The Siege of Thembelihle

by Jun 5, 2015Amandla Issue 39, Magazine

By Sphiwe Segodi

Thembelihle is an informal settlement to the south of Johannesburg, surrounded by Lenasia, a predominantly historically “Indian”/Asian area. Since 2001, the Thembelihle Crisis Committee (TCC) has been at the forefront of the struggle for the area’s residential development. The TCC was formed in 2002 to resist the forced removal of residents from Thembelihle by the City of Johannesburg (CoJ). Since then it has organised and campaigned in support of community members in addressing their problems and meeting their needs. One of its most recent campaigns has been Operation Khanyisa, launched in 2010 – the installation of “illegal” electricity connections in residents’ shacks as an answer to the need for safe, reliable energy.

The struggle to have the area developed into a proper township has not been easy. The main obstacle has been and remains the refusal by the ANC local government to recognize the area despite using the residents as voting cannon fodder during elections. Two elected public representatives who serve on the CoJ council were born and bred in Thembelihle, but they have failed to bring any significant development to the area. These are the current ward councillor and the member of the mayoral committee on housing, both of whom have shown no accountability and failed to bring tangible improvements to the area, despite being voted into office by Thembelihle residents. As a result the people have turned to the TCC for leadership.

The TCC has tried over the years to engage the city council in the development of the informal settlement, but officials have failed to engage the community in good faith, often not attending meetings and failing to honour their promises. In 2004, a community meeting resolved that as Thembelihle residents had “lost confidence in local government (CoJ)”, and that there was a need to escalate matters and engage with a higher authority. It was resolved to approach the Gauteng provincial housing department with the residents’ grievances and demands. A letter requesting a meeting with the MEC for housing, Jacob Mamabolo, was hand-delivered to his office but never acted upon by the MEC. The community had to devise ways to get his attention.

The TCC resolved to conduct a march to handover a memorandum of grievances to the MEC’s office. Due to lack of resources to march in town, a nearby local government office was identified as a place where the MEC would come to receive the memorandum. Close to 3 000 people marched on 16 October, 2014. A representative from the MEC’s office received our memorandum. The main demand was for the in situ housing development in Thembelihle, that is, houses built where residents currently live, rather than moving them to other areas. Another demand highlighted the irregularities in the process of allocating houses in a newly developed residential area called Lehae, to which residents from Thembelihle and other informal areas are supposed to move. The response of the office of the MEC a week later was not satisfactory to residents and a public meeting held on 26 October resolved to demand that the MEC come personally to discuss matters with residents.

The MEC agreed to come to Thembelihle to address the community, but on the day in question the MEC sent an official to represent him. A week later a committee from the community managed to hold a meeting with the MEC at which he undertook a number of measures in a manner that appeased the majority of community representatives, who then reported back to the community in that spirit.

Among the most important agreements was that a fresh geotechnical survey of the land occupied by Thembelihle residents would be conducted. The government claims that the lack of such a survey is a stumbling block in the development of the area. The MEC also promised to launch a forensic investigation of the allocation of houses in Lehae, to bring Rand Water and Eskom on board to address water and electricity needs, and to publicly address Thembelihle residents on these issues before the December holidays. The MEC honoured none of these undertakings.

On February 22 October, the TCC leadership convened a consultative mass meeting to decide on a way forward. It was agreed to hold a mass demonstration the following day, with everyone staying away from work except for schoolchildren.

The action began early the next morning with residents toyi-toying on the K43 road that runs along the northern border of Thembelihle to raise awareness among passing vehicles about the plight of the settlement. Most residents heeded the call to stay away from work, and the action went on for three days. Realising that the residents meant business, but refusing to meet their demands, the authorities resolved to crush the protest using state repression.

On 26 February 2015, 36 people were arrested. One week later, another 36 were also arrested. All were charged with public violence. All the arrests were unprovoked and not justifiable in terms of the law. The first group were arrested when they peacefully sought a meeting with the police commanders to request that the police refrain from firing rubber bullets or tear gas at people. This had occurred after the protesters had cooperated with the police by moving away from the road. Most of the second group were pulled out of their house while busy with their daily chores. Of the 36 arrested, 17 were released without charges.

Reminiscent of apartheid days, the police implemented an undeclared and illegal state of emergency in the area in their quest to crush the protest action. Meetings were banned in the area, including those of the local branch of the ANC. The police disallowed and broke up any group of four of five people that they found in the area; such groups were harassed, intimidated, assaulted or arrested. The heavily armed police units deployed included members of the Johannesburg Metro Police Department, the Tactical Response Team, the Public Order Policing Unit and Crime Intelligence Unit. Thembelihle was under siege.

During the clampdown, the police committed gross human rights violations – ironically right through March, so-called “Human Rights Month”. The TCC realised that the community needed external support to withstand the siege. Appeals for solidarity were made to fraternal organisations and civil society formations. The Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, Democratic Left Front, Right to Know (R2K) campaign and the United Front and others offered their solidarity.

Amongst other things, these organisations ensured that those arrested received legal representation. The Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI) sent its lawyers to represent the first group of arrested people and successfully fought to have them released on bail after they had been kept five days in the slammer. A lawyer was organized by the United Front to represent the second group of 17 arrested residents. Some people were denied bail on the xenophobic grounds that they were immigrants. However, most were eventually released, leaving only three still inside.

An important intervention by the United Front was the convening of a meeting with the Lenasia Station police commissioner to raise the matter of human rights violations that were committed during the siege. The TCC later conducted a picket at the police station on 4 April, also in protest at these violations. The TCC was keen to prevent individual comrades from being targeted and harassed by the police, many having been forced to leave their homes to go into hiding. The effect would have been to undermine the spirit of resistance and solidarity in the community.

The situation is currently calm but still abnormal. The community still does not have proper electricity, running water, flush toilets, houses, roads or community facilities, among other amenities. The struggle for development is not yet over. The TCC is currently planning other ways to force the MEC to honour his promises, working with the organisations that gave their solidarity during the siege.

There is no doubt that without solidarity support, most of the accused would still be languishing in jail and the resistance would have been crushed. This must be the experience of many communities that break out in protest in South Africa today. It is important that no community is left to fight alone. We need unity of all struggles, including but not limited to service delivery protests, worker strikes and student struggles. With solidarity, victory can be won!

Sphiwe Segodi is spokesperson for the Thembelihle Crisis Committee.

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