City does not care if it is wrong as long as no one else knows it

Mlondolozi Madlingozi rebuilding his shack. Photo by Masixole Feni.

Jared Sacks

2 March 2015

When the Madlingozi family in Mfuleni extended their shack without authorisation, the City of Cape Town removed the extensions, amidst a dispute over the facts. Jared Sacks argues that the City presented its position without checking the facts.

When an authority repeats a statement over and over, it becomes convincing. This is called proof by repeated assertion and it often does not matter where the truth lies or if there is evidence to back it up. Rather, what becomes important is that the authoritative voice makes such statements over and over again with an air of conviction thereby conveying what psychologists call the illusion of truth.

Fake it ‘till they believe you: In politics one calls this “spin”.

This is the modus operandi of the City of Cape Town’s media department which is tasked with positively portraying the actions of City officials and defending them and the City’s brand as a whole against criticism.

A case in point is the recent accusation made by shackdweller Mlondolozi Madlingozi that the Anti-Land Invasion Unit (ALIU) destroyed his home after he built an extension without ‘authorisation’ from the City. A community leader named Thembile George corroborated Mlondolozi’s account of the ALIU’s actions.

The City of Cape Town’s response is to categorically state every which way the City is acting ethically and correctly. In this instance:

“… it is claimed that we removed the whole structure, which is not correct. We understand sensitivities around removals so we carefully record details. We have photographic evidence, available on request, to show that only the illegal extensions were removed.”

Regardless of whether they do have carefully recorded details that in and of itself cannot constitute proof of any kind.

What the City should really be doing, as a response to claims of misconduct by some of its citizens, is immediately investigate whether or not the person’s entire home was destroyed thereby demonstrating their ‘sensitivity around removals’. Yet there is no indication that any independent official (outside of the ALIU) spoke to either Mr. Madlingozi or Mr. George, interviewed neighbours who may have witnessed the alleged demolition, or visited the scene of the alleged transgression.

The City’s media department, in flatly denying wrongdoing, is merely relying on the biased reporting of ALIU officials who attended to the scene. (Indeed, subsequent to wrongdoing, officials have every inclination towards twisting and falsifying their records in order to protect themselves).

In other words, the media department is showing that the City doesn’t care about whether they might have made a mistake and victimised a poor black family by destroying their home – they only care about spinning the issue to deflect blame. Who then is the City ultimately serving?

I have seen this happen time and time again.

It happened in the aftermath of the Marikana Massacre where SAPS’ Riah Phiyega uncritically defended the police’s actions going so far as to say “I believe that the operation was indeed delivered in a humane manner”. The police murder of striking miners in cold blood is now acknowledged to be anything but humane.

It happened at Marikana Land Occupation in Philippi where, on 28 April and 1 May 2013, I saw with my own eyes the City’s ALIU destroy more than a 100 fully occupied homes. Subsequently, they claimed that their extensive records show that they only demolished unoccupied “structures” in accordance with a non-existent Protection of the Possession of Property Act.

These extensive records submitted to a High Court proceeding on this matter were not quite as extensive as they had claimed and merely consisted of a handful of vaguely written logs and photographs which clearly showed occupied homes after being destroyed. Yet during the entirety of the court proceedings, the City’s lawyers refused to even acknowledge a single case in which they had erred. They merely asserted over and over that they only destroyed ‘unoccupied structures’.

It happened during the Battle of Hangberg where the City washed themselves of accountability even after countless people were shot and three residents lost an eye. The City has never owned up to being the cause of this violence.

Of course, it is the nature of any institution to protect their brand - a common strategy of self-legitimisation. However, the City of Cape Town’s media department is particularly assertive in doing this. They are willing to run roughshod over the dignity of alleged victims by vilifying and defaming them in the process.

Their response to the Madlingozi family’s says, “The City urges the occupants to produce evidence in an affidavit and to open a case of malicious damage to property against the City and let the law take its course.” Given the state of our judicial system, the City knows that such recourse would go nowhere – the law will never take its course especially against an institution as powerful as the City of Cape Town. It is their way or sidestepping responsibility for their actions instead of acting fairly through a legitimate probe.

In fact, rarely, if ever, do we witness real investigations taking place before the City first categorically denies their acts of victimisation against their own citizens.

This is Politics 101: They know authoritative repetition is persuasive.

Put it another way, if the City is claiming to represent the rights of all its residents, it should treat Mr Madlingozi with the same amount of respect given to a City official. Both individuals have the ability to lie or tell the truth. In this case, while both individuals have the impetus to lie to cover up wrongdoing, it is the ALIU official who has the most to lose if found to have contravened the rules.

And yet, the City proves through its actions and its attempts to protect its brand, that they do not really care as much about the rights of residents it claims to be working for as they do about implementing a certain set of policy priorities. The City’s policy priorities influence it to take the word of its official over that of the affected citizen.

Still, while the City of Cape Town is particularly arrogant in its approach to policy, we should realise that all institutions have an inclination to act this way – often flouting both the law and basic commitments to human dignity in the process.

We cannot therefore rely on those in positions of authority to hold themselves accountable. To paraphrase Frederick Douglas, anyone with power over others tends to abuse that power.

Since repetition as a form of misrepresentation tends not to work when people are paying attention, it is time we start doing just that.

We must commit to policing the police, questioning and holding accountable authority, and investigating those who claim to be above investigation. And we must stop handing over unearned credibility and legitimacy to those who continue to oppress.

Sacks is the founder of a children’s non profit organisation and an activist supporting community struggles. He also compiled the book No Land! No House! No Vote! Voices from Symphony Way.

The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and no inference about the views of GroundUp should be drawn from it.