Gangs are killing us, says politician sleeping in a coffin
Member of the Eastern Cape legislature is staging an unusual protest to get the attention of ministers
From hurling faeces at public buildings to torching almost anything, SA politicians never fail to shock in their protests – even in “death”.
Since last Thursday, Christian Martin, an ANC member of the Eastern Cape legislature, has been sleeping in a coffin outside the provincial buildings in Bhisho to highlight the plight of his community, which is under siege from gangsters.
Martin, a Khoi-San activist who is also a former MEC, and other community members have pitched tents and planted dozens of crosses which they say symbolise people who have died in gang violence since April. On Tuesday, Martin told Times Select that more than 75 people had been killed by gangs in Bethelsdorp, Port Elizabeth.
A sickly Martin said he would continue sleeping in the coffin until police minister Bheki Cele and justice minister Michael Masutha listened to the community’s grievances. “I have caught a fever sleeping here in the coffin. I am not very well now. I am self-medicating,” he said.
“We had a two-hour meeting with the premier and the relevant MECs at the premier’s office. It was an extensive meeting where we had to explain how it is like to live in the northern areas of Port Elizabeth.
“They were sympathetic with our situation and they agreed that our situation needs intervention. We also explained to them that this situation needs more than just a gang unit because the conditions that you face in the community are socio-economic problems – high unemployment, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy. They agreed that they will assist us.”
Martin defended his use of unconventional protest tactics, saying what he was doing was peaceful and effective. “No one gets hurt at the end of the day and no infrastructure gets damaged,” he said. “A coffin symbolises death and heartbreak. This coffin represents the northern areas, and inside the coffin I represent the community.
“Tonight it’s going to be the sixth night that I am sleeping in this coffin. It is going to go on until we get a date with the ministers.”
Compared to the torching of libraries and schools and sewage being flung at Cape Town International Airport, Martin’s coffin protest is relatively tame, but innovative.
Former Cosatu leader Zwelinzima Vavi, now general secretary of the SA Federation of Trade Unions, said shock value was necessary to get the attention of the authorities. He said people also believed they had to use violence to get a response.
“It’s about attention,” he said. “People believe that the government is generally unresponsive unless they do something extraordinary. One of the extraordinary things, which is very destructive, is burning libraries and community halls.
“Cosatu once did a survey to figure out why protest actions turn violent. The response was that more than 50% of people believed that in order to get government and employers’ attention they have to resort to violence.”
He described colourful protests as “the politics of the spectacular. Even the guy in the coffin, he knows it is guaranteed that his cause will be given attention.”
Political economy analyst Zamakhaya Maseti agreed that bureaucrats had become unresponsive to protests.
“There is also a lack of accountability. This was demonstrated by Jacob Zuma, who did not respect the public protector’s reports. He was defended by parliament, which inculcated that culture of unaccountability. The uncaring attitude is entrenched in the public service.
“People end up resorting to extreme forms of protests. For instance, #FeesMustFall appealed to students and parents. But when it took a different turn and burned universities, it lost public sympathy.”