AbM: Call to church leaders to defend democracy

13 11 2009

To all clergy and church leaders of Durban:

By now many will be aware of the recent events in Kennedy Road and the subsequent arrests of thirteen members of the grassroots movement known as Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM).  But just to be sure, here are some facts which we feel are important right now:  On 26 September, at 11.30pm, a group of 30 to 40 men, wielding pangas, sticks and guns surrounded the community hall in Kennedy Road informal settlement in Durban and launched a violent attack. Kennedy Road is the original home of AbM, the social movement of shackdwellers. In the violence that followed over the next few nights and days, people died, many fled and the shacks of a number of known AbM activists were systematically destroyed. All this while local and provincial ANC leaders proclaimed the events to be a liberation of Kennedy Road and installed ANC leadership over the community.Soon after the attack, 13 members of AbM were arrested and charged with various counts, including murder and aggravated assault, some as far afield as the Eastern Cape.

The ‘Abahlali 13’, as they have come to be known, have applied for bail. Their bail hearings have been postponed five times – by the time they reappear on 18 November, they will have been in Westville Prison for two months.

Since the arrest of these 13, many other members of AbM have been forced out of Kennedy Road. The local ANC leadership has replaced the AbM movement with their own leaders and structures.
At all of their bail hearings, friends and family members of the 13 ‘accused’ have been denied access to court proceedings by weapon-wielding, abusive and threatening ANC supporters. Even clergy and representatives of ecumenical agencies have come under attack from these people.

What are others saying?

“The achievement of our hard won democracy was a great moment of shared grace. The militia that have driven the Abahlali baseMjondolo leaders and hundreds of families out of the settlement is a profound disgrace to our democracy. The fact that the police have systematically failed to act against this militia while instead arresting the victims of their violence and destruction is cause for the gravest concern. There are credible claims that this militia has acted with the support of the local ANC structures. This, also, is cause for the most profound concern.” Anglican Bishop Rubin Philip

“The Kennedy Road killings and violence are of great concern. Reports of militia being allowed to
operate with impunity and a perceived partisan role by the South African Police Service in the area
require immediate investigation.” Catholic Bishop Barry Wood, OMI

“The residents of this community have found themselves caught up in a struggle far more insidious than a conflict between city officials and their elected leadership. The spiral of violence seems to be fuelled by partisan dynamics, which are further aggravated by structural inadequacies and alleged collusion between members of the SAPS and the local branch of the ANC.” Methodist Bishop Michael Vorster

“It is a profound disgrace to democracy, that militia have been allowed to drive out the leaders of the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement, and many hundreds of families with them.” Archbishop Thabo Makgoba.

“While those who shape the national debate avert their eyes, the government’s commitment to democracy is being tested in a Durban shack settlement. And it is failing. Democracy means that all citizens are allowed to express themselves. If people at the grassroots do not enjoy that right, democracy is not operating for most of our people. And it may then be only a matter of time before power-holders decide that the rest of us need to be curbed. The shack dwellers of AbM and other grassroots activists threatened by local power are the front line in the fight to keep us democratic. We need to make their right to a voice a priority — and to force provincial and national politicians to account for their role in suppressing, or failing to protect, that right.” Prof Steve Friedman

And what have we been doing?

Leaders of the faith community, ecumenical agencies and other partner organisations have met with various stakeholders, including the leadership of Abahlali baseMjondolo, in an attempt to understand the situation and respond appropriately.

Faith leaders and ecumenical partners have issued several calls to government, both local and national, pleading for justice – immediate relief to the families affected by the violence, and an independent judicial enquiry into the events of 26 September. These calls have been echoed by the international community.  We have witnessed the organised exclusion of grieving family members from court proceedings. We have seen how the Court has allowed hate speech and death threats to be voiced inside the courtroom. We have witnessed how women and children have been threatened with bodily harm and even death – from ANC supporters transported to the courts for the hearings.

But one or two are too few…

We now need your help. On 18 November, the Abahlali 13 will appear for the sixth time – hopefully their bail will be granted. It is important that they know we care.

  • Please join us at the Prayer Service from 8.00am to 9.00am outside the Durban Magistrate Court on 18 November. We hope that, as clergy, your presence can help family and friends gain access to the court.  Please DO wear clerical attire.
  • Accompany AbM members into the court gallery on 18 November – thereby assuring them safe passage and safe seating places inside the court.
  • If you would like to visit them in prison, please contact David Ntseng on 072 839 1153.
  • Pray for those in prison and their families. Pray for our faith leaders who have intervened in this situation. Pray for all our elected leaders that their hearts would hear the cry of their people for justice.
  • Write letters to the press, to government and to the President, calling for justice – we support the call for an independent judicial enquiry into the events of 26 September. The truth will set us free.

PLEASE be present at the Durban Magistrates Court from 8am on 18 November.
For more details contact:
Roland Vernon on (031) 310 3551 or 074 311 0000.

“It is essential that the attack on democracy in Kennedy Road is widely publicised so that we can all confront what has happened and ensure that it never happens again. We need to give platforms to the victims of these attacks where ever we can.” – Bishop Rubin Philip

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