I reported earlier how I came away troubled from a meeting I had attended two weeks back called by the Swellendam executive mayor, Councillor Nicholas Myburgh, to address a host of community-related issues.
Flowing from that meeting was a protest action this past Sunday 7 May 2017, which ended in the symbolic burning of a banner depicting Swellendam Municipality.
As has repeatedly been demonstrated, Suurbraak is a microcosm of the whole. This being so, I believe this current protest enables us to understand why this country is imperilled. I therefore urge you to read my earlier post (Canaries in the Suurbraak coalmine) as background to this report.
In order for this all to make sense I shall:
- briefly describing Suurbraak, its history and its people
- provide some background to some of the issues that surfaced during the protest
- provide a synopsis, from memory, of what happened during the protest
- try to pull together all the threads and show, as I see it, why this process holds significance for Suurbraak and South Africa as a whole
I attended the protest in order to understand and to capture the process digitally (still and video). I acknowledge that this report might be incomplete, biased, inaccurate, and/or flawed in some way. If so, please suggest corrections in the comment box and I’ll do the necessary.
Suurbraak is a former mission village nestled peacefully in a valley, hence its original name, Xairu, meaning place of paradise, given to this area by the Attaqua Khoikhoi people. The Khoikhoi, who were herders and farmers, and the San people, who were hunter gatherers, each formed a subgroup of the Khoisan. The Attaqua Khoikhoi must therefore have grazed their cattle, sheep and goats in the fertile valley of Xairu, very much as is done today.
In 1812 the mission village of Zuurbraak was established by the London Missionary Society at the request of Attaqua Kaptein (captain) Hans Moos via the Governor of the Cape at the time, Graaf Caledon, to the London Missionary Society (Mellet. E. (2012:1-2) Vetlampe se Tyd: Die Dorpslewe in Zuurbraak/Suurbraak 1912-2012. ATKV, Suurbraak) According to this SABC report, the mission station was in fact run by Germans. In addition to their homes in the village, certain families – many or most of whom must surely have been members or relatives of the Attaqua – were allocated allotments for which title deeds must have been issued oor die rivier (on the other side of the Buffeljags River, which flows through the valley). The name Buffeljags, meaning hunting buffalo, gives us some idea of what it must have been like more than 200 years ago when the settlement was created.
In 1948 the National Party defeated the United Party, and as part of their policy of Apartheid, enacted the Group Areas Act which resulted in Zuurbraak (or Suurbraak as it was renamed) being proclaimed a ‘coloured’ village. ‘White’ people were therefore moved out. (I’ve used inverted commas on these two occasions to indicate racial classifications but shan’t do so again as that would become mechanical and contrived.)
After a long liberation struggle a treaty was signed, which transformed South Africa into a constitutional democracy. The African National Congress (ANC) won the 1994 election and has since ruled South Africa.
About ten years ago families in the village were given permission to sell their allotments oor die rivier.
I live and farm on one such allotment (or plot) purchased by my son and daughter-in-law more than five years ago. All the plots around me have been sold and fenced. This has meant that the space originally used for grazing and recreation was reduced. I am white but three neighbouring families are brown (you will understand later in this report, why I mention this). My father was Afrikaans. The home language of most of the families in the village is Afrikaans.
The people in the village of Suurbraak are good people. Those whom I know personally are salt of the earth. On this side of the river five of my neighbours are or were teachers. I too was once a teacher. My neighbours are also good people.
The DA (Democratic Party) runs the Municipality of Swellendam, which comprises a number of Wards. Suurbraak forms part of Ward 3, which is controlled by the ANC.
These are some of the reasons for the protest
These seem to me to be the reasons for last Sunday’s protest action on the braak, based on my observations during the protest.
Land: If this protest is about housing then it must be about land, shelter and ownership. This being South Africa it has also to do with precedence so it’s surely significant that the protesters have built structures in some ways reminiscent of the original Khoikhoi Attequa people. However, most of the surnames in the town and many of the street names as far as I can tell are European (Dutch, Irish and, I assume, German). Then there’s the architecture in the town which is largely Cape Dutch. But there are also RDP-type houses (Reconstruction and Development Programme) on the hill overlooking the village. There are title deeds registered in the deeds office, probably in Cape Town. There are Chass Everitt for sale signs everywhere, crowding out Trader Equity. There are allotments across the river sold to a new wave of settlers some of whom are farming as of yore. And each family has its history. It is significant, I believe, that the chair of Suurbraak Youth Movement has as his Gmail avatar an image of an early Khoikhoi or San. My sense, therefore, is that nostalgia for what is being lost, and an archetypal longing for roots and a connection with the soil and therefore a registered title deed to a home in order to raise a family in Suurbraak are feeding into the protest.
Race: A second reason for the protest has to do with race. Legislation over the past hundred or so years, including the aforementioned Group Areas Act, has meant that skin colour was and probably still is a determinant of power or disempowerment, and therefore informs many interactions between racial groups in South Africa. Add an actual racial incident, as took place here in Suurbraak a short while ago when a white man oor die rivier directed sick racist language at two members of the village, then, understandably, the community is up in arms.
Conspicuous wealth: You will read over and over in my report below that money, class and entitlement are at issue here in Suurbraak particularly now that house and property prices have shot up and newcomers with their apparent or real wealth move in and Suurbraak becomes increasingly unaffordable for younger local families here in Suurbraak.
Work (or, more exactly, the lack thereof): Automation and AI (artificial intelligence) mean that work is increasingly difficult to find. In fact we face the prospect in the very near future of there being no work for the majority of humans. Consequently young families in Suurbraak are discovering that they have no way in which to improve their lot. So it is hardly surprising that those with nothing will question the legitimacy of the status quo. It is therefore, I believe, significant that the Suurbraak Youth Movement is one of the prime drivers of this protest action.
State capture: The primary demand of protesters is for houses. But their demand must also be seen against the backdrop of the State of Capture report (which President Jacob Zuma has taken on review), which might implicate individuals who might have benefited at the expense of the poorest of the poor. In any case, to my mind, it’s disappointing in the extreme that Government spends millions on the President’s home, billions on new locomotives and plans to spend trillions on nine nuclear power stations which the country doesn’t need but doesn’t have the money to build a house for Donovan Julius and Nolan Theodore, two of the young men at the forefront of Sunday’s protest action.
Party politics: Is it paranoiac to fear that the ANC’s coming electoral conference in December to select a successor for Jacob Zuma and the general election in 2019 when the ANC might lose their majority are reasons for last Sunday’s protest action? My gut tells me that this suspicion isn’t far-fetched. These are my reasons. The strategy of Zuma and his premier league in the run up to December and, if successful, 2019 seems to be to appropriate Black First Land First (BLF) and EFF thinking and slogans such as white monopoly capitalism (WMC) (allegedly attributed to Bell Pottinger, the PR company employed until recently by the Guptas), radical economic transformation and land restitution. If so then my concern is that so-called WMC and calls for BLF will be used increasingly to stoke pockets of discontent within communities thus creating buoyancy for a Zuma-aligned successor. You will read in my report below, of anger expressed by individuals in the Suurbraak community aimed at white people with apparent means (i.e. WMC) for buying houses and land in Suurbraak and, in so doing, pushing locals out of the market (BLF). Despite the fact that it isn’t only white people buying property in Suurbraak, a WMC and BLF narrative is temptingly easy to exploit for party political ends – which might be the case in this instance and, therefore, might be a cause of the protest.
Complaints to the Swellendam Municipality emanating from oor die rivier: Certain residents from oor die rivier (the allotment side where I live) complained to the Swellendam Municipality about inadequate supervision of the municipal picnic spot on the bank of the Buffeljags River. Apparently a similar complaint was lodged, also by a relative newcomer to the village, about the municipal camping site further down the river. When the Swellendam Municipality (reluctantly, I would imagine) complied with the demands of the various complainants, as could be expected the village was up in arms about encroachments on their historical rights. You will note again and again in my report the anger expressed by the original residents of Suurbraak towards newcomers for occupying land oor die rivier which residents have always assumed was commonage. Anger has turned to outrage now that these selfsame newcomers – in the eyes of the community – have assumed for themselves the right to dictate terms for those in the village.
Swellendam Municipality: The ostensible reason for the protest was generalised unhappiness about Swellendam Municipality, which extended to the Swellendam executive mayor who was accused during the protest of being insensitive to the mood within the community, as also the municipal managers for recreation and for housing, both of whom were threatened. Additionally the Municipality was accused of corruption relating to money apparently earmarked to build a sewerage system for Suurbraak allegedly used, instead, to upgrade Swellendam’s municipal sewerage works, and of money from harvested pine from the Suurbraak plantation allegedly being used for Swellendam, and not Suurbraak. I do not know whether these accusations have any merit. I suspect they might not in view of the fact that Swellendam municipality received a clean audit for the past two years but here’s an interview conducted by the Cape Times with Donovan Julius, chairperson of the Suurbraak Youth Movement, as background to the pine plantation affair. Below the video is a transcription of the interview:
Transcription: ‘About 30 years ago Suurbraak in collaboration with the Department Rent Affairs, planted our first pine plantation in the mountain. Now eight years ago we gave permission to the (Swellendam) municipality to cut down the plantation and a contractor stopped two years ago, gave the plants a chance to grow bigger and what happened now, everything is done, all the plantation has been cut down but we told the municipality that they should give the money to us, to our people, the people of Suurbraak, so we can develop the infrastructure here. It’s a year ago, that the job has been done and still no cent has been paid to our community. We want to know, where is our money? Pay back our money!’
[What has just come to hand is an information sheet from the mayor, Nicholas Myburgh,which speaks to this point (translated): ‘This council has had nothing to do with the sale of the pine plantation. As far as we can ascertain in 2007 a tender was awarded (34/2007) to Southern Sawmills to harvest the pine plantations in our municipal area. An amount of R3,7M was received for the Swellendam plantation and R350K for the Suurbraak plantation. All these funds were deposited according to regulation in the municipal account. This was 10 years ago and there is nothing that anyone can now do about it! Why continue with insinuations and gossip?’]
Fault lines: It seems that resentment or a general cynicism has built up over the years within the Suurbraak community itself against certain individuals and/or factions that, allegedly, benefit unfairly from development aid, land and/or funds meant for community development. It’s not clear to me the extent to which the aforementioned informed Sunday’s protest but I would guess that this issue wasn’t entirely absent.
A perfect storm: Take the build-up over centuries of transgenerational trauma resulting from racial classification; place it in a context that triggers shame or painful memories (outsiders claiming our land and driving us out) and which, additionally, throws into stark relief the chasm which separates those who have (money, 4x4s, designer apparel and a house in the country) from those who don’t (live in a shack, no work, and little prospect of ever bettering themselves); add to this mix demands from the interlopers or colonisers that encroach on traditions going back centuries (family picnics by the river or a jol at the camping area), and racist abuse from a white newcomer to Suurbraak and you have the perfect storm, which erupted last Sunday (see the next section).
Images taken during the protest
The protest action itself is brilliant in concept. The photos I took in the run-up to Sunday’s protest (see Housing protest in Suurbraak) of families constructing their homes, I believe, attest to this fact. The shacks constructed to draw attention to the protesters’ plight are alongside the main road and send powerful statements to passers-by and on social media.
What follow are the images of Sunday’s protest arranged into four categories.
Residents attending the protest
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People called to the front to pray or testify
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Members of the audience who took the mike
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Ward councillors, party officials and volunteer marshals for this coming Sunday’s march
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Report of what happened and was said during the protest
Burton Beukes (school principal), opened the protest stating that the protest was not political, that it is, instead, community-driven; furthermore whites were not the enemy, as white people had come out in support on social media.
I was the only white person present (as far as I could tell) and therefore suddenly felt somewhat conspicuous. At no time during the meeting did I however feel targeted.
He then called on Jan Stout to open the meeting with prayer
After prayer Beukes explained to the residents that they are all descendants of the original Khoisan people who once lived here in Xairu and so they should feel proud of their heritage, hair, and who they are.
Donovan Julius and Nolan Theodore, representing the Suurbraak Youth Movement, both spoke of the plight of young families in Suurbraak
However, it became apparent from their words that this was, in fact, about white people. Theodore believed Die witmense verarm ons (white people lead us into poverty). Hulle is besig om ons mense te onterf en verarm (they are dispossessing us and making us poor). (This last statement, I assume, is a reference to white people buying plots and homes in Suurbraak thus raising house prices beyond the reach of local young people.)
They called on Matthuisen (I do not have his first name) who apparently hails from Swellendam and who was also critical of white people: die witmense het geld en ons het nie, en dan is ons in die pad (whites have money and we don’t, and then we’re in the way). Either this gentleman or another said: Ons het die wit mense uitgesit en nou is hulle terug (we expelled the white people and now they’re back again – a reference to the Group Areas Act).
Julius reported an altercation in which a man who lived oorkant die rivier (over the river) allegedly hurled sick, abusive and shockingly racist language at Stanley Gaffley and Gerhard Marais, from the village.
Julius, whose rage was by this time palpable, threatened to take their placards across the river in order to protest what alle wit mense van ons afvat (what white people are taking from us).
I then jotted these words down in my notebook: ‘This is becoming a race issue’.
Julius accused the audience of complaining but doing nothing when it comes to taking action (for instance joining them in the their daily protest or vigil by also building structures on the braak).
The next speaker, Basil Sakoor (curriculum adviser with the Western Cape Education Department) introduced himself as Khoisan Basil.
I suspect in response to the previous speaker’s report he stated: As hulle ons push dan vat ons die fokkin grond (If they push us then we’ll take back the fucking ground (across the river)). The local shop owner also came under fire: ons het nie Pakistanis nodig in ons winkels nie (we don’t need Pakistanis running our shops). He also stated that no one must pay attention to Myburgh when he posts on Facebook.
Sakoor then called upon a mother of two – who had reportedly been told by a local farmer to pack her belongings and leave the home (on the farm) in which her (deceased?) mother had once lived – to testify.
This farmer also told her that she wasn’t eligible for the pension that had been promised to her mother. Again the issue of rising house prices was in the spotlight because the mother then asked where would she afford to live, to which Sakoor responded: Ons gaan nog steeds onder die druk van die witmense (we are still being oppressed by white people).
The next speaker was Reinette Heunis who ratcheted the emotion still higher by stating: Die IS die politiek (this IS about politics) As jy vir die boere stem dan … (if you insist on voting for the boere – or Afrikaners or white people – then …).
In the meeting references were made to the aforementioned alleged corruption by the Swellendam municipality, related to sewerage systems and the Suurbraak pine plantation.
Sakoor again spoke and accused Myburgh of not answering any of their questions during the meeting (see the aforementioned report, Canaries in the Suurbraak coalmine, on this point).
If I heard correctly, Sakoor also warned James Engel (responsible for housing) and Keith Stuurman (responsible for community services) not to set foot in Suurbraak. Mention was also made of Andy Harmse (PA to the mayor): Waar is hy? Waar is hy? (Where is he? Where is he?)
Sakoor also accused Myburgh (or members of the municipality) of hiding from the people of Suurbraak (hul kryp weg), hiding things from them or being deceitful (hulle maak ons oë toe), and for not understanding (respecting) the culture of the village.
Here’s a short clip, followed by a translation of Sakoor’s allegations:
Translation: ‘They hide away. They hide things from us. And then they come to us with pious words. Because he doesn’t understand the culture of this village. He knows nothing about this village. The last thing I wish to mention …’
Sakoor announced that no houses would be permitted to be built in Suurbraak unless all of the contractors were from Suurbraak and that, regrettably, those who had been promised houses would have to wait for their homes until the protesters’ demands had been met.
Also at issue was the top structure at the Swellendam municipality which Sakoor allegedly was more than ninety percent white.
Beukes again spoke and referred to the relationship between those in the village and across the river.
Here’s a video clip followed by a translation:
Translation: ‘…building, and I must tell you, many of them makeshift (general agreement from the some members of the audience). Our demand – and the municipality finds this unacceptable – is: we are looking to form a committee in Suurbraak that can determine (or recommend) what gets built on the other side of the river. It’s our right to decide (on these matters) (general agreement). Two years ago, to my understanding, that was zoned agricultural (points across the river). No one could build houses there (general agreement). Two years ago the agricultural zoning was unilaterally converted to residential; in other words, an area where people can live. Do you know this? (calls from the audience) Do you know this? (calls from the audience). No one discussed this with us. Not a single person asked our permission. So (holds his hand up for silence). Remember, we’re not here at enmity with our white residents. But white residents mustn’t think that they can make decisions on our behalf. They have no right to decide for us. They must regard themselves as part of the community of Suurbraak. Not so? It’s not a Suurbraak #01 (points to the audience), and Suurbraak #02 (points across the river). This is one Suurbraak (his arm sweeps back in a semi-circle). OK’.
When introducing her, Beukes mentioned that the ANC provincial councillor, Melanie du Plessis, who was present, preferred not to speak and that a colleague (name to be provided) would speak on her behalf.
Her colleague made references to radical economic transformation and land restitution, two concepts which recently inform President Zuma’s campaign in the run-up to the ANC’s conference in December when his replacement will be elected.
Some of the other points raised during the meeting had to do with temporary appointments and problems related to social grants and electricity being blocked.
There was a call to action which includes a planned march through Suurbraak this coming Sunday (14 May 2016) and mass attendance of the next municipal meeting in Swellendam.
Residents were asked to volunteer as marshals.
Heunis proclaimed that today they would burn a banner (symbolising the Swellendam municipality) but if they weren’t listened to they would then burn tires.
Below is a video of the banner being set alight
The protest ended with everyone holding hands in a large circle and prayer.
Because most of the issues that fed into Sunday’s protest are huge, and because the next two years in the run-up to the general elections will be fraught, and because we need to find a way forward in South Africa that doesn’t result in a Zimbabwe or, worse still, a Rwanda, I share where I stand with respect to some of the causes for Sunday’s protest in the hope that they might evoke some form of resonance in you or dialogue (please use the comment section below), so that we can understand one another better and grow closer.
Racial tension: Round about 12 people addressed the meeting, and race featured either directly or indirectly in what most of the presenters said or reported. However, despite being the only whitey attending the protest, I never once felt tangible animosity directed at me. The same can be said for my three years in Suurbraak. Sure once or twice someone in the town would choose not to greet me, but this I accept as his or her right. Sometimes I also don’t feel friendly. This tells me, rightly or wrongly, that all is well in Suurbraak as far as race relations are concerned. I think this sense of being able to be who I am and to let be, has to do with a shared sense of us all, on both sides of the river, being fellow toilers. However this clearly doesn’t mean that there isn’t at least one white racist in Suurbraak, as the shocking report of racism above demonstrated. Unfortunately it is the actions of individuals such as this man that will ignite dormant rage. In a case like this my sense is that we need to pinpoint and deal with the specific person or situation and not allow the atavistic behaviour of one individual to destroy (what I experience as) racial harmony in Suurbraak.
Oor die rivier: As has been pointed out, people of colour live on both sides of the river as do white people. So it can never be us and them. So why was the issue of land raised over and over in the protest? Surely it’s disingenuous to speak as if it’s possible to wave a magic wand that will return the valley to its undiscovered past. While I’m about it I wish to offer my halfpennyworth with respect to BLF ideology, which is, as I understand it, that because all land once ‘belonged’ to the original hunters, foragers and herders who roamed or farmed the South African plains until it was ‘stolen’ by white colonists, it must be returned to the original black owners. Full stop. No correspondence shall be entered into. BLF absolutism, although seductive to some (or quite possibly many), isn’t to my mind helpful as it’s a false narrative premised on error, as the original Khoisan people who were dispersed throughout southern Africa – possibly as far as central Africa were ‘yellowish’ (nor black), and then assimilated or displaced by black Bantu colonial expansion southwards and white European colonial expansion northwards (Diamond, J. (1998:380) Guns, Germs and Steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13 000 years. Vintage, London). In any case, in my view, BLF is a symptom of something bigger and far more frightening, namely, the inevitability of a jobless future. So my sense is that we should focus rather on what is indisputable. I, like most everybody else, do not have the answer to the looming crisis of a jobless future beyond BIG (a universal basic income grant) as a means of staving off a revolution.
Swellendam Municipality to blame? Other than Myburgh’s imperious attitude at the commencement of their report back (See my aforementioned post: Canaries in the Suurbraak coalmine), personally, I cannot for the life of me fathom what Swellendam Municipality has apparently done wrong and why individuals in the Municipality are being hanged, drawn, and quartered. The Municipality receives a series of letters from residents hammering them for not managing municipal recreation areas, they comply with the residents’ demands thus triggering uproar from the community, so the Municipality convenes a meeting at which their top management is in attendance to answer questions from the community. None of the officials is permitted to answer one single question without constant interruptions; they are accused of corruption and then are howled down by a faction within the meeting before they can answer these accusations, and then the members of this faction rudely walk out thus effectively shutting down the meeting. The Municipality then becomes the focus of a protest on the braak purportedly about lack of progress in the delivery of housing, and during which the Municipality is unaccountably accused of not answering a single question in the meeting. Not only are the facts twisted but the Municipal Manager for housing and the Municipal Manager for recreation are warned (if I heard correctly) not to set foot in Suurbraak. That not being enough, unilaterally, impossible conditions are set for the delivery of houses, which will effectively stall or prevent the promised houses from being built and which will then impact negatively on the elderly and those with disabilities, whose houses have been prioritised. This means no houses can be built, and, therefore, rolling mass action, which brings me to my next point, namely politics.
Politics: The impression I gained over these past two weeks and particularly during Sunday’s protest was that this roll-out is not primarily about houses. I say this because surely the organisers are aware of the real situation, namely, that funding for housing comes from central government and that, as Pravin Gordhan told us before he was fired, there is no money. Surely they also concede that the reason there’s no money is because it’s all been used up during years of corruption, a lot of it, it would seem, at the centre.
So if it’s not about houses then I believe it’s political – as confirmed by Heunis during the protest on Sunday. If my conclusions are correct and if party politics is behind this protest action and if the party concerned is the ANC then to my mind it’s cynical in the extreme for the ANC to be exploiting a negative situation – as in the lack of funding for houses – for which they are more than just mildly responsible. It’s also, to my mind, reckless to take grievances real or fabricated, whip up communities and thereby channelling anger into scapegoating, thus fanning racism and xenophobia.
If I’m correct then I pray that this divisive scenario being played out here in Suurbraak won’t become the pattern in villages and towns across South Africa, otherwise South Africa will burn.
Beukes says that we are not Suurbraak #01 and Suurbraak #02. We are one community and must act accordingly. I couldn’t agree more. Beukes says that those of us oor die rivier must not assume for ourselves the right to tell those in the village what they can and cannot do. I couldn’t agree more. However, if I interpret his suggestion correctly, I do not agree with his unilateralism that a local committee be formed that would usurp the functions of the Swellendam Municipality, as that would amount to insurrection.
I acknowledge that to become one we have to face head-on all of the issues that Julius, Theodore and the others of the Suurbraak Youth Movement have showcased for us as part of their protest, particularly racism, and the insensitivity that sometimes comes with money, class and privilege.
We also, I believe, must guard against political parties hijacking local causes for their own ends.