The credibility of our democracy will remain under a cloud unless an independent Commission of Inquiry into the recent violence at Durban’s Kennedy Road informal settlement is appointed. This was the unanimous view of participants at a meeting of citizens’ organisations and academics held in Johannesburg this week and convened by the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg.
The Centre called the meeting out of a concern that the violence, directed at leaders and members of the Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) shackdwellers’ movement, was politically motivated and designed to drive the movement out of the informal settlement because it was seen as a rival to the African National Congress (ANC) in the area ,and because it had launched a Constitutional Court challenge to provincial legislation which gives the provincial government wide powers to force landowners and municipalities to evict informal occupiers. The Centre is particularly concerned that the attacks on an independent and peaceful citizens’ organisation have been effectively endorsed by the KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Community Safety, Mr Willies Mchunu, and by senior officials of the provincial government. This reinforces the impression that a provincial government is attempting to silence a critical voice in violation of core democratic values.
Discussion at the meeting heightened this concern. The president of AbM, Mr Sbu Zikode, and other leaders of the movement, described how they had been driven into hiding and were now forced to conduct their entirely lawful activities in Kennedy Road in secrecy. AbM leaders told the meeting that they were now forced to operate much as underground anti-apartheid activists had been forced to do before South Africa became a democracy. While our Constitution guarantees every citizen freedom of speech and association and the right to use the courts, AbM appears to have been denied the first and to have been punished for exercising the second. Further, AbM argued that those who have been arrested for their alleged involvement in the attacks and denied bail, are actually victims and are, in effect, political prisoners.
Academic analysts who delivered presentations pointed out that democracy is meant for all citizens, not simply for those who are well-heeled and well-connected. If basic democratic rights are denied to shackdwellers, they warned, South African democracy is in great danger. If citizens in the suburbs are allowed to speak their mind and criticise government actions and policies but those in the shack settlements are not, our country will, they suggested, lapse back into what it was pre-1994, a state in which some enjoy the right to speak but others do not. The allegations raised about the Kennedy Road violence are therefore extremely serious because they suggest that the democracy which so many fought so hard to achieve is now in danger because some political power-holders are not prepared to tolerate peaceful and legal citizen action if they feel threatened by it.
Participants were obviously aware that the allegations about events at Kennedy Road remain untested. But all agreed that, given their seriousness, they need urgently to be tested. They added that that the best way to ensure that this happened would be support AbM’s call for an independent and neutral inquiry into the events. At present, a Task Team comprising those who are alleged to be complicit in the attacks has been given the official mandate to investigate. This is obviously unacceptable. The inquiry must be entirely independent and its impartiality should be beyond reproach.
We therefore urge the State President to demonstrate his and government’s commitment to democracy and concern to protect the rights of citizens by urgently appointing such an inquiry.
Prof Steven Friedman
Centre for the Study of Democracy
Rhodes University/University of Johannesburg