Mandisi’s call came at 7:00 a.m. and I awoke as Thabiso prepared to bathe. He told me that they were burning tires on the main road. My first thought was: Why can’t they wait for a more reasonable time to protest, say noon?
I started the primer to fix coffee, figuring I’d need it, but also banking on African time for the actual burning. When I arrived at the scene, however, the flames were reaching for the sky. I soon understood why they were keen to start early—to catch the authorities off guard. A Casspir (an armoured vehicle infamous for its use during apartheid) soon appeared, with a high pressure hose cannon on top. It doused the fire at one intersection before moving on to the others, as far as the eye could see. I imagined the show was over, but as soon as the Casspir had disappeared, more tires appeared from every direction and were immediately set alight.
Cue the Darth Vader track: the Casspir returned about 15 minutes later, this time with tear gas. As I photographed people running away, I was pegged in the leg with the cannon spray. It wasn’t until later that I realized the special attributes of the liquid splotched on my trousers. The spray was neon blue as the Casspir continued down the street. Children fled, screaming.
For much of the morning, the pattern continued. Police vehicles trample and destroy barricades. The people immediately find a way to reignite them.
Why tires, I wondered aloud? A few responses: Symbolism/tradition. Color of the smoke (black as night). Quickly relit after dousing (unlike wood). Longevity: a tire will burn for nearly an hour.
Councillors from every district soon arrived, making their political pitches on behalf of the people. They echoed the pleas of the people: Electricity and Housing. No more broken promises. The largest newspaper, The Herald, was soon on the scene. More and more police appeared.
Eventually bargaining began. Different police officers spoke to members of the committee, always surrounded by a mob of soot-faced people.
As I walked between communities with my camera, many thought I was a photojournalist from the local newspaper. Children threw glass on the road while teenagers tied wire to flaming tires and spun them high above their heads like giant fire poi. Most were keen to have their picture taken.
I take a break to go home to plant seeds in my new garden. Carrots, maize, potatoes, and tomatoes with a border of sunflowers for protection. Harvest in 3 months.
When I return, the tension of the morning, which saw rocks hurled at passing vehicles and protesters shot with rubber bullets (and me in the middle), dissipated as afternoon wore on. The atmosphere began to feel more like a braai, people chatting and laughing, even police officers striking up conversations with us.
One officer had a frank and reasoned discussion with the director of the Informal Settlement Network, an impromptu spokesman. He expressed dismay that Bethelsdorp taxes would have to pay for patrol and cleanup. The director agreed, but countered that people with their backs against the wall have to do something—anything—to get attention to their cause. It’s a shame but what else can they do? The officer suggested that the blame lie with the councilors and that the people need to elect leaders that will truly help them. I suggest that we go burn tires on their lawns.
The next morning, Chairman’s voice travels deep into my subconscious and gives me a slap to the face. “Wake up! Wake up! P.E. is burning!” Thabiso buries his head deeper under the covers on the couch. I go to make coffee.
An officer tries to run me over on the sidewalk in his police truck. I confront him and he refuses to give me his name. “You don’t wear a badge?” I ask. He checks his breast and replies, “Don’t have one on this jacket.” I take several photos of his face and his license plate while he responds and inform him that I will be filing a complaint with his department.
I begin to discern my role as that of journalist/advocate. If my lens is directed at the action, there is a better chance that human rights will be respected. And if they are not, I will have proof. I must deny the requests to help fetch tires.
The burning has lasted four days now. There have been several arrests, a few injuries, an attempted looting, no casualties. Communities all over the city are now taking part.
Not everyone in the community is supportive of the measures. Pastor argues that there was no forethought, no clearly defined aim, no leadership. That it is destructive and illegal. Though committee members are present during the day, schollies (hoodlums) run the show at night.
As stubborn conflict goes, each side has at least marginal merit to their actions. There is logic in every idea and each argument. I take it all in. A few schollies get out of control, but mostly, there is abundant spirit of community and togetherness. People stay outside their homes and fellowship. I’ve met more people from the neighboring communities than I previously knew altogether. Whether it achieves results or not, demonstrations are the rare opportunity for those in informal settlements to change the power dynamics. They give a marginalized community a say: power for the dis-empowered, voice to the voiceless. This alone may be worth the tax dollars.(These photos are just a vanilla taste…photo essay to come?)