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Zille’s war on the poor

By Christopher McMichael

Helen Zille’s recent proposal that unsafe sex should be criminalised has made her look like a crank, a rare reversal for a political leader who has assiduously courted a glowing public image in the media, both for herself and her party. The DA is eagerly hoping that the civil war within the ANC will change South Africa’s political landscape and give it a legitimate chance of being the ruling party within the next decade. Central to this strategy is the promotion of the “Cape Town model” as proof of its readiness to govern.

But the success of this model is contingent on a low-level social war against the urban poor. Rather than an aberration, Zille’s comments betray a disturbing authoritarianism within the DA when in power and a view of the poor as targets for pacification and containment.

Take for example the saga of the N2 Gateway housing project. In conjunction with national government the city has attempted to move thousands of people from the city to Delft. Despite all the talk about meeting housing ”backlogs”, most activists and researchers agree that the construction of “beautiful formal housing opportunities” between the international airport and the city was a pretext for massive forced removals fast tracked ahead of the 2010 World Cup. The quality of these “opportunities” was quickly revealed to people who had been moved from shack settlements into the two Temporary Relocation Areas (TRA) associated with the project. The DA-managed Symphony Way TRA (better known as Blikkiesdorp) greeted its new residents with government-built, corrugated-iron shacks, barbed-wire fencing, access control by the SAPS and regular patrols by apartheid-era armoured personnel carriers.

The residents of the Symphony Way informal settlement were so unenamoured with the prospect of being forced into a refugee camp that they occupied a nearby road in Delft for 21 months, the longest political action of its kind in South African history. The city was warned by residents that uprooting people into what is effectively an open-air prison would lead to an invasion of gang-related violence, which has indeed been the case. With Blikkiesdorp as its premier dumping ground for unwanted populations, security within the city is often bought at the expense of creating insecurity on the periphery.

Immediately prior to the World Cup last year, hundreds of homeless people were evicted from the areas around Greenpoint to Blikkiesdorp, a sudden influx of people which had all the hallmarks of an orchestrated clean-up. The DA’s slick press cadres denied that there were any links between this and the upcoming World Cup. Indeed one city spokesperson told me that they were not aware of any controversy about the evictions. These denials looked farcical in light of the unveiling of its “Winter Readiness Plan for street people”, which aimed to ”rehabilitate” its ”participants” by offering vaguely described ”activities” to keep them out of the city bowl. Initiated a month prior to the tournament the plan also fitted exactly into Fifa imposed by-laws about restricting the visible presence of poverty within host cities.

The creation of a far-flung prison camp, whose architecture serves as weaponised form of containment is one thing, but the city considerably upped the ante with last year’s attempt to evict the residents of Hangberg. Without provocation the SAPS opened fire with rubber bullets, destroyed homes and beat up schoolchildren. Several residents lost eyes. This shock and awe campaign was undergird by a sophisticated DA strategy of disinformation, in which the press was assured that the police were “liberating” the area from “drug dealers” and falsely claimed that violence had been initiated by the community.

Among activists Zille has become notorious for this kind of behaviour, with radical community groups who deviate from the official agenda set down in meetings accused of undermining “development” through talking “politics”. As seen, in Hangberg, this rapidly transmutes into the vilification of protest as “criminal”. The DA script entails a division between the “deserving poor” who want development and “troublemakers” who make the cardinal sin of wanting to be engaged in the political process.

While the level of state violence unleashed was perhaps exceptional, this kind of militarised policing is not. As an aspirant “World City”, the DA has managed Cape Town by drawing on a transnational repertoire of “crowd control” which aligns non-lethal weaponry with hyper-aggressive tactics. Groups which the state considers marginal are regarded as fair game for experiments with new forms of repression. Indeed this brutality was recently seen in the police crackdowns on the Occupy movements across the US.

The DA’s official security policy reveals its eagerness to rollout such “first world security measures” if in power, from mandatory prison labour to the pre-emptive identification and tracking of “potential” criminals. To this end, Cape Town’s CBD has seen the establishment of a CCTV network whose surveillance footprint far exceeds any other city in the country.

To be fair, ANC-dominated councils in other cities engage in similar actions all the time. Perhaps the DA is simply replicating a tested governmental strategy of disguising inequality by force and lashing out at societies most vulnerable. Under Zille’s Botox-hardened smile lays a ready resort to the fists of iron which fortify this divide.

Christopher McMichael is a PhD candidate at Rhodes University, currently completing a dissertation on the militarisation and securitisation of the 2010 World Cup.

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