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Scorched Earth

by Vanessa Burger
 / 11.07.2014

It was just before 7am, July 7… about 30 Metro Police vehicles were assembled at the new Whoonga Park – Dinizulu. I could see the flames of burning bedding above the tops of the vans. Further down the road, under the bridge near the taxi rank and along the railway line where Victoria Embankment feeds onto the south freeway, the smoke was billowing across the road, fires dotted the area. A few figures flitted across the gloom, snatching at odds and ends from what remained in the aftermath of the eThekwini Municipality’s latest attempt to cleanse the city of its undesirables – the poor, the homeless, the addicted, the sex workers, the petty thieves and, oh yes, a few whoonga-soaked gangsters.

I followed the next column of smoke leading to Dalton Beerhall. The smell of burning electrical cables was overpowering. A resident of the mjondolos – the squatter settlement inside, at the back of the beerhall – said Metro Police had already completed their raid across the road at Dalton Hostel.

“They took all the iJuba,” he told me angrily. When I asked about the families – the grannies and small kids who lived mostly in cardboard boxes inside the hall, he said there were some people and tiny babies who were struggling to breathe because of the acrid smoke.

“Metro came here and took all the foreigners, the ones who smoke whoonga. They’re burning all the rubbish. We can do nothing, we’re scared of the police,” continued the man from the mjondolo. He wasn’t sure how many residents had been arrested. “They come, they put numbers on our doors and tell us we’re going to get a house. They come with food and t-shirts, and tell us we must support them and we voted for them. Now they come and do this and we still have no homes.”

I asked him when the numbers had been painted on their doors. “Eight years ago,” he answered. 

I drove to the opposite side of the beerhall. At the taxi rank closest to Apollo Tyres, the vacant area behind the beerhall was in turmoil. Groups of whoonga smokers were gathering around Metro Police’s bonfires to warm themselves. I asked a taxi driver what had happened. He said, “Metro Police have chased the smokers away.” When I pointed out that many were already returning, he laughed, shook his head and said, “Yes of course, they always do, they have nowhere else to go.” He said the police had loaded up the vans with those they could get their hands on, “but they left a young mother and her tiny baby… they didn’t take the baby.”

He confirmed that some of the mjondolo residents had also been arrested. 

The next column of smoke was rising from the direction of King Edward Hospital. I took a back alley and drove into the thick of the latest city cleansing exercise. Several packing case shacks were blazing and municipal workers hacked at makeshift tarpaulin shelters. Metro officers were scattered through the overgrown plot, in hot pursuit of the remaining homeless, the whoonga addicts and anyone else who happened to look suspicious.

FIYA

An officer walked past me, complaining his eyes were taking strain from the smoke. A van pulled up, the officer stuck his head out of the window and asked if everything was okay. “Peachy,” I replied and carried on taking pics. The fires were getting out of control and I reckoned it wouldn’t be long before the nearby offices were threatened. 

In (what used to be) Francois Rd, opposite the side entrance of King Edward Hospital, the main action was taking place at the vacant plot that used to be known as Afghanistan – a ruined building where cocaine dealers used to hang out. This used to be an old dairy and the derelict underground car park was a place to score crack, cocaine and even hashish. But that was years ago and those dealers had long since moved up in their game. Small time whoonga traders now controlled this area – although not many – and only a few users. This was no Whoonga Park.

A ragged man burst from some bushes and was chased and wrestled to the ground by Metro cops. Several good whacks with a sjambok subdued him and he was bundled into a Metro holding van. I photographed the whole scene on my phone. I was reminded of the game capture operations I used to photograph when I worked at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. But there were no nets and no care was taken to prevent injuries. 

A group of female officers suddenly broke away from the action and rushed towards me. I thought another suspect, perhaps someone behind me, was the target. But they were after me – they’d noticed I was taking photographs.

Three female officers grabbed my hands and after a considerable struggle, eventually prized my cellphone from my grip. They demanded to know what I was doing. I asked to speak to the officer in charge, but they refused and said they were in charge. Yeah, that was obvious. I tried the press angle, the researcher from university bit. Nothing doing. “We’re not actors,” they kept shouting.

One cop, wearing too much pink lipstick, started going through my pics. I tried to snatch my phone back and accused them of theft, demanding again to speak to the OIC. A few male officers then barred me from my phone and I had to watch while they clustered around checking out the visuals of their morning’s carnage. 

What appeared to be a senior officer came over, also shouting that they were “Not actors.” I explained that I was a researcher and asked for my phone back. He said I should have asked permission to take photographs.

Since when does one need permission to take photographs on a public road, in a public area, opposite a public hospital in a democratic country? But I was alone and the cop with the sjambok was nearby, so didn’t voice my opinion. Instead I changed tactics, congratulating them on their sterling work and said I hadn’t wanted to disturb them when they were clearly so very busy.

“That’s better!” said the male cop.

“Can I have my phone back now?” I asked.

“No!” said Pink Lips, “Only when we’ve finished.” 

I watched as all trace of the morning’s destruction was erased. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a figure emerge stealthily from the entrance of the underground parking lot, and make off in the opposite direction. I felt perverse satisfaction that at least my distraction had served some purpose.

My phone was eventually returned to me. 

“Where is your car?” demanded Pink Lips. I gestured vaguely towards the south, not wanting my vehicle searched or impounded – ‘they’ were in charge don’t forget. But they’d lost interest and the convoy was heading off. 

There were no more columns of smoke so I presumed the day’s work was done. In just over an hour Metro Police had ‘cleaned up’ four main ‘problem’ areas. I wondered how much this little exercise in futility and harassment had cost city ratepayers – the deployment of +/- 30 police vehicles, hundreds of officers, DSW cleaning teams, three fire engines, mega-litres of water… to what end? To further displace the dispossessed?

SCORCH3

I circled the block and took photographs of the fire engines that were now pumping litres and litres of water onto the smoking, charred remains of the hovels. The area was littered with rubbish and the crowds of spectators were dispersing. The city’s unwanted had all gone. But tonight they’ll be back, because they have nowhere else to go. 

My hand hurt. I recognized the same cold implacable rage from the 80s when white rugger buggers broke my black friend’s nose outside Slippers Boogey Palace because he had the temerity to walk with a white chick. Racism now class-ism. So what the fuck’s changed, when it’s a few thousand homeless and heroin addicts instead of all black people that are now the targets of state oppression? The imbalance of power remains the same – we’re still living in a hate state.

*Images © Vanessa Burger

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