The Alex shutdown and the real problems of the township
Interview with Mzwonke Mayekiso, Alexandra Civic Organisation | Amandla 64 | June, 2019
Amandla!: In your view, how does the urban crisis manifest in Alex? What is it that makes people angry?
Mzwonke Mayekiso: The crisis we have in Alex is not something new. The infrastructure here is decaying and the overpopulation here is beyond anything. So the things that the shutdown group were raising were genuine concerns. But the timing, and the people who were orchestrating that, wanted just to prove a point that the DA cannot deliver, as if it’s a baby that was created by the DA.
We have a programme of housing in Alex, and it was during those struggle times that people were encouraged to build houses, to build their shacks wherever they see a space.
One of the things that made people to occupy any vacant land is lack of privacy. You find that you are staying with your parents. When you have to take a bath it is a struggle. So such things made everybody angry. And also, there is a long history of this frustration.
We have the landlords as well, who have been charging money for rental to the backyarders. And the majority of those landlords are not genuine. The apartheid government paid them a lump sum of R50,000 per yard, because the government was taking over the running of those yards. They were given those payments, yet they continue asking for rental from the tenants. Hence there was a revolt to say, “down with the rentals, down”.
Our approach as Alexandra Civic Association was that before you buy a property you must consult the people that are staying in that yard.
A!: You describe a situation where the previous government bought out the yards but the “landlords” are still levying a rental for something that actually they don’t own. how much of Alex is covered by that arrangement?
MM: I would say that it is 10% of those who are doing that. They have their own organisation. They call themselves Alexandra Land and Property Owners Association (Alpoa). They were divided on this issue of taking money from the government. Others rejected outright saying “we don’t want the money, we want our properties”. Others took the money. As a result, there was a split in their organisation.
Under that spirit of non-payment, we said we don’t recognise these landlords. We want to continue paying for the services to the local government authorities, not to the so-called landlords, because they refuse to consult us as residents of these yards. The majority of them are not happy with that. They have their own children who are members of ANC, and others who are not. So they used the councillors that are sympathetic to their cause to say, “hey, let’s come up with this Alex shutdown”. The councillors were behind that.
A!: Was there a genuine support from a mass of people or was this really something that you were saying was organised as a specific attack on the DA?
MM: There are genuine concerns. Really there is overcrowding. There are illegal structures all over. It was the timing. And it worries me, because this action divided the community. Others were not aware that this is a political ploy, others realised later their agenda – they want to remove us tenants and shack dwellers. But this thing was orchestrated in such a way that it was seen as if the DA is not delivering, “Alex is dirty, there is sewer all over, rubbish is not collected 100%”. And when the premier of Gauteng came, he made it clear that all these illegal structures would be demolished. So now people are saying “you touch our shacks, you will see, there will be blood on the floor, that will be the day”. The community now is mobilising itself to say “let’s be ready when these people start doing what they said they would do; they will see a real revolution in Alexandra”.
A!: Can you give us a picture of social movement organisation in Alex. What are the social movement forces in Alex and also I suppose the political forces that are engaging around these issues?
MM: We have Alexandra Civic Organisation which is an affiliate of United Front of Civics. You have Sanco – you know the history of Sanco; it works with the ANC and is in the alliance. And you have this Alpoa, these property owners, the so-called property owners. These organisations are not working together, they work in silos. Also these political parties, they don’t work together. They work together when the elections are coming closer to say, “hey let’s unite and be this force against this big elephant” and then after the fever of elections they go different ways.
A!: The United Front of Civics – is that part of the United Front, the one that Numsa launched a few years ago?
MM: Yes it was part of that but that United Front just died a natural death.
The United Front of Civics exists in six provinces. It is not that strong, but it exists. Where it is strong is in the Free State. It is a composition of independent civics who came to be part of the United Front. And they were frustrated when Numsa didn’t support, as promised, the independent candidates who wanted to challenge the 2016 local government elections. Numsa only concentrated on the United Front of Port Elizabeth where they had shop stewards. So we in these townships felt that we were let down and we challenged them. They were sending different messages to say, “no we are not contesting as United Front, let us not contest elections” whereas in PE they were putting funds there, because the majority of people there were shop stewards who were in the United Front. Here in Gauteng the majority of people who were active in the United Front were people who were coming from these independent civics who were not affiliated to any political party then.
So this independent civic organisation came together in 2016 and said, “hey for the purpose of this local government”, people were asking “who to vote for?” and we can’t say “don’t vote, stay away” and we can’t say vote EFF, ANC or DA. We said “let’s come together and contest these elections under the banner, United Front of Civics”. Numsa were not happy, so that relationship you could see it just went down.
A!: Is mobilisation in Alex around issues of housing and other social issues something which is actively supported by organised workers in any sense?
MM: No, no. What I will say is that we had hope with the “Numsa Moment”. But these comrades from the trade union movement don’t want to attend meetings if they are not going to be given allowances. We are not used to that culture as civics. If they have to go to the meeting, they must be given paid time off from work . And after work they will claim to be tired to attend our evening meetings. In the meeting there must be food. We are just activists. We are used to poverty. So when you organise this meeting, they ask. If there is no food they won’t go. The only meetings they will attend is if it is talking about their wages and working conditions.
A!: That’s a major challenge and a very sad statement on the life of the trade union movement. During the Alex uprising, did you as Alexandra civic organisation participate?
MM: No, no, no. We didn’t participate there, but we didn’t stop people to participate. We engaged the Alex shutdown to say, “is this genuine because we have some concern about this”, but we were not listened to because we knew they had their own agenda.
A!: So broadly speaking, strategically, how do you believe that these major issues in Alex should be solved?
MM: With community involvement, genuine community involvement. If we were to have a united civic organisation that will be able to reach other formations as well, I think we will have a common approach. This problem can be solved. But that’s long term. You will find that these organisations have their own ambitions.
We gave Alex Renewal our proposal on how to develop Alexandra, to solve the problems of Alexandra, more especially the problems of housing. If you want to renew Alex, you must renew it block by block. You move these people, maybe you put them into Marlboro, in a firm there, even in a tent. Then you know who was staying there; those people must be on the list. You call a big company that will be composed of the contractors of Alexandra to demolish that block and build new buildings. Then you move those people back, after you have completed the structures. They go back to their houses; there will be no jumping the queue. Then you go to another block. All the people must participate in this process.
But they chose to ignore that. Even when they demolish shacks in a squatter camp, they don’t come up with a plan for what will happen in the space”. They just move people and give them houses somewhere, and then other people come and erect shacks in the same spot because they don’t have plans.
A!: And what is your strategy to make the people who are responsible for dealing with the housing problem listen to you and take notice of you?
MM: We are writing memos as a first step, because we know our government don’t listen. The only language that the government of the day understands is toyi-toying, doing blockades. But we want to start it by writing memos, by calling their officials to our meeting, by going to their offices and making these presentations. If they don’t listen, we take a step further.Then we will finally do the real Alex shutdown.
A!: Who is involved in ACO – is it women, the unemployed, workers, youth?
MM: Mostly it’s the shack dwellers and the backyarders, the unemployed, because you’ll find that in those sectors the majority is women. These are the people who are behind what we are doing.
A!: And what response do you get from those people who maybe have a permanent job, and are living in more secure housing?
MM: Those are the people who are saying that we are responsible of the dirt that is happening in Alexandra. Alexandra is not cleanable because of people like us, because we stand for the poor of the poorest.
They are saying actually if all these shack dwellers can be taken away from Alex, then you will remain with all these old houses. The landlords will be able to make sure that there is order in Alex. Even crime that is taking place in Alex, they are claiming that the people responsible are the poor, who are living in shacks, who are living in these backyards.
A!: One of the things that is very striking about Alex is its proximity to Sandton on the other side of the highway. And one of the things that the shutdown events did was to try and take the struggle of Alex outside the township, across the bridge to Sandton. How do you see that as a strategy and how do you see the strategy in general of how you break out of being trapped inside the township and the protests being trapped inside the township?
MM: That has been our long-term strategy. We know that if we touch Sandton, government will come running and try to address our issues and arrest and shoot people. We need to cross that bridge. But this shutdown committee didn’t plan it properly. We have our own plan.
But that thing is still on the pipeline, we are still going to go to Sandton.
A!: The other way of breaking out of Alex itself is if you organise with civics in other parts of the country, through the United Front of Civics maybe. Simultaneous action or maybe support and solidarity action or whatever. To what extent does the United Front of Civics act in that way?
MM: I would say that we are weak in that area. But we have tried it when there was a programme in Free State. People were just occupying the land there and trying to make sure that their cries are heard by the government. And fortunately we have councillors there of the United Front of Civics who were also part of that land grab, who are assisting the community. We believe that as civic activists, we are activists not politicians, so our councillors and whoever we deploy in government must really be the servant of the people. But finances will always be a problem in terms of coordinating our actions, because we are not getting any funding from any institutions.