Devastation in Durban

12 April 2022: Flood-damaged homes in eNkanini shack settlement in Cato Crest, Durban.

The openly kleptocratic faction of the ANC has always had its strongest base in Durban. This is the city from which the late John Mchunu used his position as the regional chairperson of the party to organise the campaign that took Jacob Zuma to the presidency. In the Zuma years, the extent to which the country was run from Durban was significant.

It is here that the axe of day-to-day political repression falls hardest, and most frequently. Violence and the threat of violence have been normalised. In much of the city, automatic weapons are now an unremarked on and ordinary feature of political meetings.

Activists have their homes burnt, are beaten, tortured, arrested and jailed for long periods on farcically bogus charges and, all too often, murdered. The izinkabi, party thugs, the police and now elements in the prosecuting authority operate together to protect the political mafia that has captured the ANC and the City Hall.

That mafia has institutionalised itself in the city’s procurement policies and in the party’s structures in the wards where there is now formal accommodation for the “business forums” that seek to capture public money in the name of “radical economic transformation”.

The election of Zandile Gumede as the eThekwini regional chairperson of the ANC is a clear signal that, despite the party’s significant setback at the polls, its most brazen mafia – the radical economic transformation faction in Durban – are not beating any sort of strategic retreat.

The capture of governance by a mafia has many consequences, including the murder of activists. Another of those consequences is that money collected and allocated for social purposes – such as building and maintaining infrastructure, providing housing and so on – is appropriated for the private enrichment of a small, politically connected elite.

Every rand that goes into another McMansion in uMhlanga, or on another Italian sports car, is a rand taken away from building houses, or even the more modest work of making shack settlements a little safer and more liveable.

Lives made in mud

Durban’s hilly terrain means there is open land for impoverished people to occupy within the city, close to schools and opportunities for work. Here, shack settlements are not always on the urban periphery. But this terrain also means that large numbers of people often live together on steep slopes. Many settlements are alongside the streams that run through the valleys, streams that turn rapidly into torrents of angry water when heavy rain lands on hard surfaces without adequate drainage and rushes down slopes denuded of vegetation by the construction of shacks.

Even ordinary levels of rain turn these settlements into waterlogged places sitting on mud considerably higher than ankle-deep. It is standard for people’s homes to be full of water and mud, with water running under their beds. This is extremely uncomfortable. Residents often spend days with plastic bags tied over their shoes. Navigating steep slopes that have turned to thick mud is particularly dangerous for older people. Broken limbs are common.

The fact that the municipality has not bothered to pave paths and install basic drainage in the settlements is just one sign, among many, of the systemic contempt with which impoverished people are treated. Its failure to collect rubbish from these areas is another. And the drainage that does exist around shack settlements, built for the adjacent suburbs, gets blocked quickly when rain carries uncollected refuse into poorly maintained drainage systems.

The weather has not been an entirely natural phenomenon for a long time, since humans first began cutting down the vast forests that once covered much of Europe and North America. The scale of human impact on the weather and broader climate systems escalated rapidly with the onset of industrialisation driven by fossil fuels. But while the worsening climate crisis requires urgent attention, we cannot say that a particular municipality is responsible for the amount of rain that falls in its jurisdiction.

A politics of contempt

But the failure to make provision to keep people safe when the rain does come, to maintain existing infrastructure and to build new infrastructure, is the full and direct responsibility of those who allocate and oversee municipal expenditure.

In the same way that the tuberculosis epidemic and shack fires are a material expression of a politics of elite contempt, so too is much of the damage wreaked by floods. We can’t stop the rain, but we can prepare for it in a way that assumes the equal dignity and equal value of the lives of all residents.

But without a decisive political shift, the cycle of fire and flood will continue to shape the lives of impoverished people. Durban has by far the most extensive and impressive forms of popular organisation in the country. But while such organisation has defended much and won much, it has not acquired the strength to dislodge the political mafia that runs the city.

Nationally, it is on the Right that new forces are emerging and cohering on the terrain of electoral politics. As is common in much of the world, the deliberate incitement of and pandering to xenophobia has become a key technique for the Right to build political vehicles that exploit people’s suffering for electoral gains while aligning with the same forces that produce and sustain that suffering.

It is the Right that is currently best placed to profit from the decline in the standing and power of the ANC. Well-intentioned top-down initiatives, from non-governmental organisations to activists last rooted in popular organising in the 1980s, will not change this. Popular democratic power is always built from below. Right now the task of building mutually respectful alliances between the mass-based organisations of the Left, alliances rooted in practical forms of solidarity, could hardly be a more urgent starting point for the project to rebuild the Left as a national force.

This article was first published by New Frame.

(Photo Credit: Rogan Ward / New Frame)

More support is needed for South Africa’s subsistence fisherwomen

South African women fish for a living, and for their lives.

Fishing for a living is a hard life, everywhere. Subsistence fishing can be brutally difficult, but it has its dignity. For example, in Durban, on the east coast of South Africa, women and men have been subsistence fishing off the piers and beaches for over a hundred years. Generation after generation, they have used the skills their forebears brought when they came from India as indentured workers. Across generations and for decades upon decades, subsistence fishing brought fisherwomen and fishermen economic income as well as spiritual and cultural fulfillment.

Four years ago, that all came to a crashing close when much of the harbor was closed to fishing. On one hand, there were `security’ issues. On the other hand, there was rapid private development, referred to `expansion’. It wasn’t `expansion’. It was privatization; it was theft of public and common space. The results for the subsistence fisherwomen and fishermen were devastating, and continue to be so.

For the fisherwomen and fishermen, the act of fishing successfully, of bringing home food and some money from the sales of their day’s labor, is value. Honoring the labor of their forebears is value. Being on the water, being together, being a community, is value.

For those who occupy the commanding heights of Durban, real estate is value, and the water, the beach front, recreational fishing, have all become big business, and promise to intensify, or `expand’, in the future. For them, extraction is value.

For fisherwomen, the closure of and exclusion from public spaces has particular, gendered aspects. Fishing together off the piers provided safety. As the spaces closed, competition increased. As the competition intensified, tensions turned to violence. This occurred in an environment that was already hard on fisherwomen. Women’s subordinate position in fishing communities generally made them more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. This has meant high levels of HIV and AIDS, drug and alcohol abuse, and violence. With the reduction of available spaces for fishing, the loss of income, increased and intensified unemployment, the daily lives of fisherwomen and of women in fishing communities predictably became more perilous and more toxic.

It’s the predictability that has to be taken into account. None of this is a surprise and none of this is a secret. It’s public policy; it’s part of the development scheme for Durban … and beyond.

During the last two decades, South African fisherwomen have organized. The South African Fisherwomen’s Association, organized by Sahra Luyt, has been on the frontline of integrating women into the fishing industries, as well as combating the increased difficulties due to climate change. There’s the Oceanview Fisherwomen’s Association, colored women from the Cape Flats who took up fishing to survive and to live with dignity, as documented in Penny Gaines’ 2002 documentary, “Strong Enough”.

That women fish for a living, and for their lives, in South Africa is well known, except at IRIN, “a service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs”, which ran a news piece today headlined, “More support needed for South Africa’s subsistence fishermen.” The article should come with a disclaimer, “No fisherwomen were interviewed in the making of this article.” Nowhere does the article reference fisherwomen. Not even fisherfolk. Only `fishermen’ make the IRIN cut.

South African subsistence fisherwomen have always had a tough time in fishing communities. More recently, they have been under attack by State and private developers. And now they are erased by coordinators of humanitarian affairs. More support is needed for South Africa’s subsistence fisherwomen.



(Photo Credit: Lee Middleton / IPS)

Women at work, not miracles, feed the village


At the end of November, Durban, South Africa, will host COP 17, the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP 17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). As happened last year, in the run-up to the Cancun conference, the press yet again `discovers’ women farmers, women fisherfolk, women workers, who are at the core of the struggle for climate justice, both as active participants and as targets of environmental devastation and climate change. Yet again, the story is that women `bear the brunt.’

This story takes one of two routes, miracle or mercy. According to the first, by some miracle, women discover a way to feed their communities. According to the second, the slow death of climate change shall have no mercy on women. This week’s Mail & Guardian offers a prime example of the miracle narrative.

In “The `miracle’ tree”, the village of Tooseng is saved by the `miracle’ of the moringa tree. It was no miracle. It was instead Mavis Mathabatha, of the Sedikong sa Lerato drop-in center, which feeds 320 children and provides after-school care. As well it was her mentor, Mamakgeme Mphahlele, who directs Lenkwane Lamaphiri drop-in center, in Mphahlele Seleteng. Both Mathabatha and Mphalele have committed their centers to planting the super-nutritious moringa trees. The moringa leaves are a treasure of nutrients: calcium, vitamin C, potassium, iron, vitamin A, protein, and lots of each.

There was no miracle. Mathabatha and Mphalele, as women in charge of drop-in centers, did what women in charge of drop-in centers do. As Mavis Mathabatha tells the story, the women performed research. They asked questions. They went on-line and researched some more. They found the information, then they found the agencies to provide the seeds, then they found the means. They took care of the children, the community, and, in their way, the world.

Climate justice. Sustaining and sustainable food. Healthy children. These are not lofty, impossible goals, and they are never the result of miracles. They are, instead, produced by women who live in the everyday, in the odinary world we all inhabit, and who struggle to improve it. We have had too many stories of miracle workers. Instead, let’s hear about the neighbors and friends, the women around the corner or in the next village, and what they’re doing. Let’s admire Mavis Mathabatha and Mamakgeme Mphahlele for their radically ordinary pursuit of well being for all.


(Photo Credit: Mail & Guardian)