Why the sun will continue to burn in Langa

Jared Sacks
Protest in Langa last week, Photo by Armand Hough.
Jared Sacks

Last Wednesday, Langa erupted into massive protest that locked down the area with no way in or out of the township. To many, it seemed like the anger came from nowhere – yet frustration has been simmering here for months if not years.

As the ordinary routines of daily life ground to a complete halt for 24 hours and media outlets focused almost exclusively on the violence, few bothered to think about the roots of this conflict.

Langa was originally named after Langalibalele, the Hlubi king, who, in 1873, led a rebellion against the Natal Government and was imprisoned on Robben Island. The short-lived open insurrection of the amaHlubi mirrors countless revolts by blacks against their subjugation and oppression at the hands of British and Dutch colonisers.

The literal translation of Langalibalele’s name is “the sun is boiling hot”. It is apt that this rebellious king was named after the eternal heat of the sun – the source of all life on this planet and a symbol of the ageless pyre that burns inside each and every one of us.

The anger that led the amaHlubi into revolt against the British was latent throughout years of their persecution, At some point a spark brought that emotion to the surface. Rebellion, then, was the practical response of a people who refused to let the embers of their dignity be extinguished.

When Kwa-Langa burned last week, road blockades hastily thrown together with giant cement blocks, rocks, tree trunks and burning tires closed nearly every block of every major road in the township. The Metrorail line that runs through Langa was unable to operate for much of the day and whether one was participating in the protest or not, there were only a handful of residents out of tens of thousands who made it to work that day. It was a more or less a total shutdown of the township.

The community strike was indeed violent with anyone suspected of going to work risking the wrath of protesters. Small businesses were looted and innocent foreign nationals targeted by people who used the sense of lawlessness for their own personal opportunism. The local Shoprite Usave was cleaned out by rioters and hungry residents alike.

It says a lot that the one specific characteristic of this insurrection that sets it apart from most South African protests was that no organisation or group or committee was fueling the fury. In most cases protests that are reported as ‘spontaneous’ in the media or by academics have in fact taken months of grassroots organising.

However, while there were a number of residents committees who are involved in housing negotiations, the actual riot was genuinely spontaneous and no one can blame the ANC, Ses’khona, the EFF or some community movement for the uprising.

Much of the anger was directed at other Xhosa residents – particularly those living in Joe Slovo shack settlement - who are current beneficiaries of a long struggle for housing development in the area and who also tend to be recent migrants from the Eastern Cape. The logic mirrors the Democratic Alliance electioneering strategy that seeks to blame what Helen Zille called Eastern Cape “refugees” for the lack of services and decent housing for Cape Town born Coloured and Xhosa residents.

If, as the shackdweller’s movement Abahlali baseMjondolo warns, “the anger of the poor can go in many directions”, this protest was clearly an example of that anger turning inward against other poor blacks.

And yet to think only in these terms is too simplistic and risks depoliticising the actions of protesters and the structural nature of the anger that has been simmering for years.

What exploded into collective and public action 9 July did not emerge out of thin air, nor over the course of a few years. Rather, the indignation has been smouldering since as far back as Langa’s founding in 1927. It is the suffering of people who live here that is the real Third Force behind this riot.

The superficial political emancipation of 1994 did not lead to socio-economic emancipation for the majority of South Africa’s poor black population. Because Langa is a microcosm of the housing crisis that plagues urban areas around the country, its poorest residents live in shack settlements, in the backyards of other people’s homes and in old dilapidated hostels which they rent for relatively exorbitant sums.

But, as with the rest of South Africa’s protesting townships, the fury does not merely come from material poverty. It’s not only about lack of housing per sé. It is also about the fact that some people must live in live in tiny shacks while others live amid such grotesque material wealth.

The fundamental obscenity of a city in which poor blacks survive in ghettoes noted for mass poverty while the rich, mostly white, population live in an elite enclaves only 15 minutes away is obvious to the residents of Langa.

The impromptu chants of Langa protesters honoring those massacred at Marikana expresses a further structural link between all poor black South Africans. Ask any poor person, even those that blame other poor blacks for their predicament, and they will affirm the unjust reality of this capitalist system: “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”.

The anger at this fact may not always be expressed in a politically progressive way or conceptualise the capitalist system as its target, but it remains a central driving force behind the recent Langa strike.

Thus, the residents of Kwa-Langalibalele burn with the knowledge of their wrongful suffering. However, this is also why Langa, like the myriad Marikanas, the oppressed Cape winelands, the townships of Ficksburg, Bekkersdal, Cato Crest, and the rest of South Africa, will continue to burn until there is a revolution in the socio-economic composition of society.

The flames of rebellion may be suppressed by a militarised police, but the primed embers will remain ready for the next conflagration. The British were not able to crush the spirit of rebellion when they exiled Langalibalele to Robben Island. Similarly, not even the most violent police force will force the poor to meekly accept their oppression.

The only forward-looking way out of this situation is the attainment of a more equal and just society based on mutual love and cooperation. However, this possibility depends primarily on whether or not the anger that we saw burning in Langa can be translated into a self-organised, progressive and radical politics.

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TOPICS:  Housing

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