About Advertise
Culture, Reality

Helen Zille’s War

by Chris McMichael / Illustration by Zapiro / 16.12.2011

One of the most disturbing features of South African politics in the last few years has been the profound moral implosion of the ANC. With the constant wave of tender scandals, the bellicose promotion of “shoot to kill” rhetoric and the deployment of a chauvinistic nationalism, the party often seems to be in a kind of free fall as it pre-emptively fortifies its grip on power. Most ominously, the passing of the Secrecy Bill was perceived by many as a re-run of the totalitarian excesses of the National Party. Orchestrated within the shadowy corridors of state security, one of the central lynchpins of the Zuma administration, the Bill has amounted to a government sponsored attack on constitutional democracy. At the same time, the party’s ability to run the country appears in question, as governmental institutions are increasingly used as the platforms for costly infighting ahead of next year’s ANC party conference.

The DA is hoping that the civil war within the ANC will change South Africa’s political landscape and give it a legitimate chance of being the governing party within the next decade. In contrast to the ruling party, the DA appears to have maintained internal discipline and has not been plagued by anywhere near the same level of sleaze and scandal. In particular Helen Zille has enjoyed a positively rosy portrayal in the press in which she is often presented as a reasonable and competent alternative to the rantings of the currently in the wilderness JuJu and the cynical maneuverings of Jacob Zuma. Indeed, even friends of mine, who are skeptical of the party’s avowedly neoliberal policies and its perceived status as a bastion of white privilege, are contemplating voting DA in the 2014 national elections.

However a perusal of the DA’s behaviour when in government suggests that both parties share more similarities than differences, even though the DA seems able to cloud its own actions with a sophisticated PR machine.

Central to the DA’s vote winning strategy is the promotion of the ‘Cape Town model’ as proof of its readiness to govern. However, as the last few years have shown, the success of this model is contingent on a low level social war against the urban poor. There’s a disturbing authoritarianism within the DA, which often views the poor as targets for pacification, containment and “warehousing”.

Take for example the saga of the N2 Gateway housing project. In conjunction with National government the city has attempted to move thousands of people from the city to Delft. Despite all the talk about meeting housing “backlogs”, most activists and many researchers argue that the construction of “beautiful formal housing opportunities” between the international airport and the city was a pretext for massive forced removals fast tracked ahead of the 2010 World Cup. Indeed, the quality of these “housing opportunities” was quickly revealed to people who had been moved from shack settlements into the two Temporary Relocation Areas (TRA) associated with the project. The DA managed Symphony Way TRA (better know as Blikkiesdorp) greeted its new residents with government built corrugated iron shacks, barbed wired fencing, access control by the SAPS and regular patrols by apartheid era Casspir Armed Personal Carriers.

The residents of the Symphony Way informal settlement were so unenamoured with the prospect of being forced into a refugee camp, that looks like the last half hour of Children of Men, that they occupied a nearby road in Delft for 21 months, the longest political action of its kind in South African history.

And as the city was warned by residents, uprooting people and relocating them in what is effectively a refugee camp, has resulted in Blikkiesdorp being invaded by gang related violence. With Blikkiesdorp as its premier dumping ground for unwanted and “risky” populations, the world class security of the city centre is bought at the expense of creating insecurity on the periphery.

For example, immediately prior to the World Cup last year, hundreds of homeless people were evicted from the areas around Greenpoint to Blikkiesdorp, which seemed to bear all the hallmarks of an orchestrated “clean up”. The international media had a field day with this story, especially because of the camps disturbing similarities to the titular nightmare zone in District 9. The DA’s slick press cadres denied that there were any links between this and the upcoming World Cup. Indeed, when conducting research for my PhD, one City spokesperson even told me that they were not even aware of any controversy about the evictions. These denials looked slightly farcical in light of the city’s public unveiling of its philanthropic sounding “Winter Readiness Plan for street people”, which aimed to “rehabilitate”  its “participants” by offering vaguely described “activities” which would effectively keep them out of the City Bowl. Coincidently, the plan was initiated a month before the World Cup and happened to fit exactly into FIFA imposed by-laws that effectively restricts the visible presence of poverty within host cities.

The creation of a far flung refugee camp, whose very architecture serves as a weaponised  form of containment  is one thing, but the city considerably upped the ante with last years attempt to evict the residents of Hangberg. As gruellingly recorded in the Uprising of Hangberg documentary the police were clearly told to prepare for war: without provocation the SAPS opened fire with rubber bullets, destroyed homes, beat up schoolchildren. Several residents were injured, one lost a eye. This shock and awe campaign was underpinned by a sophisticated DA strategy of disinformation, in which the press were assured that the police were “liberating” the area  from “drug dealers” and falsely claimed that the violence had been initiated by the community.

One of the most telling scenes in the film is Zille’s petulant response to the community’s anger about this officially legislated brutality. Surrounded by her police praetorian guard she storms off when the understandably furious community refuses to accept a pious lecture about their own best interests. Among activists, Zille has become notorious for this kind of behaviour with radical community groups who deviate from the official agenda set down in meetings accused of undermining “development” through talking “politics”. As seen, in Hangberg, this rapidly transmutes into the vilification of protest as “criminal”. The DA script entails a division between the “deserving poor” who want development and “troublemakers” who commit the cardinal sin of wanting to be engaged in the political process.

The violence at Hangberg was so extreme that containing the negative publicity proved a challenge even for the party’s finely honed techniques of reality management. At an election meeting this year I saw a normally slick city councillor reduced to spouting half-arsed evasions when the issue was raised. After mumbling something about a “tragic misunderstanding” his conclusion was “you know how the SAPS get in these situations”.

While the level of state violence unleashed at Hangberg was perhaps exceptional, this kind of militarised policing is not. As an aspirant “World City”, the DA has managed Cape Town by drawing on a transnational repertoire of “crowd control’ which aligns non lethal weaponry; with hyper aggressive tactics. While initially tested on groups which the state considers marginal it quickly becomes the norm. This world class brutality was recently seen in the police crackdowns on the Occupy movements across the US.

A cursory glance at the DA’s security policy reveals a party which is eager to rollout such “first world security measures”, from enforced prison labour to the pre-emptive identification and tracking of “potential” criminals. To this end, Cape Town’s CBD has seen the establishment of a CCTV network of Orwellian proportions whose surveillance footprint far exceeds any other city in the country.

These are only a few well documented instances of the DA’s behaviour when in power. And to be fair, ANC dominated councils in other cities engage in similar actions all the time. Perhaps The DA is simply replicating  a tested global governmental strategy of enforcing inequality and lashing out at society’s most vulnerable. As Jean Pierre de La Porte has put it, the DA’s Cape Town model is divided into a Manichean “world of orderly haves and embarrassing have-nots, mocking the weak has become acceptable, since their own failure to be prudent and follow the rules has brought their every misfortune upon themselves – the vulnerable are dunces.” 

*Illustration © Zapiro.

19   2