Man in the middle: Chris Nissen on how he has become the go-to person for Western Cape protesters

2018-06-04 08:14
Western Cape SA Human Rights Commission commissioner Chris Nissen. (Jenni Evans, News24)

Western Cape SA Human Rights Commission commissioner Chris Nissen. (Jenni Evans, News24)

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From Parkwood to Zwelihle, Western Cape SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) commissioner Chris Nissen has been criss-crossing the Western Cape to mediate tense standoffs with protesters and is very often the first port of call during community unrest. Whether it's explaining how the bail application process works to communities, or getting them to sit down and talk, Nissen has done it all. News24s Jenni Evans sat down with the man whose "real office" is on the veld, the pavement and the stoep.


With his hands held up, Western Cape SAHRC commissioner Chris Nissen had flashes of the Marikana miners' massacre as he walked up a koppie in Zwelihle towards angry protesters recently.

The police stood on the hill, on the outskirts of Hermanus, kitted out with stun grenades and rubber bullets. Near them were thousands of angry people, holding whatever protective item they could find to defend themselves if necessary.

It had been a fraught day in March for the usually quiet seaside town, better known for its whale watching, abalone farming, retirement villages and luxury estates. 

There had been running battles with police in Zwelihle after residents tried to peg out plots on vacant land nearby, and had then marched to the municipality to demand that utility infrastructure be laid.

They said they were fed up with waiting for affordable housing and also alleged corruption in the sale of a sea-facing plot called Schulphoek to private developers.

However, the municipality considered the residents' action an unconstitutional "land invasion" and the Red Ants were called to remove them.

'Let's talk'

By the time the former United Democratic Front activist and ANC provincial official arrived, scores of people had been arrested for public violence, and tensions were running high.

"You just saw in front of you: poles, machetes, spades," said Nissen, describing the scene as he approached the group.

"People were angry, angry, angry, angry," he told News24 in a rare gap in his schedule that has had him criss-crossing the Western Cape since being appointed as a commissioner in 2017.

As he approached the group, he asked the police to lower their weapons.

"Let's talk," he said to the protesters.

More recently, in Parkwood, Nissen met with angry residents in an emergency meeting after the community clashed with law enforcement authorities. To quell the tension, he explained to them that he had accompanied a delegation that went to the Public Protector's office in Cape Town where community representatives had laid out all their grievances to officials so that claims of corruption into the housing list could be investigated.

READ: Public Protector asked to step in to probe allegations of housing list corruption after Parkwood protests

He was also seen explaining the bail application process to concerned mothers in the rain and went on to advise residents alleging police brutality on how to lay a complaint against them with the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.

From reverend-in-training to businessman to commissioner

For Nissen, who was born in Goodwood where he grew up "poor", letting people talk is what leads to a solution.

"People want to be heard," he said.

And ensuring people feel they have been heard means being prepared to let them speak through the night. If necessary, they should be allowed to repeat the same points until they feel satisfied that they have been understood, he said.

Nissen said when he arrived in Hermanus to help resolve the protests that shook the town, he already knew the place well.

An emergency meeting in Hermanus with residents raising issues with council. (Jenni Evans, News24)

He had done his "internship" there after studying to be a Presbyterian reverend following his expulsion from school for "something like having a big Afro". He had not been able to get into another school and his dreams of being a lawyer were dashed.

After a stint in business, he took up his post as a part time commissioner at the SAHRC last year. 

And since then his work has included examining conditions at the severely vandalised Uitzig High School in Cape Town.

First port of call

But lately he and assistant Khaya Dlulane have had to rush from one protest to the next, criss-crossing the Cape Town metropole from Parkwood in Mitchells Plain, to Scottsdene in Kraaifontein, and then over Sir Lowry's Pass to Gansbaai, Mount Pleasant and even Grabouw. He speaks isiXhosa, English and Afrikaans which he says makes listening to people easier.

The duo's real "office" is not the dimly lit rooms in a building on Adderley street, Cape Town, but a veld, stoep or pavement where people have gathered.

The 59-year-old father says he spends long nights trying to mediate in conflicts, and seems to have become the first port of call when there is a protest brewing because of the contacts he has built up in the province. 

Some of those calls for assistance have come from Overstrand police boss Brigadier Donovan Heilbron who Nissen met when the Greyton market was burnt down in a housing protest last year.

Heilbron has had his hands full with protests and reached out to Nissen to help mediate between communities, police and government officials.

Heilbron is often seen passing phones to community leaders so that they can speak to a government official, or discreetly checking how far a summoned official, such as safety MEC Dan Plato or human settlements MEC Bonginkosi Madikizela, still has to drive before they arrive.

Since the beginning of the year there has been a 73% increase in protests in Cape Town alone, according to a statement released by Cape Town member of the mayoral committee for safety JP Smith last week.

Criminal element

After somebody fired on police during a protest in Woodlands, Mitchells Plain, a week ago, police said there may be a "gang element" creeping into protests.

Nissen likened this to the "pure criminality" that crept into some anti-apartheid protests.

READ MORE: Cape Town to send mobile housing office to Woodlands after protests

"We used to call them agent provocateurs. Today they are simply just criminals," he said. "That undoes the good cause that you are standing for, because people won't have sympathy with that."

However, as a new generation of community leaders rises, the talking itself also presents a range of obstacles that have to be quickly overcome in a fluid situation.

The size and composition of the delegation that will represent the community view in a meeting with officials has to be settled quickly; old-school government officials not used to straight-talking community leaders have to be reined in; and community leaders have to do their part to marshal protesters.

In Hermanus, he and Dlulane also helped community leaders coordinate the verification of personal information and addresses for the bail applications of the large groups of people who were in custody for alleged public violence.

This included finding landlords, friends and relatives of the accused to sign affidavits confirming proof of address, getting photocopies of identity documents and then getting the documents to the police station to be certified.

Nissen explained that the SAHRC responds to protests to make sure that human rights are protected and observed.

But part of that process is also knowing how to read the situation – whether in terms of breaking the impasse by leading a hymn or, as he did in Hermanus, walking up a koppie and saying: "Let's talk".

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Read more on:    sahrc  |  cape town  |  protests  |  human rights  |  service delivery

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