As the United Nations Climate Negotiations droned on last Friday night, a very different gathering was happening 100 meters from the conference center. At the "Speakers Corner," which was the center of the Occupy COP17 activities, 10 boys from a local township put on a play as 50 audience members stood in a circle around them.
The play was about how three days prior to COP 17, the police had come into their community under a guise to "Clean up Durban for COP17," looted their small houses and shacks, taking their roofs and building materials, and essentially destroyed their homes. The boys performed in Zulu so many of the international onlookers couldn't understand the words; but watching the boys re-enact scenes where they plead with the violent officials to stop or hide with their families as their imaginary homes are ransacked, the message was easy to understand.
"The municipality said we were messing up the community and they didn't want the people coming to Durban for the United Nations conference to see us," said Jabulile Mdlalose, 36, who is now one of the displaced. "They are ashamed of us. We have nowhere to go in our own country. The worst part is that the order to destroy our community came from a councilman who had come campaigning in our neighborhoods just months before, promising that he would get us running water and electricity if we voted for him. We voted for him expecting something better and we got this."
Mdlalose is one of the thirty community members who, up until COP17, lived in the Mjondolo, a shack community within KwaMashu township. Townships are communities in South Africa that, from the late 19th century until the end of apartheid, were segregated areas where non-whites were forced to live. Post apartheid, these communities are now legally integrated but still face massive issues. One of the most challenging issues, especially in the shack communities, is that legal home ownership can be very difficult because the government often does not officially recognize them.
After the play ended, the boys started a soccer game. Many of the conference attendees, who had been cooped up all week in the conference center, joined in. The "Grannies" sat under blankets, huddled together to stay warm. Bonakele Mkhize, 58, sat on a piece of cardboard with her granddaughter in her lap. She talked about how she came down to the OCCUPY COP17 gathering to share her story. "I want people to know my story, and the story of my community, that we are homeless now and we have had everything taken from us. I am hoping there is someone out there to help get our home back," said Mkhize.
The community they were living in was a relatively new one because in 2009, these same people were forcibly evicted when a new road was built for the World Cup that was hosted by South Africa in 2010. That community had been their home for decades.
"Many of our children have had to experience such hardship, because they have been uprooted so many times. It's horrible, when we were evicted because of the World Cup we decided to lay down roots in our new community. I had saved every cent I earned to buy the building materials, I was planning on living the rest of my life there," says Mkhize. "Now I have to start all the way over again."
The question of where poor people are supposed to live came up a lot that evening at the Speakers Corner. "I am trying to make it. I help out my neighbors with odd jobs, I do washing for people. My husband died years ago so now I do what I can to get by," said Mkhize. Unemployment in South Africa is among the highest of developed countries in the world, edging up to 25 percent in the third quarter of 2011. Mkhize continues, "We are determined to get our community back. I have got nothing else more important to do than to find a place that is suitable for me and my grandchildren. My hope in life is that my granddaughter can get an education so she doesn't have to struggle like I have. I need to find a stable home for her to be a good learning environment, I can't keep moving her from here to there."
Mdalolase and Mkhize got in contact with Occupy COP17 organizers after they put an appeal for help out online. Occupy organizers contacted them right away and went out to where they were staying to meet with them face to face. Occupiers spent the day there listening to their story and talking about next steps. Within hours they had come up with a plan for the Occupiers to rent buses and bring the community members to Speakers Corner to share their story with a broader audience on the last night of the conference.
Anna Collins, who was in town from England for the conference, and had been working at the Occupy General Assemblies all week at OCCUPY COP17 said, "The Occupy movement is here to stand in solidarity with this community and other displaced communities around the world. We hope that as a visiting international community we can help raise up the voices of these people who are fighting for what we believe is a basic right, a roof to live under."
Until Mdlalose, Mkhize and others find a permanent place to live they are staying on the floors in relatives' homes or in abandoned shacks. They gather regularly to talk about the next steps to take to reclaim their community. The grandmother of the town, Sizani Shezi, 72, explained that during their meetings where they discuss logistics they encourage the youth to make music, plays and dance about their experience so the young people are expressing what they have gone through.
It is the hope of this community that people who saw the play and heard their story while here at COP17 will bring their story back home and connect it to stories of displacement and homelessness around the world. "So many people need help around the world. We are not the only ones crying, there are a lot of different people crying in different places," says Shezi. "But we will continue to fight here because we believe in a better South Africa where everyone has the same opportunities." Collins added, "And you can count on us for solidarity in that."
Please contact 'Jabu Ngwenya' on Facebook if you would like to connect directly to the community. You may also message Heather Box, the author of this post, and she will put you in contact with the community.