By: Teo Wickland, Urban Planning Ph. D. student
Ashraf Cassiem cuts a trim and sprightly figure. His round, piercing eyes and wide, sparsely-toothed smile evince his gregarious and passionate nature. He shares a table with me in a dusty temporary office on UCLA’s campus, on the day of the launch of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy. Ashraf relates his stories, ideas, hopes and theories of power and justice. He shares histories of race and class—the nonwhite and the poor, two groups which occasionally intermingle and blur.
His story begins in 1966. Ashraf was born under Apartheid in Cape Town, South Africa. His father had grown up in pre-Apartheid District 6—a mixed neighborhood of Jews, Arabs, Chinese, blacks, and others. But such mixing was not tolerated under Apartheid. In 1950, Ashraf says, “the forced removals started; District 6 was removed completely: there’s nothing in District 6”. As a child, Ashraf grew up in an enforcedly, homogenously “colored” (lighter-skinned black) neighborhood. He recognized and responded to the state violence represented by the production of this homogeneity. In primary school, he threw stones at police: “We grew up in that space where we were challenging power, challenging white supremacy.” But stone-throwing was risky:
“In South Africa, under Apartheid, if you even stand with a stone, you get arrested. You don’t go to trial, you don’t have a trial, you’d be 60 days without trial, 90 days without trial. Sometimes it didn’t even go to trial. It was all Section 23, Section 29—anti-terrorist laws.”
One day in 1977, Ashraf came upon a peaceful protest. “All of a sudden the police just started to shoot.” The trauma of witnessing a senseless bloodbath added to his preexisting indignation, and he joined the anti-Apartheid movement at age 11. In the 1980s, he joined the Congress of South African Students (COSAS), a resistance organization connected to the then-underground ANC. Ashraf and his COSAS compatriots followed orders broadcast by the ANC over clandestine pirate radio stations like Spear of the Nation, or distributed via militaristic pamphlets. Their mantra to COSAS was: “Roar, young lions”. When the Apartheid regime banned COSAS, Ashraf and his fellows founded CAOS—Congress of Austerville Organized Students, which pursued the same ends as COSAS.
After finishing secondary school, Ashraf’s dream of pursuing medicine was blocked by quota limits: “only white people could study medicine”. His graduation then meant unemployment. He moved back to his mother’s home and took temporary, informal jobs as he could find them. On October 17, 2000, Ashraf was headed from his mother’s home to one of these casual gigs when he saw a person standing on the street crying. The man was being evicted, and felt helpless. “I said, ‘Put your hand in my pocket; I’m speaking for you now.’” When government agents arrived to empty the victim’s house, “we stepped in and we stopped them. And then when they [brought] something out, we put it back in. So it was an up-and-down, up-and-down kind of thing. So they called the police and … the sheriff of the court.” Meanwhile, other members of the community gathered, some of whom also helped to resist the eviction. “The police came and gave us five minutes to disperse and leave the house. And then we refused, and they just started to like, shoot it up.” Ashraf explains: “I was brutally assaulted. The police kicked my teeth.” Police dogs bit his legs. That wasn’t the end of it. “My mother got a heart attack on that day. She saw what was happening, she saw it out the window, all the police, so she came, and she saw it was me, and she tried to grab me—and then they assaulted her together with me, like 19 police.” By coincidence, a freelance journalist was making a personal visit next door. He captured video and photographs of the scene—which were immediately sold to newspapers and widely publicized that same evening. The police arrested Ashraf and five others, to which the community responded by occupying the police station where they were held. They were “sitting on the floor, sitting in the offices, making sure nobody can work, from the entrance, right up to the cells”. The police “were forced to release us”. But “I was beaten up, so I couldn’t walk. I was in pain. … I was brutalized. I was unconscious like four times. And awake again, and unconscious again.”
After their release, Ashraf and the others “went back to our community and we put 17 families back in their homes, that were evicted that day. Immediately. We were limping, can’t eat.” They offered taxi fare to the security agents guarding the vacated houses and told them to leave. Those who refused were intimidated out by members of local street gangs. All the security agents were removed, and all 17 families who were evicted that day were back in their homes that night, despite the activists’ dire physical state. This sacrificial struggle was successful: “They’re still in their houses. Other than two families that moved due to problems in the family—not because they were evicted—they still live in those same houses today.”
Ashraf and his fellow activists soon realized that many others had been evicted previously, without their knowledge, and that more evictions were likely to follow. They began to collect rent invoices to determine who might be at risk of eviction. “We collected invoices and we didn’t know what to do with it. We just wanted to touch people, go, collect the paper, show we were going to do something.” It turned out “the whole community was in trouble”: “of the papers, 92% of people were fitting the description [of who] might be evicted”. During this time, news of the group’s efforts spread among other communities. Initial interest had been piqued by the news reports of the October 17 eviction resistance, centering on the photographs taken by the freelance journalist who was coincidentally present. Activists from other communities began contacting Ashraf’s group. In February 2001, the group launched the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC).
Over the years, the AEC engaged in numerous interventions to fight evictions. The group taught community members how to physically defend their spaces against eviction actions. The AEC travelled to the World Social Forum in Brazil in 2003, sharing their militarist anti-eviction philosophy and strategy with groups from around the world. The AEC further formed a legal committee, the Campaign for Recognition of a Fundamental Right to a Home. This committee uses the principle of layman’s representation to represent community members in a court of law. The committee has won numerous cases halting evictions, and continues to litigate today.
Throughout its time, the AEC has always fiercely guarded its independence, Ashraf says, in order to remain true to its goals and its values as a radical, community-based anti-eviction organization. “We don’t work with NGOs…. We don’t go to them for help and we don’t offer them help. NGOs, intellectuals, academics—we don’t work with that shit. We say they’re the Trojan horses of neoliberalism.” Some other organizations have taken a different tack—notably, those controlled by Jared Sacks, a wealthy, educated white activist whose money Ashraf says “influences this space” and is “killing our organization”. Sacks’ groups have worked with NGOs and intellectuals, to their peril. Ashraf maintains that the AEC’s independence facilitates its work:
“We win because we don’t know. When there’s a white man with you, you’re supposed to [know]. And then they treat you differently. You understand? For example, I’m getting evicted, you say, ‘Why?’ The sheriff has to explain it to you. But when the white man is there, he says, ‘You can’t evict because according to Section this or that…’, [then the sheriff will think,] ‘Oh, so you know this shit? You understand this shit. You’re making like you don’t know what’s happening.’ If the white man’s there, he’s going to explain it away because he wants to be seen to be knowing everything. And he throws his money around.”
Some groups have tried, unsuccessfully, to donate money to the AEC. “I gave it back to them, because … we didn’t want money. We wanted struggle.”
Ashraf likewise sees a risk in working with an organization like the Institute on Inequality and Democracy: “Today, we were all workshopped. So, that’s dangerous. That’s very dangerous, to be workshopped. Because once you [academics] understand the problem, it becomes acceptable to you. And then you don’t act. You explain it away, after the workshop. And then you look for money to pay your debt, and then you’re not going to act. You understand?”
Ashraf frames the struggle for housing in Cape Town as part of a broader quest for pan-African justice. “If South Africa is not free, Africa will never be free.” But he believes freedom is possible, and the Institute on Inequality and Democracy may have the capacity to help.
“I have that hope [for African freedom]. I am the living proof that I have that hope. That’s why I’m bringing this shit here. The problem is that—how? How? So, this is where this space [the Institute on Inequality and Democracy] comes in. The resources for this space, the knowledge in this space, the possibilities of this space—that is what is inspiring, because this space [academia] is usually anti-‘us’.”
“Our people—poor people—they will be influenced in this space. They will change their minds in this space. But in the communities, they will express themselves, you see? … There must be a way that this space is used not in this space. … This space can make a lot of things happen. So, what I’m saying is that, I don’t want my children to come study in your school. I want them to learn where they are, you know? They must learn where they are, and then that knowledge that is created in that space then gets shared into this [space—the Institute on Inequality and Democracy]. You understand? So that you can be workshopped, from that perspective—not the other way around where you get to create the knowledge and then workshop us. We can, you know, it’s a turn-around, a revolution.”
This may be confusing. But part of Ashraf’s point it is that it is not necessary—indeed, it may be detrimental—to understand the logic of the AEC as a radical movement. Rather, it is necessary to understand and to amplify the movement’s imperative to struggle for justice.