Unrest in Nkanini: Burning Papegaaiberg for light

iWitness Pieter Odendaal tells of police violence against Nkanini residents, over electricity.

A section of Nkanini where protests raged over the weekend due to a continued lack of electricity. The text on the walls reads “the true light is already shining”. Picture: Retha Ferguson/iWitness

I felt uneasy as I drove into Nkanini (meaning "Force") on Saturday morning, an - officially - illegal informal settlement on the slopes of Papegaaiberg in Stellenbosch. Police cars were still monitoring the upper edge of the township and fires were still smouldering following violent protests on Friday night.

I am no journalist, but the fire on Papegaaiberg and hours of shooting the previous night (coupled with the fact that no substantive media reports had been published about the violence) drove me to go and investigate what was going on. The picture I managed to compile revealed tensions between the municipality and residents and within Nkanini itself. Given the farm labourer protests flaring up around the Western Cape one could easily assume that the toyi-toyiing was about minimum wages. In fact, the reason for the third and biggest protest this year in Nkanini was the same as the previous ones: electricity.

During the previous protest on 25 October a 300-strong group of protesters were intercepted by police at Eikestad Mall, right in the heart of Stellenbosch's economic centre. The call for electricity provision has clearly amplified over the past month, and has included the intimidation of councilors and the vandalisation of their houses.

This weekend's protests started on Thursday when several buildings in the industrial area of Plankenbrug were damaged. The protesters were eventually dispersed with by the police, but only after PG Glass, The 4x4 Co. and CL Steel were burnt down. The residents returned to their powerless homes and lit candles for light.

The protest resumed on Friday night when residents came back from work. Just before sunset, patches of Papegaaiberg were set alight. Some of the residents moved down towards the R304 and it seemed that they intended on marching into Stellenbosch again. The growing tension erupted when protestors came in direct confrontation with the police at Corridor (a satellite office of the municipality and economic and tourism hub) after the building's windows were shattered and its entrance set alight.

The first shots were heard at sunset and Lt. Martin from Stellenbosch Police Station confirmed that rubber rounds were fired. An eyewitness whom I spoke to at around midnight confirmed that the protests were solely about electricity. The mob (a term used by the Nkanini residents I spoke to on Saturday) returned to their homes after the violence at Corridor and joined others who had started setting fire to Papegaaiberg. The Onder-Papegaaiberg Buurtwag ( @OPBREPORT), a community watch for the Onder-Papegaaiberg suburb on the other side of the mountain, tweeted at 20:26 that the pumpstation on top of Papegaaiberg was burning and that masses of people could be heard singing.

Lwazi Gqabaza, a friend living in Nkanini, recounted how the police had arrived at the top entrance to the township, from the mountain's side. He remembers a woman screaming outside his shack in Xhosa: "The cops are here, they want to kick down every house!" Meanwhile, tyres had been placed around the repeater tower on the mountain and set alight.

Just after 23:00, @OPBREPORT tweeted that shots were being fired again: "Ligte kaliber geweervuur gevolg deur swaar kaliber" (Light caliber gunfire followed by heavy calibre). These shots carried on sporadically until after midnight, when I drove past Nkanini and could still hear gunfire. At 01:44 @OPBREPORT tweeted that the shooting had died down. Both the tension and the flames on the mountain were doused by light rain. The long night was over.

Speaking to concerned residents on Saturday afternoon, I realised that internal tensions in Nkanini were also involved in the previous night's events. The protests earlier in the year were well-organised and peaceful. But according to Simphiwe Zai, an aspiring restaurateur who has lived in Nkanini since its founding in 2007, Friday's violence was the result of a rogue mob largely consisting of young inhabitants from the upper part of Nkanini.

There are divisions, Simphiwe says, between people at the bottom (who mostly hail from Dutya in the Eastern Cape) and those at the top (who come from Mthatha and other areas). He claims that people from the lower part of Nkanini were not involved in Friday night's toyi-toyiing, although they usually took part in the electricity protests. Another resident, who wants to remain anonymous, says that some members of the mob were exploiting the volatile situation to cause further damage.

Captain Madikizela from Kayamandi Police Station reported that fourteen arrests were made on Friday night for public violence, arson and theft. Leonard Madevu, who has lived in Nkanini for six years, said he knows of two people who were shot in their legs, while other residents estimate that many more were wounded. Madevu is an old man and his presence calls for a certain reverence. He understands why people are so angry, but condemns the violence. "The municipality is not recognising that we are human beings," he says. "Candles are dangerous. We need electricity."

Despite various inhabitants' condemnation of the violence, everyone knows that the protests were about the municipality's inability to provide electricity to the estimated 10 000 people that live there. The problem is that Nkanini is built on municipally owned land that is not zoned for residences. In fact, the land is part of a proposed Papegaaiberg Nature Reserve.

Leanne Seeliger, founder and chairperson of Vuya Endaweni (an NGO aimed at conserving and protecting Papegaaiberg), says they have been telling the municipality that they must take action to provide basic services to the residents for the past three years, but with little success. The only concession the municipality made was to install eight public ablution facilities and water points in January 2009, according to Simphiwe.

When I phoned Basil Davidson on Saturday afternoon, Stellenbosch Municipality's Director for Planning, Property and Integrated Human Settlements, I was told to phone back after the rugby and duly did. He was unaware that any shootings had taken place on Friday night, and said he had been "out of the loop". When asked about the municipality's stance on the legal status of Nkanini, he said that there is "no conceivable way in which one could expect the people to move." Davidson also readily acknowledged that the municipality knew about the long-standing demand for electricity.

It isn't difficult to see why they have nevertheless been lethargic in their delivery of basic services too, since the land is technically off-limits to residential development . The reasons Davidson cited for the delay are "budgeting cycles", "legal things" (presumably the re-zoning of the area) and "environmental issues". I also asked him why no strategic action plan had been drawn up despite the recurring protests. He answered that I was "moving into the political realm" and left the matter there.

I was present on Sunday night when about 100 members from the Nkanini community were waiting outside Kayamandi Police Station to get feedback from the municipality regarding when they would get electricity. Five people had been asked to go into the station to discuss matters with a municipal representative.

Upon exiting, these delegates addressed the crowd in Xhosa. The municipality had confirmed that they would receive electricity, but no time frame was provided. Furthermore, the crowd was urged to come to the station with proof if they wanted to lay charges against cops who had spray-gunned, beaten or shot at them with rubber bullets. The disgruntled crowd left for Nkanini to discuss the matter further at home.

I went to the top of Nkanini on Monday morning and tried to speak to the residents there. They refused to believe that I wasn't spying on them. One of them shouted: "Jy lieg! Jy's van die munisipala!" (You're lying! You're from the municipality!) They asked me to leave immediately as they wanted to discuss matters by themselves. Their unwillingness to speak is understandable: they have been talking and talking for years. The only option left seems to be violence.

Earlier on Saturday, I spoke to one of the security guards on top of Papegaaiberg. His job is to protect the power boxes and pump station and he was there on Friday night when his neighbours were toyi-toyiing. The irony is clear enough - this man has to guard the electricity that the municipality is denying him access to.

Will there be more protests? It seems as if the answer depends on how much longer Nkanini has to wait. The ball is in the municipality's court now.