Time Magazine famously declared that 2011 belonged to the “the protester”. From Egypt to Nigeria to Wall Street, people have been taking to the streets to retake public space in frustration at unaccountable and decrepit political and economic systems.
The images of official responses have been equally familiar: clampdowns by quasi-militarised police, media campaigns which attempt to criminalise protest, and images of young protestors being pepper-sprayed or bombarded by water cannons – police infrastructures that were designed for endless wars on crime and terror being pointed inward at ordinary citizens. Last week in Cape Town was no different.
On the weekend of the January 27, 2012, activists from around Cape Town planned to march to the Rondebosch Common, an open public space and conservation area in the town, to hold an three-day ‘peoples summit’. Driven by civic groups and associations from some of the poorest areas on the peninsula, and joined by middle-class supporters, this was intended to create a participatory space to discuss some of the country’s most urgent issues: housing, rent arrears, evictions, political corruption and high levels of inequality.
Despite the peaceful intentions of Take Back The Common, the Democratic Alliance party which runs the city of Cape Town and is led by former activist turned mayor Patricia De Lille, went into a frenzy. And even though they were given ample notification of the event, city officials refused authorisation. Ignoring the gathering regulations, which put the onus on state officials to consult the organisers of such events, mayoral representatives axed an arranged meeting because some of the community delegates were “15 to 30 minutes late’’. They also stated falsely that the march was illegal. De Lille went as far as suggesting that it was a prelude to a land invasion and promised that the “cowards” would be met with an officially authorised clampdown and arrested. This dissemination was accompanied by claims from wealthier citizens that the “criminal” protesters were planning to destroy the endangered fynbos contained in the common, a type of ecosystem unique to the Western Cape.
When protesters attempted to march from their communities to the commons on Friday, they were met by a state apparatus which was geared for a siege. The response was allegedly coordinated at a provincial level with police stationed around the city to reroute buses and deny access to the area. The marchers who did make it to the commons were greeted by officers from the South African Police Service (SAPS) in RoboCop body armour, as well as Casspir armoured vehicles and water cannons. 40 protesters at the commons were arrested on the spurious charge of public violence. Those arrested complained that the police used vicious restraint tactics such as aiming for the kidneys and attempting to break arms. Video footage also shows police using riot shields to plough into a small group of seated demonstrators.
Notably, the police water cannons attempting to disperse the crowd used a blue dye which leaves a residue on the target, allowing the police to round-up “trouble makers” after the event. The colour of the dye has an ironic resonance, as it is the party colour of the DA. Pastor Xola Skoskana noted that: “that’s DA Blood... I salute the mothers and young girls from Mitchell’s Plain who looked the men in blue and dared them to arrest them. Everything was blue, it’s truly DA land.”
However, these attempts at official intimidation quickly descended into farce. All of the people arrested were released as the state had no grounds on which to charge them. According to Gizelle Rush, police retreated after they realised that the city had misinformed them about the nature of the march: “they were primed to expect a couple of thousands of tyre-burning fanatics and pumped up on adrenaline”. After the initial wave of arrests, the police allowed the last group of people who had arrived to congregate without harassment. Ironically, they also drove armoured vehicles onto the commons, not the most delicate approach to protecting an endangered biosphere.
Although the public violence charges have been dropped, the city’s hysterical response may have actually worked in a perverse way. For Lilllina Ruiters, who was arrested on the day, media coverage has focused exclusively on police brutality and ignored how the event was attempting to highlight the crisis of inequality and poverty in South Africa. And based on internet comments, it seems that some people approve of this disproportionate response.
The authoritarian responses in Cape Town or indeed in Oakland on the same weekend may seem less violent than the ferocious clampdowns in Syria and Senegal. But whether by bullets or teargas, states throughout the world are revealing how their response to a perceived sense of social crisis is to fortify the rule of power and privilege. You can petition and complain all you want, just don’t take it onto the streets.
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