Both India and South Africa are voting today in parliamentary elections. But change is not something that comes about every four or five years at the ballot box. The real change-makers are on the streets, moving towns, cities, and nations, forward through their daily struggles. Pule Raboroko was one such unsung South African leader. The below is a retrospective that honours this key personality in the South African SDI Alliance. Similar short biographies of the men and women who have forged this global social movement will be featured regularly on the SDI blog.
“It is my subsidy you are talking about. It is you the government who promised it to us and it is you the government who tell us that the R15,000 is all we are going to get for our years of misery and suffering. And now you want me to accept it when you pour my subsidy down the drain, down your throats and the throats of developers.” – Pule Raboroko.
Pule Raboroko was stabbed to death in a Kanana shebeen in the early hours of Sunday 25 October 1998. His young wife lost a husband, his little children lost a father, the Federation (uMfelandaWonye) lost a national leader and the nation lost an unsung hero.
Pule Raboroko was an ordinary man. Pule Raboroko was never going to get a minute’s silence in parliament or an obituary in the daily papers, written by one of the venerable scribes of the new elite. It is left to his family, his community and his comrades in uMfelandaWonye to honour his memory. Raboroko would have preferred it that way.
He was born in Sebokeng in the late 1950’s. Like millions in his generation he grew up with the painfully simple aspiration to help to overturn the apartheid regime that tormented and degraded him. Raboroko grew up to be a proud man who did not like to be humiliated. He wore his wounded manhood on his sleeve, and in the end it might well have cost him his life. Just like it has cost the lives of countless men in this country’s racially segregated ghettos.
Pule Raboroko spent 15 years of his adult life in a back-yard shack in Sebokeng. In 1983 he was in the forefront of the riots that rocked the Vaal and ratched up the fear and the desperation of the white state. He was a member of UDF and ANC street committees until 1994.
On the day of the elections he led his people out of the backyard shacks and into a promised land – 15 hectares of dry veld that, of course, was called Kanana. In the eyes of the new authorities (what did Fanon say – Black skin, White masks?) that act made Raboroko into a land-grabber, a leader of queue jumpers, someone who undermines development and profits from the desperation of the poor.
Raboroko was no angel, but he did deliver 3000 homeless families in the Vaal Triangle from decades of humiliation and extortion in the backyard shacks of Sebokeng. And this action inspired thousands of others to follow this example, for Raboroko had exposed a universal truth. Government queues don’t move, they just groove for the corrupt. Government threatens land invaders with harsh recrimination, but nothing gets government to negotiate as quickly as a land invasion.
It is not the point to praise or condemn invasions, but by honouring Raboroko’s memory we honour the real urban planners of our cities – those men and women who have been desperate enough to occupy land, build shacks, source water at great risk to themselves and their loved ones.
First came the backyard shack-dwellers of Sebokeng. Then came their comrades from Small Farm, Evaton, Sharpeville. Soon the settlement of Kanana was followed by Election Park, Boitumelo, Botshabelo … And Raboroko was always at hand to help his fellow squatter citizens, to block out sites, to draw as good a layout plan as any professional surveyor, to design and help build infrastructure, to provide water.
The politicians did not believe him when he told them that he was not undermining Government but was helping them to deliver on their promises. The people did. Not only the people in the Vaal, but poor people throughout the land.
They are crying for Pule Raboroko today in hundreds of informal settlements throughout South Africa. They mourn him in Joe Slovo Village, Despatch where he helped design a layout plan that helped settle two thousands families. They mourn him in VukuZenzele, Cape Town where he did the same for 250 families more. And the women in Nonzamo, Queenstown are wailing for the soul of the man who helped them get running water. The men in Newlands West, Durban sit silent and solemn by the side of their stoves, thinking of the man who was with them when they fled the violence in Siyanda and sought a safe place to live. And it is a pall of sadness as well as a pall of smoke that covers the shack settlements of the Vaal region this week. There is hardly a squatter family in Kanana, Agrinette Hills, Patrick Hunsley, Election Park, Boitumelo that is not reminded that it was not the liberty that was awarded them by this new government that gave them land.
In the time of the bitter arrival of freedom, Raboroko was your everyman. Raboroko was a rough, even violent and self-destructive man. But then he was a product of the urban shacklands, and violence and roughness is the equilibrium of the shacks. So why is it so difficult to recognise that rough men like Raboroko who are committed to their communities are central to our urban transformation? Why point self-righteously at his scars, why look at his warpaint and say “I told you so”? Why not rise above the insalubrious, just like Raboroko did?
In the city centres and the suburbs where planners and politicians live, memory subsides into the new demands of reconciliation and consumption. On the outskirts where Pule lived, and debauched and tried to build a better life with his fellow squatter citizens, people have nothing and so they survive on memory. Not rigid, not dogmatic, not even angry, but the memory of old roots, the memory of community, a memory that spreads over time, carried by imperfect heroes like Pule Raboroko. It is that memory kept alive that is the key to a better tomorrow. It is not a sanitised solution, ribboned with red tape. It is beauty replete with horror. It is the simple order in the very heart of disorder.
A cowardly thrust of cold steel on a dark night and the Federation lost its first urban planner. Not a well heeled professional, schooled in an urban grammer, made up of grids and regulations, but a multi-lingual, multi-historical visionary, trapped for a lifetime in a mosiac of shacks and unlit streets and stagnant puddles. This was his backdrop. This was his home – be it in Kanana or Piesang River, Khayelitsha or Cato Crest. Our urban planner took the Federation’s message to the formal world – where he and his colleagues were often ignored and ridiculed.
But what is it that the Raboroko’s of the Federation are trying to say? That development is not a linear progression to be mapped and regulated. It is a process whereby the poor themselves show the way to make throbbing mosaics out of the haphazard whirls of life.
There will not be a minute’s silence in Parliament for Pule Raboroko, but the women of the Federation hold his memory to their hearts and their whispers accompany his spirit on its journey to his ancestors. Our tired eyes are burning with tears held back, as if by clouds of thick smoke on a highveld night, dust, and a wind as sharp and merciless as death.