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Dispatch from South Africa

Photo by Timothy Gabb.

October 15 marked the official “Occupy Everywhere” day in in 952 cities located in 82 countries. The message even reached my sleepy university town of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. I joined a group of my fellow students and marched to the town square marked for Occupation to join with comrades from the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) and the Rhodes university-based Students for Social Justice (SSJ).

Grahamstown is a microcosm of contemporary South Africa, basically it has institutionalized Apartheid inequality and geography. The town is home to one of South Africa’s elite universities and my alma mater — aptly named after one of the great colonial bastards of all time — Cecil John Rhodes and some of the country’s most elite private high schools.

On the other side of town lies a different reality, the majority of Grahamstown’s black residents live in stark informal settlements, in which such basic services such as electricity, sanitation and decent housing don’t exist. Most of the people who live there are forced to shit in buckets, as the government has failed so far to deliver on its promises of toilets, yes in South Africa toilets are a highly politicized issue. Much of the political debate surrounding recent local elections in South Africa revolved around the failure of both the major political parties to build decent toilets in various constituencies, either they gave out buckets and expected people to shit in them or they built open air toilets in the middle of settlements.

Unemployment in Grahamstown is unofficially hovering around 70 percent and last year the local African National Congress mayor could not account for around 21 million rand (around US $3 million) out of a budget of 61 million rand or US $10 million (while another 20 million rand was unspent). In this context, a coalition of activists planned an occupation of Grahamstown’s central Cathedral Square.

Around 200 people showed up, which was not too bad considering the call for the protest only went out the previous weekend and almost the whole Occupy South Africa initiative was social media-based and South Africa is a incredibly internet poor nation. After a series of speeches by members of the community detailing some of the problems facing residents in Grahamstown, such as residents of  informal settlements having to battle snakes drawn to the heat of fires in people’s houses in winter. The general corruption and incompetence of our municipal government and the need for a more equitable distribution of resources and power in South Africa (we have recently topped Brazil as the most unequal nation in the world) featured heavily in the discussion as well. One of the popular struggle songs, sung at protests across the country goes like this:

My mother was a kitchen maid
my father was a garden boy
that’s why I am a socialist
I am a socialist.

Unusually for a protest in South Africa there was no police presence. The South African Police Service (SAPS) essentially are sort of a synthesis between a culture of corruption and a leadership whose vision of policing seems inspired by Michael Bay films. They bear the institutional legacy of a police state in which brutality. towards those of a darker skin was the job description.

The South African Police have begun a process of remilitarizing following last year’s World Cup, which largely consists of introducing military ranks and having our police general Bheki Cele boast of his shoot-to-kill policy towards criminals, last year the police killed around 600 people. Tear gas and rubber bullets are a feature of many protests across the country and earlier this year an innocent man, Andreis Tatane, was murdered by the police on live television at protest against local government corruption. Our previous chief of police is in jail following a long relationship with a drug baron and godfather wannabee, which involved shop shopping and drug trafficking.

We were joined by a few reporters from local media and one TV crew from the national broadcaster (SABC) who kept on demanding that the occupiers produce a spokesperson for movement (they failed to understand the whole thing was organized in an ad hoc fashion). After some deliberation we decided to move the protest to the Muncipal Offices facing just opposite the square, to face the enemy directly.

It was also decided to fetch some of the buckets which function as toilets in the townships were to be brought to the offices as protest against local government’s inability to even get the toilet question right. Following some fiery speeches by the chairperson of the UPM Ayanda Kota , academics and students it was decided that the shit in the buckets would be dumped in the municipal buildings. After dumping the human waste in the heart of the local corruption, the protest moved back to the square and food was brought for everybody and the police finely turned up, while the municipal buildings were shut down for the remainder of the day.

Although reports from other occupations in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban were mixed, it seems that the Occupation of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange failed completely and the protestors were cleared out. Occupy Grahamstown offers hope to the South Africa left, as it shows that radical students and the poor can form a political alliance based upon equality and solidarity, which could perhaps emulate the United Democratic Front achievements in the 1980s by seriously threatening power in South Africa. Hopefully, Occupy South Africa can move beyond a few disgruntled leftists and link up with the growing social movements in the country and throughout the world.