Mass demonstration against poverty, housing injustice and xenophobia

BRICs from Below 16 October 2023

On Saturday morning, 14 October 2023, approximately three thousand activists from working-class community civics, housing advocacy groups, socialist left movements, civil and human rights organisations, and ordinary inner-city residents joined victims of the Marshalltown fire. We demonstrated across the length and breadth of central Johannesburg.

The march commenced from the Hillbrow Recreational Centre where people started gathering from 9h00, and began marching at 10h00. The procession traversed many areas of the Joburg CBD, including 80 Albert Street, the building where 77 people were burned alive, also leaving terrible injuries for many survivors. The end point was the Gauteng legislature, responsible for turning the national housing budget into real accommodation, where our protest ended at 14h00.

The march was a demonstration of our determination to fight for justice for victims of the Marshalltown fire, for upgrading 220 residential buildings within the inner-city which have been abandoned by the slovenly municipal leaders and by irresponsible private owners, andfor a massive public-housing construction programme that would require rapid land release and well-located mega-housing development projects for everyone needing shelter in Gauteng Province.

Above all, this demonstration rejected the city’s scapegoating of the poor, of immigrants and of allied NGOs, and especially the new pandemic of xenophobia. Our march revealed the society’s deep-rooted working-class solidarity, our unity in struggle and our internationalism, as basic principles of our movement and struggle.

A massive turn-out
The turn-out exceeded all our expectations. We projected and planned for two to three hundred people, but hoped for five hundred.

In a period of surging struggles, especially at a time when the progressive movement is engaged in many campaigns – including solidarity with Palestine as Israel’s bombardment of Gaza intensifies, allowing us to offer significant energies, time and attention – we couldn’t have hoped for a more robust and enthusiastic display of urban social dissent. The turn-out is a testament to the anger and determination on the part of residents of the Joburg inner-city, informal settlements, working=class townships and especially of the Marshalltown fire survivors.

The thousands who marched were clearly determined to denounce Johannesburg metro officials, politicians and opposition parties who have been united in attacking us and scapegoating especially immigrants (even though 80 Albert Road was a majority South African-occupied residence). We marched in part to defy the intimidation emanating like a burst sewer, from reactionary xenophobes and from the political parties trying to ride the tiger of inhuman, anti-Ubuntu sentiments. Their aim is to silence the victims, in order throw the dust in the eyes of the working class and the poor of this country. More than anything, the demonstration was a massive rebuke and rejection of cynical rightwing populist politics being conjured up by government officials and the ruling party and xenophobic opposition parties. How we express our fury, in theatre and street university

The demonstrations were lively and spirited. The chanting, toyi-toying, singing and dancing brought the city to life. The speeches were electrifying. In addition to the thousands who participated, there were thousands more cheering from the sidelines and from building balconies and windows, in clear solidarity with the protesters. The march repeatedly stopped at major intersections to address bystanders on our demands for housing and our appeals against xenophobia. Reaching out with respect for fellow residents was not only educational but uplifting. From the massive approval expressed by many bystanders, it is clear that popular education about inner-city rights will be well-received. And this display of a united, working-class urban social movement would convince them – and all residents – that there is an alternative to xenophobia and other artificially-induced divisions. We are all fed up with the scapegoating of other poor people. It was clear from the support we received that our compatriots are well able to appreciate the enormous power of the united working class.

We will be tapping into this experience, to now organise more mass events, to reject the xenophobic platforms of the mainstream parties and rightwing demagogues, and to prevent the weaponisation of migration in the coming elections.

Tribune of the masses
The march was, however, not only about the toyi-toyi and chants. This was a tribune – a respected representative – of the masses, constituted in the best democratic traditions of the working class. Overall more 15 speeches were delivered from the wide spectrum of our movement, drawing from the oppressed communities. On trial was the entire predatory elite of heartless politicians, bureaucrats and corporate interests they serve.

Testimonials, speeches and interventions from the crowd together exposed all the lies regarding what truly happened on 31 August at 80 Albert Street. The speakers recalled the utter callousness of Johannesburg, Gauteng and National government officials. And we learned much more about the real causes and forces behind the Marshalltown tragedy, about widespread homelessness, and about the horrific conditions often experience by exploited residents of Inner-city buildings, of informal settlements and of the distant working-class townships.

The verdict was clear. The City of Johannesburg, Gauteng Province and National government are together liable for the 77 deaths and hundreds of injuries. They owe compensation to the Marshalltown fire victims. They are guilty of abdicating responsibility to maintain the buildings for years if not decades. They fail to provide safe, decent accommodation for all the poor in the inner city and across the province and country. We find all spheres of government – as well as the capitalist construction industry – guilty of failing to build enough affordable houses, thereby condemning the poor to try to survive in delipidated buildings, in shack dwellings and in poor housing.

Our activists and community organisations are united in demanding decent public housing to end homelessness, informal settlements and the growing housing backlog. If Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana dares lower the housing and services budget any further, there will be hell to pay.

Media boycott must end
The Marshalltown Fire Justice Campaign notes with extreme disappointment, how the mainstream media failed not only to cover our protest, but to contest the attitudes of reactionary xenophobes since the fire, and indeed well before.

Despite having advanced notice, the mainstream media appears to have completely boycotted coverage of our protest. Thanks to this omission, the people of Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa, the rest of Africa and the world were denied an opportunity to see black working-class people united against xenophobia, and to understand our common demands that decent housing be provided to all.

This attitude is in stark contrast to the over-the-top coverage of Operation Dudula, with its small demonstrations which nowhere have ever exceeded 500 participants. Boycotting our protest also stands in contrast to media coverage of xenophobes. The messaging of rightwing demagogues from the Patriotic Allience, ActionSA, the ruling party’s xenophobic wing and others, is regularly given coverage in the mainstream media. Almost every single one of the political figures who are central to these projects lacked any organised mass base, before their sensational media coverage and elevation to become rightwing political celebrities and commentators. And yet they still contribute nothing to the public discourse except spewing hate and prejudice.

Next steps
The participants of all the interventions and meetings preceding this action agreed unanimously that this is only a step up a ladder of mass assemblies and actions to force accountability, and for housing justice. Many more will follow unless the City of Johannesburg meet with us, respecting the letter we sent requesting a meeting. In a clear show of class and political contempt for the poor and working class, metro officials have not responded to our request, despite the wide endorsement of the campaign and the issues raised. This haughtiness and arrogance reminds of a neo-colonial, aristocratic attitude instead of the openness, humility and proactiveness we demand from democratically-elected representatives of the people. We have every intention to escalate, including consideration of a city-wide shutdown if we do not get any response from the Joburg Metro and other relevant government departments.


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