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Take Back the Common

by Chris McMichael / 26.01.2012

This Friday communities around the Cape will march from Athlone stadium to Rondebosch commons for a three day ‘occupation’. The aim is a public space to discuss solutions to a range of issues: housing, rent arrears, evictions, political corruption and the ongoing segregation in the city.

The chosen site is loaded with historical symbolism. Used once as a military camp by colonial authorities, it was racially integrated before the mass erasures of the Group Areas act. The community groups that have chosen the commons are asserting the right to reclaim public space in a city that, even more so than the rest of the country, is deeply segregated by race and class.

Despite using the Occupy name, the initiative predates events in the US. And contrary to the idea that this is about disaffected middle class hipsters looking for something to do on the weekend, it is driven by civic groups and backyarder associations from some of the poorest areas on the peninsula.

Even if the commons is a pseudo-public space (for now) it remains a site where ordinary people are constitutionally guaranteed the right to gather and talk. But the City of Cape Town has behaved like other urban authorities throughout the country when dealing with political gatherings of this nature. Firstly, despite being given ample notification of the event, city officials refused authorization. Ignoring the Regulations of Gathering events which puts the onus of consultation with organizers on state officials, mayoral representatives axed an arranged meeting because some of the community delegates were “15 to 30 minutes late’’.

This petulant refusal to do their job was accompanied by attempts at pre-emptive criminalization. Completing her Darth Vader-like transformation from firebrand activist to Empress Zille’s chief flunkey, Patricia de Lille has claimed the commons occupation is a prelude to a land invasion.

At a City Council meeting this week she called the occupation an “apparent” invasion whose “agents of destruction will not be allowed to succeed.”

The subtext is come the weekend these “cowards” will be met with arrests and an officially authorized clampdown. So much then for an “inclusive” and “caring” Mother City.

This has been accompanied by scaremongering that protestors are planning to destroy the local environment. The “Friend of Rhondebosch Commons” have called for calm: “While the intention of the organisers may be construed as confrontational, we are appealing to community members to act with restraint and let the City of Cape Town, SAPS and other role players deal with the situation.” Of course, the call to act with restraint begs the question of what kind of vigilante tactics the “Rosebank Neighbourhood Watch” have been up to?

In fact it is the local government (and possibly a white upper middle class neighbourhood watch) who are being confrontational. The organisers have even invited De Lille to attend the Summit but it now seems most likely that what was intended as a peaceful protest will be met with a police clampdown. Alas this reaction will once again be construed as the DA resorting to type and falling back into its tested pattern of appealing to its mostly white, privileged electorate. Invoking fearmongering claims about “land invasions” as subliminal code for the swart gevaar. Behind this draconian and hysterical response is the fear that public space will be used to highlight the fact that Cape Town is still one of the most unequal cities in the world, seated at the foot of one the most unequal countries in the world.

We need experiments, such as the Summit, to drag these issues of race and class into the public sphere. Without it South Africa will continue to replicate draconian state tactics and re-elect bullshit politicians who pander to people’s worst prejudices.

As events of the last year, from Egypt to the woefully under-reported Occupy Nigeria, demonstrate we are living at a time of profound contestation of the hollowing out of public life. It is at the level of urban space where economic elites and their willing political “stakeholders” are being challenged. The real “occupation” doesn’t occur at events like the Summit, it is in the texture of everyday life. Occupation by a bellicose political culture of fear, occupation by a decrepit and morally bankrupt economic system, occupation by overbearing security systems and occupation by a consumer culture that bombards us with inescapable imagery of the desirable.

People’s Jobs Land Housing Summit from ORC on Vimeo.

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