Battle of the egos

2012-02-08 00:00

THERE are never any winners when people and their real issues are sacrificed at the altar of politics. Sadly, this is what took place in the battle for Rondebosch Common, which could also be referred to as the “battle of the egos”.

We live in a time of shared awareness and a shift in global developments. Many people have realised that regardless of which political party is in power, whether it’s the ANC or the DA, their material conditions remain the same.

Ordinary people are beginning to search beyond political parties for solutions. Citizens of the world, especially youth, doubtful even of old-style community organisations, are exploring new forms of activism and new vehicles for change.

Cape Town’s citizens are not immune to this shift and this awareness could make any government anxious about new developments on the ground.

Perhaps the DA overestimated the real power of Communities for Social Change (CSC), an emerging grass-roots social movement. Hence the party’s determination to crush its leader, Mario Wanza’s, spirit. He remains the only person still left with criminal charges against him after the outrageous mass arrest of 40-odd protesters, all of whom the police were forced to let go.

Perhaps the ugly pageant was unnecessary, as it is unclear how many citizens actually put their faith in the nascent CSC. The Land, Housing and Jobs Summit of January 27 to January 29, billed as “Take back the commons” at Rondebosch, was to be the first test of its might.

Had the mayor of Cape Town, Patricia de Lille, responded as a strategic leader, a possible scenario could have been an outcome more favourable for her administration. Perhaps it would have just been a case of a memorandum being handed over to a government representative by an insignificant number of protesters.

The initiative would possibly have fizzled out as Wanza himself continued to alienate community organisations with old paradigm rhetoric and the occasional aggressive confrontation.

The test of CSC’s support has been overtaken by the events of January 27. These events will most likely have the effect of boosting the popularity of the, until recently, rather marginal organisation.

On the day in question, a march to Rondebosch Common, where the summit was to be held, turned ugly when police attacked protesters, effectively giving them the moral high ground. Police outnumbered protesters by many and themselves “invaded the common” when they drove an armoured vehicle across its treasured indigenous fynbos plants, towards picketing protesters across the street from Rondebosch Common.

Protesters, who sat down in passive resistance to the command to disperse, were met by heavy-handed, apartheid-style police action.

Tear gas, a water cannon and physical manhandling are excessive abuses of power in reaction to passive resistance by a small crowd. Forty protesters were arrested and the summit, subsequently, called off.

In the months preceding, there had been a build-up to this standoff. Given this volatile situation, one has to wonder what the real focus of the protest was. Was it about making progress on the issues affecting the voiceless, or was it about playing politics, where the politicos involved were Wanza, De Lille and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille?

If the organisers had complied with the city’s procedures, it is still doubtful that they would have gained permission to stay overnight on the common. So was this showdown not inevitable? In which case, what were the organisers really trying to achieve?

Wanza announced the intention to occupy the site in several public meetings, including a provincial government indaba where Zille abused the platform (in the process demeaning herself) by launching a personal attack on him. It could be argued that this provoked Wanza who responded as anyone would after being publicly subjected to Zille’s vitriol.

Weeks before the summit, De Lille joined Zille in the ugly pageant, personalising her objection to the action. Like Zille, she too dismissed the question of “unequal access to opportunities” and instead opted for a character assassination of Wanza in her weekly newsletter as well as in her opening address at the first council meeting of 2012.

Wanza met their insults with repeated utterances of the intention to “reclaim the land”. As time passed, both parties missed the opportunity to articulate and respond to the real concerns of the masses. Sadly, the honourable objectives of the campaign became obscured in this battle of egos.

Implicit in the campaign is an intention to tackle practices that promote inequality. Citizens can all benefit from deepening the dialogue on the nature of that inequality, but any attempt to address it must rest on an increased consciousness of its roots and our present context. Nevertheless, South Africans have been slow in mobilising around class issues and analyses of the issues are either outdated or shallow, while proposed solutions are too few.

In the lead up to January 27, both the DA and the campaign leaders missed opportunities to engage disadvantaged communities and concerned citizens on the challenges of unemployment, land use, housing and transformation.

Community leaders must not forsake their obligation to be accountable for the statements they make, even as they attempt to hold government leaders to account.

As a campaign not aligned to any political party, the Land, Housing and Jobs Summit had the potential to unite organisations across a wide spectrum, filling a need that social movements have not been able to meet in recent years. Campaign leaders could have occupied the public space more imaginatively.

For its part, the DA could have acknowledged the existing humiliating and frustrating living conditions of thousands of Cape­tonians by opening public discussion on its priorities, budget allocations and by committing to improved relationships with citizens. This is what good governance is about.

The DA leadership’s ongoing destructive comments about civil society organisations suggest a desire to suppress those who are currently filling gaps in their poor service delivery. Their understanding of the principles of democratic society and governance flies in the face of the liberalist tradition that the DA prides itself on.

There have been repeated statements to the effect that the DA must be left to govern since it won the election. And, that only those elected have the right of opinion and decision-making.

The heavy-handed militaristic response to the protest last week reinforced this. Notwithstanding the organisers’ failure to follow procedures, the DA could have displayed leadership on the right to demonstrate. The show of brute force is a reminder that the DA has its roots in the demise of the old National Party.

Several video clips on YouTube prove that these protesters were passive. The premier and the mayor have not denounced police action and the battle is far from over. As new heroes rise and others show their true colours, it is the voiceless, disadvantaged communities, yet again, who are the biggest losers. Those who are privileged to have a voice and access should act more responsibly.

• Charlene Houston is an activist, storyteller and public history scholar based in Cape Town. This article first appeared on the website of The South African Civil Society Information Service (

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