Cape Town’s make-believe politics

Cape Town remains one of the most racially and economically segregated cities in South Africa, and there aren’t many signs of things getting better.

Rondebosch Commons (Credit: Wiki Commons).

Cape Town’s local politics seems to be getting more and more distressing. Last week the Rondebosch Common, a public plot of open land in the leafy suburb of Rondebosch in Cape Town showed a bit more activity than usual. Officials from Cape Town City Council – run by the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s official opposition with 16 percent of the national vote – joined by metro and national police, cracked down on a proposed “people’s jobs, housing and land summit” entitled Occupy Rondebosch Common. The city police acted in a show of force that even the centrist ‘liberal’ media called excessive, and which others compared to Apartheid’s suppression of dissent. The police even sprayed blue dye to disperse the peaceful protest. Around 40 people, mostly women, were arrested on site at the common and chief organizer Mario Wanza of the organization Proudly Manenberg was detained before he could even leave his home on the nearby Cape Flats. Mayor Patricia De Lille (a former trade unionist), whose politics has turned to the right since the end of apartheid, was quick to call Wanza and his colleagues “agents of destruction.”

The city claimed the protest was illegal, as the organizers didn’t have permission to gather, allegedly because they turned up late for a meeting with the council.

What was interesting was that the Occupy group, which loosely consists of members of a number of organizations (including the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the small Institute for the Restoration of Aborigines of South Africa (read the post on Hangberg for a primer on postapartheid identity politics in Cape Town) are also using the logo and posters of the United Democratic Front (UDF), a crucial coalition of 400 different organizations that came together in opposition to the apartheid government during the 1980s but was disbanded after the ANC was unbanned. Some are criticizing this as an appropriation of a nostalgic bygone era. But judging by the way the city dealt with the issues, have we truly moved on since then? Cape Town remains one of the most racially and economically segregated cities in South Africa, and there aren’t many signs of things getting better.

A friend of mine was amongst those who were arrested. She said that upon arrival at the police station she was verbally forced by police to sign a statement saying she committed “public violence”, even though she was peaceful and did not resist arrest. The arrestees were detained until around midnight, all day unsure of whether they would have to sleep in the cells. They appeared in court on Monday, where all charges were dropped. Clearly the city was using heavy-handed scare tactics. This is not the first time, as seen recently in the violent clash over housing in Hangberg, Hout Bay, in early 2011 and which I documented in a documentary film.

All this plays out against ample favorable press for the DA, not only at home, but also abroad.

Like this breezy article in The New York Times on Lindiwe Mazibuko, the DA’s first black leader in parliament. The article never mentions what Mazibuko’s actual politics and views are, besides the homily that government “empowers people to help themselves.” Other than that we learn more about her hair. The writer also positions Mazibuko as the key to the DA shedding its “white” image, yet as far as I have experienced, Mazibuko is no drawing card to the black middle class.

Meanwhile it turns out that the DA youth wing’s “interracial couple kissing” ad campaign was worse than Benetton politics. The ridicule was deserved. They bought the picture – part of a series by the same two models – for about $20 off a New York City-based stock photo site.

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