Ashraf Cassiem: South African Resistance Against Evictions
Wednesday, November 18, 2009;
“We didn’t have a name, we didn’t have an identity, but our action gave us an identity.” Ashraf Cassiem, lead organizer, chairperson of Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, explaining the birth of the community organization.
Earlier this year, my family of POOR Magazine/PNN learned of their struggles within the South African communities of Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg, among others. Since then, a series has been produced for their silenced, unheard voices.
In a May 7th, PNN article, “Fighting Foreclosure in South Africa: An Open Letter to U.S. Activists” sought to bring forth awareness of the struggle:
“Beware of all those in power--even those who seem like they are on your side. Beware of money, especially NGO money, which seeks to pacify and prevent direct action. Beware of media, even alternative media written by the middle class on behalf of the poor. Create your own media.”
“To provide for the progressive elimination of slums in the Province of KwaZulu-Natal; to provide for measures for the prevention of the re-emergence of slums; to provide for the upgrading and control of existing slums; and to provide for matters connected therewith.”
(A provision from Section 16 of the“Slums Act” in South Africa.)
This section was struck down on October 14th, by the constitutional court, of South Africa against the Kwazulu-Natal provincial government, in favor of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the South African Shack Dwellers Movement. Abahlali baseMjondolo means “shack dweller” in language from the Zulu people.
Though this section was destroyed, there is still more struggle ahead for the movement to permanently be rid of this entire law, which is easily equivalent to gentrification.
Removal of just one of its sections and/or subdivisions won’t do any good.“Is there a huge momentum push to get rid of the Slums Act in general?” I asked Ashraf Cassiem during an interview on Pirate Cat Radio, here in San Francisco.
“When it was proposed, the movement (Abahlali baseMjondolo) went to the magistrate court to have it declared illegal.” Cassiem replied. “The magistrate upheld the Slums Act. It was only because of the tenacity of Abahlali baseMjondolo that they applied to the constitutional court to explain the problem that we had with the Slums Act.”
Just like poor and landless people here in the U.S.A. alleged as the “land of the free”. For the landless of South Africa, their ongoing decade struggle continues to defy subsequent, systematic strategies, of relentless objectives aimed for their removal by the Cape Town government
Dis-placing them into parts, unknown, and re-placing them with owners, unknown. It's been the beliefs and ignorance to many that “Post-Apartheid South Africa” ended in 1994. Rude awakeningly, it has not.
"Today we found out, about seven hours ago that the police broke inside someone's house, looking for someone. When they were confronted by the community, they started shooting." Raj Patel, activist, author, journalist, and supporter for the movement would later state before the interview with Ashraf Cassiem. The incident took place at the Pemary Ridge settlement in Reservoir Hills.
Me and the audience learned of this horrible news on this November 13th chilly Friday evening. He was briefy interviewed before Cassiem. On this evening, I was here to interview him, in our re-porting and su-pporting of the movement.
“Currently if poor children are found living on the streets are put in jail for weeks at a time, if tourists are expected to come to Durban.” “Tiny” Lisa Gray-Garcia, co-founder of POOR Magazine/PNN in her November 10th, 2009. “The War on the Poor from San Francisco to South Africa has a new foe!”
Tiny frequently speaks about the true state-of-emergency to “move off the grid” and to “take back the land.” With increased efforts by governments to displace the poverty prone, universally, who could debate this?
“The Homefulness Project needs to happen!” she would exclaim. This project would mean for everyone who’re houseless and in poverty to finally own their share of land, bearing peace of mind. To equally have equity, undetermined by race, sex, religion, and especially income status.
No more dreaded pieces of paper calling themselves “Notice To Vacate” from landlords, slumlords assisted with sheriff deputies, to serve their tenants. Like a warden accompanied with prison guards to serve a death warrant to a condemned prisoner.
Freedom from foreclosures by banks, who disperse families of the poor, working class, and privileged (locally and globally) then having the audacity to apply for “Corporate Welfare” or a “Bailout” quickly given to them by U.S. Congress. No more dis-placement and re-placement!
Ashraf Cassiem arrived at Pirate Cat Radio Cafe, approximately a half hour before radio broadcast segment went underway. Cassiem was here to to spread the word of the relentless war against the poor taking place through South African cities, such as Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, etc, etc.
They face terror 24/7 by the po-lice, laws containing clause severities, and governmental oppression, overall.
Pirate Cat Radio Host, and member of the “League of Pissed Off Voters”, Andy Blue opened up the interview with Raj Patel, who is in full support of the struggle. Patel vocalized a summary overview of the historical background of South Africa. He stated how “people in the U.S. are told two different stories about Africa that kind of circulate.”
“One is about how after Nelson Mandela was released (from a long prison term), the country sang beautiful songs, everyone danced under the rainbow flag, and everything went happily ever after.” When Patel said this, one thing quickly came to my mind was last year’s election with President Barack Obama’s historical win.
While there are those who might’ve believed that apartheid in South Africa ended in 1994, it clearly had not, which was confirmed by Patel, “If you look at things like education, healthcare, income, South Africa has become a worst place.”
He further explained how so many people get the darkest stories of South Africa, in reference to some of the criminal activities that take place: Violence, rape against women, drugs, etc, etc. and that the concern by people was that South Africa was going to turn into this “dark continent” because people don’t know what else to do.
Patel countered those stories. “South Africa has a rich history of resistance of people fighting back.” In light of the horrific news given to us regarding the po-lice shooting community members, Patel talked about their resistance when they fled to the top of the road, then burned tires to keep the po-lice out.
In one area of Durban, a middle class section with a small percentage of people living in shacks, and low income, the police are shooting anyone who even looks low income. “That’s alive right now. That’s part of the immediate struggle that Ashraf is in.”
After Patel concluded his interview, he introduced Ashraf Cassiem, who talked about the background of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign.
“In October of 2000, the City of Cape Town used the the sheriff to evict many members of community. One in particular was a man in a wheel chair, and his whole family, who had a two month old baby. The community responded by getting together to resist that particular eviction, but it did not go with out incident.”
Cassiem said there were six people arrested that day, and multiple law enforcement units, including the army had arrived to the scene. Ashraf was one of the first to be assaulted. He sustained numerous injuries to his body from dog bites, and had his front teeth kicked in. A truce even took place among the five gangs that lived in his area.
“There were five different gangs who were fighting each other all the time.” He said. But on this day of evictions, the rival gangs formed an alliance and joined the movement, after seeing what was happening to their community.
The community occupied the police station for two hours, with over 7,000 strong until everyone, including the family of the man in the wheelchair were finally released to the community and reinstated back to their homes.
“On that day, we decided that no one would ever be evicted again.” Cassiem said. Unfortunately, the community of Cape Town found themselves involved in another battle, called the “water wars” three months later.
The City of Cape Town, because we couldn’t afford water, they came and disconnected us. They disconnected families from having water.” There were many confrontations, because the person sent to disconnect were accompanied by police.
When disconnections took place, re-connections would follow by the community members, affected. 1,300 families were being denied from the fundamental human right to have water.
“We decided that at every morning at 4:00 a.m. we would get up in the entrances of our community, light some tires and stayed there the whole day.” Other communities received words about these incidents and the acts of resistance, because of the similar experiences they all shared.
Invitations were extended to them to join their cause. Alliances were formed, and an un-planned community based organization was born: The Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign.
Their goal is to be strictly spontaneous in its function to the forefront for the poor. They refuse to engage with academics, influences with hidden agendas, and politics in general, since there is no help given to them by the government.
“No Land, No House, No Vote!”
Revolution chants expressed by the movement displayed towards the government, showing their refusal to participate in its elections or any political parties.
In 2002, they sought to bring a suit against the city regarding disconnections of their water. A lawyer and an advocate were more than willing to take their case. Later, however, due to politics and conflict of interests issues, they declined to help them.
With no legal representation, their suit never made it to court. The “water wars” and evictions raged on. They did, however, discover a clause in the constitution that allowed them to represent their community members in various other cases, as an association. “We are not attorneys or advocates.” Cassiem explained.
As a “Revolutionary Legal Scholar” I know the experience of self-representation, and not having a degree. I co-founded the “Revolutionary Legal Advocacy Project” two years ago, a revolutionary legal project of POOR to give accessibility to low income people the resources they need to fight the legal system.
Cassiem detailed the restructure of the constitution, during the Mandela Administration, where more problems surfaced. There were signed off policies that apartheid used to benefit from, leading to a devastating impact on the poor.
Commodifications, and prioritizations from these policies, during his adminstration led to problems with healthcare, education, housing, evictions, marginalizations, and displacements among the poor.
All of which resulted from the languages scripted in the constitution; which were misinterpreted by the poor to sign written agreements because they sounded legitimate.
In 2007, the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign got involved with a plan from then-Minister of Housing for the N2 Gateway Projects, Lindiwe Sisuli. The plan was the removal of settlements on the freeways, and place them in affordable housing. “We call them squatter camps Cassiem said, in reference to the settlements. The main targets were the ones by the international airport so that tourists would not see them.
Plans for the FIFA World Cup next year, and anticipated arrivals of tourists increased the removal of squatter camps. Such are the efforts by the City of San Francisco to push for a new San Francisco 49’ers Football Stadium in the Bayview Hunter’s Point Neighborhood.
The Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign and the community once again refused to be forcibly removed. Their ground was stood in the face of po-lice attacks, shootings, and arrests of trumped up charges. The courts would later dismissed those charges, due to lack of evidence to support them.
Evictions were executed to 25,000 families that lived on the freeways. Sisuli suggested that they be moved (or physically be moved) to an unfavorable area of about 20 kilometers away. “We resisted and went to court. I actually did the representation.” Cassiem said.
To his surprise, and on this particular day, the judge wanted Cassiem to excuse himself from representing the squatter camp community. “Look, you’re not a lawyer, you’re not an advocate, and you’re not allowed to talk in my court. Who gives you the right to say what you’re saying?!"
Cassiem replied that it was not in his own interest, except in the interest of 25,000 other people. He recently visited other U.S. cities, including a poor community in Chicago to hear their testimonies, of evictions, displacement, and gentrification.
To read more about his visit, among other stories regarding the Abahlali baseMjondolo shack dwellers movement, and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign are featured at the below website, http://www.abahlali.org/node/5678
In addition, Pirate Cat Radio face problems with the Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C). To read more, please go to www.piratecatradio.com
“Wars of nations are fought to change maps. But wars of poverty are fought to map change.” Boxing legend, Muhammad Ali