Zombies in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Satirical protest & mobilisation against Apartheid-era policies in Cape Town

On 30 September 2019 an unusual scene flooded Cape Town as ‘zombie’ protesters fled through the inner city in a satirical protest against the re-emergence of Apartheid-era policies in post-Apartheid South Africa. The mass mobilization was driven by activists who have been decrying regressive social policy that has ‘come back from the dead’ to reinstitutionalise race and class segregation in Cape Town. CIVICUS spoke to Zacharia Mashele, Media and Communications Officer, from Ndifuna Ukwazi about the need to use satire in protests to garner broad support and some of the major hurdles to spatial justice 25 years since the end of Apartheid.

Tell us a bit about Reclaim the City and the origins of the organization? What is the social, political and economic context in which the organization works?

Reclaim the City is a social movement bringing together tenants and workers living in the inner city. We campaign to stop the eviction and displacement of poor and working-class people and secure access to decent affordable housing close economic centres. 

South African cities remain segregated and deeply unequal. We understand that ongoing spatial apartheid replicates historical injustice and we aim to build the inclusive city and transformed society that our hard fought for Constitution guarantees. 

Reclaim the City has successfully reclaimed three public buildings in the inner city and surrounds. Ahmed Kathrada House in Green Point, Cissie Gool House, in Woodstock and Irene Grootboom House in the city centre. Combined, they are providing dignified emergency housing to around 1000 members who would otherwise have been displaced or sent to a relocation camp. 

We occupied these public buildings because our members are desperate for housing. Because we cannot afford to pay our rents anymore. Because we don’t want to live on the street when we are evicted. Because we don’t want to be sent to relocation camps by the government to be forgotten. Because we are tired of living in distant informal settlements and townships. Because we have little land and no security.

We occupied public buildings because we too have a right to live in the City. A right to walk along the beach promenade and in the city gardens. A right to have a view of the sea. A right to raise our children and care for our families in good areas where there are good schools and good hospitals. A right to be close to work and earn an income. We occupied public buildings because the City, the Province and the National Government here in South Africa have failed us. They say we must wait patiently for social reform and that the land and housing will come. But it never does and most likely it never will unless we organise against the property power that maintains inequality and spatial apartheid.

How has the organisation engaged with protests and mass mobilisation over the years, and how has this evolved with the times?

Like so many communities and social movements in South Africa, we’ve drawn on traditions of organising and mobilisation that have historical roots. Protest marches, land occupations, singing and solidarity actions are all part of the social fabric of South African society. 

While these traditions were appropriate for organising against the apartheid state, many have had to be adapted to tackle inequality and injustice today. Lack of access to housing, like so many issues, is both felt at the local level and at the same time is a symptoms of global power relations. 

We cannot speak of a right to housing and the need to advance spatial justice without recognising that financial flows in a neoliberal economic order are influencing land markets and the commodification of housing here in Cape Town. So, as the saying goes, we try to act locally but think globally.

In South Africa, the state is captured by ideologies that are invested in maintaining the status quo and feeding the interests of a minority who benefit from this favourable treatment. The state has become less responsive to mass mobilisation and protest and more likely to rely on tactics of violence and suppression using the police. In other instances, government simply does not have the capacity to implement changes. So often protest and demands have little impact, no matter the numbers of people who mobilise. 

This is compounded in segregated cities like Cape Town where poor and working class people do not readily have access to the city centre where government and businesses are located because of the expense of public transport. 

Our primary strategy, therefore, has been to organise and mobilise in the inner city. We think it is time to take the struggle for housing to the centre of the city, to the heart of power, to the people who should live there, and to the land that matters. Occupying public buildings has also been a powerful tactics. It has provided us with a space to educate, organise and mobilise ourselves; forming and demonstrating that people’s power is sustained and highly visible. 

We’ve tried many creative protests that target particular individuals in power and have adopted the South American escrache, visiting politicians at their homes or offices rather than waiting for them at the steps. We cooked breakfast for the former Mayoral Committee member for Urban Development at 5am in the morning on the street outside his home. We’ve also occupied public squares and public land. We’ve held sit ins. We disrupted speeches and strung up banners across highways. And then some.

But these are the public moments. We recognise that mobilising takes daily organising and most of our work is done through discussions and meetings. We have consciously tried to avoid replicating patriarchal structures you find in the state, in political parties and in unions - our leadership is democratically elected and sits on a flat committee. No single person is in charge. We make sure that children are welcome at all our meetings and events.

But ultimately we know that organising against powerful interests takes time and needs to be sustained. We are here not only to demonstrate but to build community and we are here for the long journey. 

On 30 September 2019, Reclaim the City organized a Zombie protest. Tell us a bit more about what this is and why the protests emerged?

We had spent a number of years organising to influence the Mayor to adopt a progressive approach to housing, land and spatial justice and we had made good progress. A number of new public housing projects were announced, the sale of public land was ended. 

However, internal factional fighting within the centre-right party that governs the city led to the ousting of the Mayor and a cabal of conservative neoliberal politicians took power. They had begun to intimidate the movement with night-time raids and threatened mass evictions. They immediately rolled back the inclusive agenda and established new relocation camps for evictees on the periphery. 

While poor and working-class people are affected by these changes, the majority of middle class residents tend to live in a bubble both unaware and unaffected. We wanted to get the word out that many members of the Mayoral Committee were in fact members of the National Party, which governed during Apartheid, and that this new cabal were following ideas which were similar or had a similar impact leading to the segregation and displacement of poor and working-class people during apartheid. 

So, together with world-renowned guerrilla activists the Yes Men, we came up with the idea of mobilizing our members to attend a spoof zombie rally of old National Party members back from the dead to support the new Mayor and his ideas. Everybody dressed up as zombies and when we got to the Mayor's office, we raised the old Apartheid State President PW Botha from the dead.

Why was it important to use satire for this protest?

We want to push the boundaries of what protest can look and feel like in Cape Town and try new innovative ways to cut through the information clutter and get our message out there. We wanted to disrupt what ordinary people see as normal behaviour from politicians or sensible economic policy, and which is in fact totally inhumane and unjust, 

At the same time, we wanted our members to have fun and take some risks. Zombies are the perfect symbol for bad ideas from a political party that everyone thought was long in the grave. 

Did you find that there was more engagement in the protest because of the use of satire? What were some of the responses (from citizens, policymakers and others) from the protests?

We started off by mobilising online. We set up spoof profiles on social media of City politicians as National Party Zombies posting silly and amusing content and slowly started introducing more pointed content. It generated a broad interest and laid the foundation for the rally in the public imagination while recruiting allies to take part. 

At the same time, we actively organised and recruited amongst our membership. At first, people were nervous, especially as many members have cultural-based fears of engaging with anything associated with those who have passed away. We organised public meetings, horror movie nights and zombie dance competitions for the youth and more and more people started to get involved. 

Within a week we had 200 zombies of all ages and races ready to rally in town. The coverage from the media was good and we got National Party Zombies on the front pages of two citywide dailies. The Mayor did not know what to do and decided to not engage at all or make a comment. It drove the point home - how exactly are things different or the same as during apartheid?

 What are some of the next steps following the protests? What needs to change in Cape Town for the realisation of spatial justice?

Changing a city structurally to make it more inclusive is a political project that must stretch across generations. Our immediate goal is to avoid a mass eviction of our members and we think the City administration is going to think twice about that now. 

Our main demands include the:

  • Cease City-led mass evictions from state land

Acknowledging the devastating long-term impact of forced removals on Black, Coloured and Indian communities, the City of Cape Town must, in principle, no longer support City-led mass evictions from state land.

  • Upgrade all informal settlements

Acknowledging how historical land dispossession has led to intergenerational trauma and systemic economic disparity, the City of Cape Town must recognise its obligation to redistribute state land to redress past injustices by, inter alia, guaranteeing long-term security of tenure for all residents living in all informal settlements.

  • Shut down all Temporary Relocation Areas

Acknowledging the spatial inequality resulting from the establishment of segregated townships under apartheid, the City of Cape Town must, within three years, shut down all Temporary Relocation Areas (TRAs) on the periphery of the city, and rehouse residents in refurbished public buildings or on state land in well-located areas.

  • Cease the sale of all City-owned land

Acknowledging the central role the Constitution places on land redistribution in transforming South African society and the desperate need of many for access to land, the City must recognise it to be in breach of their obligations to sell or lease public land that could be used to satisfy that need.

  • Reject policy direction from large developers

The City of Cape Town must recognise its obligation to advance spatial justice through urban planning rather than obeisance to a market logic that has served only the wealthy. And recognising that large development companies have for the past ten years built housing which has been unaffordable for the vast majority of residents, the City must engage developers through the planning process to secure affordable housing in the public interest and publish an Inclusionary Housing Policy within the next six months for public comment.

How can protests, like this one, serve to that end?

We need provocative protests, and creative protests that will ensure broad participation and support from not only our members but across race and class. It is only when we shift the politics of the centre that what was impossible becomes possible. 

Our long-term goal is to try to change the political discourse so that residents understand what the problem is and see our vision of an inclusive spatially-just city as the new normal and achievable rather than something we can only dream of. 

Ultimately, we need to continue to find strategies to hold those in power to account and shift what has become business as usual. We’re prepared to bring solutions to the table.


Born Dlamba Zacharia Mashele from Bosplaas West, North West holds a BA Degree in Journalism and a certificate in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography Program. He is currently the Media and Communications Officer for Ndifuna Ukwazi, a non-profit organisation that advocates for spatial justice in Cape Town. He also provides support with media and communications for Reclaim the City, a social movement advocating for affordable housing in the inner city of Cape Town. He is passionate about photojournalism and videojournalism and this entails creating photo projects and docu-series focusing on land and housing struggles in Cape Town.

Follow them at:

Ndifuna Ukwazi – www.Twitter.com/NdifunaUkwazi

Reclaim the City – www.Twitter.com/reclaimct