Protest and Peace in Masi - Lutz Van Dijk (published in the Weekend Argus on Sat 7 Nov 2015)

Since the rape and killing of 14 year old Amani Pule on 15 September 2015 not only the community of Masiphumelele is not the same anymore. Never before so many neighbors from surrounding villages of this impoverished community came out in clear support, despite weeks of riots and even eight alleged mob killings.

One message was understood as never before: The majority of Masi residents are not different than others in the South Peninsula – they are fighting for the safety of their homes and against drug dealers and crime. They want a better future for their children.

After a father from neighboring Kommetjie read the article “Masi leaders try to keep peace” (Weekend Argus of 31 October, page 8) he called and asked how to make a contribution to the bail money for arrested community leader Lubabalo Vellem (35). He then continued: “This killed boy Amani was the first African friend my son brought home as they went to the same school. I once made a photo of Amani and my son, both 13 at the time and said to them: You as friends are the future of this country!”

Masiphumelele erupted in violent protests the day of Amani’s murder when the police came hours delayed as numerous times before. This was when desperate residents took the law in their own hands and a first suspect was killed. The riots started a second time when still no drug dealer was arrested but one of the community leaders and seven other protesters. Although some of their actions might not have been legal, most residents appreciated that some at least did something against growing crime in Masi – and therefore these arrests of protesters were regarded as highly unfair.

All reached boiling point last Monday, 2 November, when about 2000 Masi residents decided to walk early in the morning the 12,5 km from Masi to the Magistrate in Simon’s Town in support of their leader “Luba” and four other arrested protesters (others had been released earlier as minors). The scheduled bail hearing had been postponed twice before and just before lunchbreak Magistrate Crystal McKenna indicated a possible third postponement as Luba’s new address at his sister in Khayelitsha had to be confirmed first.

It was during this lunchbreak when the tension outside became so extreme that even one riot police officer at the court entrance asked community leaders for assistance as it was clear that they would be outnumbered if clashes would start.

It was then when last minute interventions from other community leaders together with Defense Attorney Lennox Ntsimango could convince the Magistrate to send urgently a police car to confirm the address to which Luba should move as one of his bail conditions.

While waiting nervously a group of Somalian shop keepers from Masi arrived with a truck full of free cool drinks for those many singing outside since the morning, unable to buy anything as most shops in the area were closed out of fear.

After break time the Magistrate read her detailed judgment and later released all accused protesters on bail (one even without bail) also as none of them had any previous convictions. She even said about Lubabalo Vellem: “The accused has great support from the area where he lives.” Late in the afternoon 2000 residents walked peacefully back to Masi.

It might be wise to pay attention to some positive effects of the protests which might assist in finding more sustainable answers to allow finally real development in Masiphumelele.

Just not to be misunderstood: I do not take lightly any of the violent events which had happened from damage to property inside and outside of Masi to mob killings against suspected criminals. At our HOKISA home, we had to evacuate our twenty children twice due to teargas and smoke inhalation, once even in the midst of ongoing riots, only protected by elderly ladies of the Masi Women Forum who escorted us out. The next morning we found several rubber bullets even in our playground.

I equally do not ignore the distressed responses by other neighbors of Masi, some who had experienced serious damage (like businesses in Fish Eagle Park and Lekkerwater Road) and threats (like TEARS animal rescue services). We also should note that some even retreated to bluntly racist comments like on one neighborhood watch mailing list: “Why not using real bullets against these Masi criminals?”

But this must not make us blind towards positive effects the protests also created, some of which might last long if we are able to understand them correctly:

• A new united leadership has been formed in the community which was not only able to organize a “March for Peace” attended by hundreds of residents on Sunday, 18 October, but also to defuse new riots the morning after the first bail hearing failed on Monday, 26 October. It was not the police, but it were community leaders like Tshepo Moletsane, Nontembiso Madikane and Howard Mbana, supported by Masi taxi owners, who convinced the mainly young and unemployed rioters to stop their actions – and to allow thousands of adults and children to return to work and school.

• The police learnt important lessons in de-escalating violence: Since Monday, 26 October, they focused on keeping Kommetjie Road open for the heavy daily traffic to Cape Town – and did not play anymore dangerously cat and mouse with young rioters inside of Masi. The new Ocean View police station commander since 12 October, Lieutenant-Colonel Rufie Nel has not only visited Masi and its most neglected areas (like Wetlands informal settlement where 10.000 residents live still mostly without basic services). He also confirmed that his station will be cleaned of all corruption and will welcome to work closely with all communities. Ward Councilor Felicity Purchase confirmed on 27 October, that – with backing of National Deputy Minister of Police Maggie Sotyu and Provincial Police Commissioner Major-General Thembisile Patekile – a mobile police station will be established soon at the Masi community hall until a permanent site for a police station has been found within six to twelfth months.

• More examples of overwhelming responses of support from surrounding communities like Noordhoek, Kommetjie, Capri, Sun Valley, Fish Hoek, Clovelly and Kalkbay: Parents of several primary schools invited Masi kids to their families during the most violent days, much appreciated by Masi parents. Other families opened their homes for Masi matriculants. Or: Other neighbors (plus the team of the Masi library) collected all legal costs for the arrested protesters. This inspired the Imhoffs Gift Homeowners Association to raise alone the bail amount of R 5000 for Lubabalo Vellem. None of those who donated money does support any violence, but many are “concerned about extreme poverty in Masi” as one wrote.

In January 2014 more than 900 residents from Masi and surrounding communities signed a petition called “No more charity – true sharing of land and housing”. After a great start, even supported by Premier Zille and Mayor de Lille, it was more or less dropped by senior city officials only months later who found the Masi delegation just “too demanding”. Maybe it is time to review and respond to the more than justifiable demands of the Masi community rather sooner than later.

The protests of the past weeks give hope that it is possible with a newly united leadership in Masi and so many neighbors supporting their demand for sustainable development. Government on national, provincial and local level should grasp this opportunity with both hands.

“If we do not prioritise the eradication of social injustice, the price we will all pay is the absence of peace”, wrote Masi youth leader and professional childcare worker Simphiwe Nkomombini on the Masi facebook page. He actually wrote PEACE in capital letters.

Dr Lutz van Dijk, Co-Founder and volunteer at HOKISA (Homes for Kids in South Africa) in Masiphumelele since 2001, writer and historian.