The Chairman's voice boomed through the walls of my shack: “Wake up! Wake up! P.E. is burning!” I rustled myself from sleep and rushed to the lone paved road skirting the northern edge of Riemvasmaak. The people had begun rioting to protest a lack of service delivery.
Barriers were erected at each main intersection in the area, blocking access to the communities, diverting traffic, and disrupting business. Every available obstruction was used, but flaming tires were the favorite--and most effective--instrument.
The riot was a multi-generational affair. Adults, teenagers, and children each played their part. Baby Snesh and her stuffed frog helped by adding pieces of newspaper to the fire.
Police were quickly on the scene. They began by attempting to extinguish the flaming tires by charging through them with a Casspir, the same armored vehicle employed in the apartheid era. Next, they turned on the protesters, attempting to disperse them with volleys of rubber bullets and blasts of tear gas from a cannon. People took cover wherever they could find it.
The police used rubber bullets and chemicals; people in Riemvasmaak used stones. Shielding themselves from the line of fire, protesters launch a barrage of rocks at police vehicles as they pass.
Tires blazing behind him, a youth in his school uniform hurls a rock at the police.
After multiple passes and a morning spent inside their vehicles, police change tactics. Armed officers charge the mob.
The drill was repeated daily. The mornings were tense: police vehicles patrolling while protesters continued to riot. As soon as the authorities succeeded in ripping apart a road block, protesters emerged from their hiding places with more stones and more tires.
The spirit of the apartheid freedom fighters lives on in South African townships. As rubber bullets ricocheted off of metal and wood, a community leader emerged from the dusty shadows with her hands raised high, in defiance, not surrender. She admonished the police for turning to violence and challenged protesters to discard stones and openly defend their right to non-violent protest.
The road blocks achieved their goal of disrupting traffic. Some vehicles refused to concede right of way. Enterprising mini-buses left tar and soot tracks along their improvised paths. Often, cars were chased and attacked by community members for attempting to pass.
Eventually, police set aside their initial tactics and began to dialogue with community members. Hands and faces smeared with soot and ash, protesters argued their case to the police.
The riot provided brilliant material for local newspapers. As the days went by and the riot continued, journalists and community leaders began to call each other by name.
Most parents made sure their children attended school in the morning, though they could see the flames from classroom windows. By afternoon, however, school had adjourned and teenagers joined the fight.
Each day of the protest followed a predictable rhythm of ebb and flow. By afternoon, the tense altercations had generally passed. For a diversion during the long days, teenagers turn to old protest traditions like tying wire to flaming tires and spinning them around like giant fire poi.
The riot persisted for one week. At times, the flames would calm, diminishing to an ember and a flicker, but they were never allowed to die.
Occasionally, the atmosphere resembled a backyard barbeque. Impromptu soccer games were contested in the street between barricades. World Cup officials could not have imagined the lasting influence of 2010.
Tires were preferred for burning for several reasons. There are practical advantages: a tire will burn for nearly an hour and is quickly relit after dousing (unlike wood). The color of the smoke is satisfyingly black. Perhaps most importantly, it is evocative of a long line of protest tradition.
Fires burned at several strategic intersections. There was one location in particular that proved significant, due to the positioning of a bridge over an impassable ditch. By loading the surface with debris and fire, they managed to completely stop traffic. It was here that the police became nastiest: harsh swearing, guns pointed inches from faces, vehicles hunting down people on sidewalks.
Material is at a premium in informal settlements, due to its many uses in ad hoc construction. Protesters scrounged up a variety of useful materials to use for barricades.
The police try various strategies to end the riot; none are very successful. By the end of the week, as long as the people are not violent, the police do not intervene. One inspector began to carry a video camera to document the police response. Nevertheless, they stood armed and ready to fire when needed.
Oppressed groups of South Africans have a distinguished history of protest. One tradition that has developed is 'toyi toyi,' a former war dance which was used to intimidate apartheid troops. It includes stomping feet and spontaneous chanting of political slogans and songs. It is a sign of strength in the face of impossible circumstances. The tradition continues in Riemvasmaak.
Only the wire coils and embers were left when the inferno had diminished. Circles of charred black pavement and ashes adorned intersections. Children often gathered to warm their hands over the smoldering stacks of debris.
Authorities express dismay that taxes would have to pay for patrol and cleanup of the riot. Community leaders counter that people with their backs against the wall have to do something—anything—to get attention to their plight.
By the last day, traffic was blocked and fires blazed at every informal settlement in the city. Riots have become an annual event: every year, authorities promise the people houses and electricity. Every year, they fail to deliver.
Riemvasmaak was fortunate to have a nearby tire lot with hundreds of scrap tires. The owner was happy to donate them to the community for the protests, saving himself the task of discarding them.
The tire lot, day seven. No more tires, no more riot. More meetings with and promises by the authorities. No explicit change has been realized. Nevertheless, it is a cathartic event. People seem satisfied. The riot was a rare opportunity for this marginalized community to change the power dynamic. For a brief period, they had a voice.