Another assassination in Durban

As political killings continue in the city, claiming the lives of activists exposing ANC rot and failures, serious questions need to be asked of our democratic commitments.

May 06, 2022 by New Frame
October 1 2021: Slain activist Nokuthula Mabaso, centre, at the eKhenana Commune in Cato Manor, Durban. (Photograph by Nomfundo Xolo)

Last night, just before 8pm, Nokuthula Mabaso was assassinated at the eKhenana Commune in Cato Manor, Durban. She was shot six times, four times in the back, and died in the arms of her comrades. She is the second leader in the commune to be assassinated. Ayanda Ngila’s life was taken on 8 March.

The attack on the commune has been extraordinarily brazen and vicious, but it is not entirely anomalous. There is a wider context of political violence in Durban. A police officer shot and killed Siyabonga Manqele, an Abahlali baseMjondolo member, in the nearby eNkanini occupation on 11 March. Witnesses say he was unarmed and that a group of masked police officers assaulted his wife, Thandeka Sithunsa, before shooting him at point-blank range. Mfundo Mokoena, a local ANC official, was murdered on 18 April. The killing happened a little more than a week after Zandile Gumede was elected as the party’s regional chairperson. Mokoena had opposed her candidature. What S’bu Zikode, the most significant grassroots activist to have emerged after apartheid, first called “the politic of blood” is ubiquitous.

Mabaso had, like many of the leaders in the commune, previously been jailed on bogus charges. She played a leading role in the impressive food sovereignty project in the commune, was strongly committed to building women’s power in struggle and, knowing the risks, had taken positions of visible leadership when her comrades were in prison and in hiding. She leaves her husband, four children and one grandchild.

The residents of the commune have endured extraordinary repression, including relentless violent and illegal evictions as well as assaults and periods of imprisonment after arrests on bogus charges. People are exhausted, frightened and traumatized. Nonetheless, though some of the commune’s projects have been hanging by threads in the wake of the previous assassination and then the floods, the residents still hold the line and the land.

The political crisis in Durban exceeds the question of corruption. It exceeds the question of compromised leaders. The ANC is systemically rotten. It is also systemically violent, a kind of mafia that accumulates private wealth at the direct expense of the common wealth and the common good. This mode of accumulation has become the basis for attaining and holding political power, as well as its rationale. The party is a predatory blight on society.

In political terms, the city is now not unlike many cities in Central America. Politics has been criminalized and violence routinized. To stand for even the most modest demands, if you are an impoverished person – a person considered to be fungible – is to put your life at risk. The social optimism that was carried in struggle by so many for so long – and codified in documents such as the Freedom Charter and the 1996 Constitution – has come to ground in mud and blood, men with guns and political funerals.

It is imperative that the kleptocratic forces in the ANC are excoriated and opposed at every turn by all progressive social forces. It is equally imperative that the liberals in the ANC and its Left in Cosatu and the SACP take clear positions against this kind of repression and act in solidarity with those who are under attack.

A pernicious common sense

But it would be bad faith to take the option – all too easy and all too lazy – of ascribing all the blame for some people’s lives counting for very little in our society to the ANC. There is a far wider issue, a systemic one. It extends beyond the pitiful character of every one of the parties in Parliament.

Most of our institutions, including the courts, media and academy, along with our education, cultural and sports systems and the everyday common sense of elite society, are saturated with a profound elitism. The lives of the majority are accorded little weight. The cult of the expert is in constant tension with various other modes of claiming power, ranging from the big man speaking in the name of the people to claims to carry a historical title to political legitimacy. But they all meet on the terrain of a mutual elitism mediated by a media that, with notable exceptions, is relentlessly elitist in its concerns, mode of operation and understanding of what is and what should constitute news, the subjects of analysis and, indeed, the very idea of the political.

There have been moments in our history in which the banner of democracy, real democracy, has been raised. There is, for instance, the idea of workers’ control that emerged after the Durban strikes in 1973. There is also the United Democratic Front, which, after its founding in 1983, brought millions of people into mass politics. In this moment, the declaration that “The people shall govern!” in the Freedom Charter was taken to mean a much deeper and wider conception of democracy than that offered by liberal democracy.

Leaves in the wind

Commitments to actual democratic practices – rooted in the idea that everyone should have equal access to democratic disputation, and that this should not be restricted to casting a vote every few years – were whittled away by the liberal compromise in 1994. But the loss of a broadly based democratic common sense that everyone should carry equal weight in society and have equal access to participation in its disputations cannot be fully ascribed to that compromise.

Ideas that are not grounded in practice drift like leaves in the wind. The primary reason we have lost so much of the democratic common sense that was forged in struggle during the 1970s and the 1980s is that we no longer have movements that can anchor democratic practices and ideas at anything like the sort of scale that can build and hold critical mass.

Without reconstituting democratic mass politics at real scale, the psychic and epistemic gated communities that demarcate so much of the common sense of elites will remain intact. The world beyond the gates will remain obscure, subject to erasure, paternalism, paranoia, contempt and all kinds of projection.

But it is precisely the people building democratic forms of politics from within the detritus of a failed revolution who are most likely to be met with violence, often fatal. The assassins know what they are doing. They take the best people, the ones doing the most important work and holding the most significant positions.

There is no easy route out of this crisis, and those who have not accepted defeat and not collapsed into cynicism remain at constant risk. These are the realities that we must confront.