of opportunities closed to them under apartheid. Others – in particular those still waiting for the economic and social rights embodied in the Freedom Charter – are still taking to the same streets as they did before, singing the same songs and chanting the same chants, still searching for their promised land.

Tim Gee is the author of Counterpower and You Can’t Evict an Idea. He is currently making his first documentary film.