Tireless Political Action

This week, as a continuation of the tire burning of a few weeks ago, several informal settlements in the Northern Areas organized a march to City Hall. Over 1,000 people participated; most even paid for transport to the location where it began.

The toyi toyi was top notch, much more passionate and animated than I saw on my first march with Riemvasmaak a few months ago.
I learned some new songs:

“My mother was a kitchen girl.

My father was a garden boy.

That’s why I’m a Riemvasmaak, I’m a Riemvasmaak, I’m a Riemvasmaak.”

Access to adequate housing, in the new South African Constitution, is guaranteed by law.  “The state must use legislative measures and other measures within available resources to achieve progressive realisation of this right.”  This has been interpreted to mean free housing for all who don’t have it.  A very different approach than the one I am used to in the United States.

The whole idea of the best method to achieve access to housing raises questions for me. (questions I would never speak to anyone in Riempi.) Obviously, my home is Riemvasmaak, so I am sympathetic to their cause, but I can’t help but thinking about the big picture. Protesting, political pressure, etc. seems like little more than jockeying for position. There are “X” number of people in South Africa that need housing and “Y” amount of money. Human Settlement can only build so many houses at a time. Riempi’s political activism works well for them, but on the grand scale, it is stealing from Peter to pay Paul. That, of course, doesn’t dissuade someone who has to use a bucket for a toilet.

What should be done? The most important actions for South Africa as a whole would be to have qualified, effective, and driven leaders in charge of important departments of service delivery, increasing the quality of homes (many RDP homes fall down after a couple of years because of shoddy building) and decreasing government corruption.


Protest in the New South Africa

The closed door displayed a poster featuring the man who worked behind it, tight-lipped and staring ahead, as if looking straight through you.  His name was printed at the top with a message, bold and underlined, that read: “Please Note: 1) Do not interfere with my private life, 2) Mind your own business, 3) My lawyer’s letter is at your doorstep, 4) I thank you for your consideration.”

After three hours of waiting, the four of us were ushered into a room with three chairs, one covered in broken Xerox equipment.  Andre crouched beside the desk and Thabiso stood.  The wall beside the councilor was covered with Eagle Computer Training course completion certificates, 8×10 photos of political events, and a Springboks rugby poster.  Sitting in front of a large poster of DA leader Helen Zille, was the man from the poster, spectacles perched atop his head, a kakye button-down with pens in the shirt pocket, and gold rings shining from the three smallest fingers of his left hand.  As we were introduced, he rose to greet us and began an autobiography which grew steadily into a sermon, complete with Scripture references.  His voice rose and fell in crescendos; his body followed, occasionally standing to lean across his desk with both arms or pace the one step back and forth that space allowed.

He challenged us to guess his highest level of schooling, which we all declined to do, then bragged about his achievements despite the limitations of his Standard 4 education.

My companions declared their intention to march to the police station the following day to present a list of grievances.  Though it had been arranged, registered, and approved by the requisite authorities, the councilor’s word could make or break the occasion.  A moment of tension and anticipation followed before the councilor agreed to participate.  He pontificated further: “We want to destrrrrrrrrrroy Mr. Crrrrrrrrrrrime!  But we need the right tools for the job.”

Martha nudged me, indicating that I should say something.  I began to introduce myself.  Deep breath.  “Yes, yes.  You must participate yourself, experience the life of the people,” he said, approvingly.  He dramatized a conversation:

“I was in Riemvasmaak,” he mimicked someone stating and then responds to his own statement: “Oh yeah?  What did you do there?”  “You will be able to say, I know what it feels like to have a smiley in your stomach.  I know what it smells like to use a bucket for a toilet.”

On the walk back, trash had been gathered by the wind and pinned against fences as if it had been superglued.  Thorny brush bushes looked like Christmas trees adorned by empty candy wrapper, newspaper, and diapers.  Two laughing children did back flips on an old set of mattress springs in the flood plain separating communities.

The next day, the everyone gathered in the local church, which doubles as a town hall.  Orange sashes were tied around the arms of the marshals, who were given the task of containing the marchers within their self-created boundaries.  Cardboard panels were marked haphazardly with black marker in English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa:

“Help us help ourselves!”

“No more housebreaking, rapes, thefts!”

Bundled in scarves, various headgear and jackets to guard against vicious howls of wind, the march began on Manu Abis’s whistle.  Behind a police escort and in front of the councilor’s SUV, nearly 100 participants surged forward toward the Bethelsdorp Police Station.   The most remarkable feature of the march was the foot stomping, chanting, and dancing of toyi toyi.  Broadly reminiscent of a military style of marching, it was originally used during the days of apartheid and is still utilized in protests to express grievances against government policy.

Thabiso emerged from his shell, sprinting to the front of the pack and marching backward, knees to his chest, spurring the others on and invoking the most famous of the toyi toyi chants:

“Amandla!” he shouts, “Ngwethu!” we all respond.

Power!…is ours!

“Ngwethu” he yells again, “Amandla” we reply.

Another of the songs proved the lasting contribution of the Beastie Boys to political struggle:

“Amalungela” (Our right)

“Silwela amalungela” (Fight for our right)

And the classic, transcending all nations and cultures:

Viva Riemvasmaak!


A primary school halfway through the route provided the most exciting part of the march for me.  The entire student body, cheering and waving in their navy and white uniforms, climbed and pressed against the fence to witness our passing.

At the police station, the councilor danced alongside the group.  He later gave a speech that followed one by the Chairman.  After the grievances were handed over, we dispersed peacefully and returned to the town hall to debrief.  Patricia exclaimed on the way back, “I am so happy!  Our voices have been heard.”