Homelessness: The politics of place
The #WeSeeYou collective’s occupation of a Camps Bay Airbnb is both activism and performance art. In that, it’s succeeded in getting South Africans to think more deeply about the issue of homelessness
If you’re an art collective of queer black and coloured activists from the working and middle class, I would imagine the last thing you want is a white, middle-class man writing approvingly about your work. The potential for being patronised, misunderstood or having your message derailed is immense. And even if those pitfalls are avoided, it’s going to open you up to accusations of being drastically uncool.
So I tried not to comment on the recent artwork by the #WeSeeYou collective, I really did. But I just love it too much. If you’ve forgotten the work, or don’t know the story because the Covid-caused dearth of regular suburban braais means your source of things to be outraged about has dried up, let me remind you. On the weekend of September 19, seven people from the #WeSeeYou collective moved into a fairly luxurious Airbnb house in Camps Bay, a suburb in what the SABC news mysteriously called "the upmarket Cape peninsula".
News24 described the house as "comprising five bedrooms and five bedrooms", which is a lot of bedrooms, even for a mansion. The collective paid for two days, but on September 21, the day they were supposed to move out, they just stayed, and declared that they were staging a sit-in. And, as of writing this column, they’re still there.
Turnkey365, the property management company that runs bookings for the house, said: "We sympathise with their cause and support the right to protest within the confines of the law." But, it said, it has to protect its client’s interests. The company also pointed out that the livelihoods of its staff were potentially affected.
After #WeSeeYou ignored a deadline of Thursday September 24 to move out, Turnkey365 took the fight to the Western Cape High Court, to try to recoup costs incurred by the collective’s occupation.
The court, in the person of justice Mokgoatji Josiah Dolamo, ordered the collective to vacate the property by noon on Thursday October 8, or they will be liable for the R50,000 that the property’s management says it has lost as a result of the protest.
There are two ways to look at this. Well, way more than two ways, but there’s only so much you can do in a short column.
The first is through the prism of activism. What does #WeSeeYou actually hope to accomplish with this sit-in? One of the primary objectives appears to be to try to push back against the prevailing propaganda trope that land occupiers are evil and destructive, rather than desperate and human.
It can’t be easy to move into a space that is set up historica lly, socially, economica lly, racially, and even geographically, to render you alien in
your own country
The #WeSeeYou statement reads, in part: "Our city, our country has enough infrastructure, resources to ensure that everyone has a home and food. Instead, the police are sanctioned by the government at local and national level to commit violence against people. People who have nowhere to live are violently removed from their homes or live in fear of being kicked out."
It continues: "The DA and the city [have] made many accusations against activists who want to protect the lives of human beings who are being pulled naked from their homes. A lot of energy and resources have been invested in creating an anti-occupation narrative, painting occupiers and land and housing activists as dangerous and malicious, instead of simply in need.
"These harmful narratives lead people to believe that occupations will invite crime, or threaten individuals’ property rights and homes. This is not true."
This is the DA’s inability to provide affordable housing for poor people literally coming home to roost. Or coming home to roast, I guess, if you watch some of the videos of #WeSeeYou member Kelly-Eve Koopman lambasting the city’s housing policymakers.
The second way to look at the #WeSeeYou occupation — and it’s a way the members invite, when they foreground their status as an art collective — is through the prism of art.
Collective member Devaarne Muller explains it like this: "Placing our bodies and existing in a space where we have been told we don’t belong is an assertion of our imagination. This is surrealism. The lived reality of a marginalised person of colour in our country, and globally, is at times so violent and ridiculous that perhaps the only way to begin to craft a transformative future for ourselves, is to imagine and create with the tool of fantasy."
In her book, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, about the Russian feminist performance art collective and protest punk-rock group, Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen writes: "A great work of art — something that makes people pay attention, return to the work again and again, and re-examine their assumptions, something that infuriates, hurts, and confronts — a great work of art is always a miracle."
Pussy Riot became globally famous because of an illegal performance of their song, Mother of God, Drive Putin Away, that they staged inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012.
Some of the lyrics of that song might resonate with the #WeSeeYou protest, especially if we replace the god of Russian Orthodoxy with the god of capitalism: "The phantom of liberty is up in heaven/Gay pride sent to Siberia in a chain gang/Head of the KGB, their chief saint/Leads protesters to jail under guard/so as not to offend the deity."
The video of the protest performance, a mixture of live and staged footage, is extraordinarily moving. The five women, in summer dresses of different colours that contrast violently with the somber richness of the cathedral, and wearing brightly coloured balaclavas, sing their song while church officials try to stop them.
It takes a lot of courage to take on both the Russian Orthodox church and Vladimir Putin, and there was a cost. Three members were arrested, denied bail, convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred", and sentenced to two years in prison.
One woman’s sentence was suspended, but the other two served almost two years.
Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina "described her prison sentence as a time of ‘endless humiliations’, including forced gynaecological examinations almost every day for three weeks".
#WeSeeYou’s occupation is also courageous, and perhaps that hasn’t been highlighted enough. It can’t be easy to move into a space that is set up historically, socially, economically, racially, and even geographically, to render you alien in your own country.
The Daily Voice’s headline — "No Place Like Homo: Gays Invade ‘Safe’ Camps Bay Holiday House" — gives you an idea of how normalised homophobia still is. Though I do like the use of inverted commas around "safe", which serves, inadvertently, to highlight the courage needed for this sort of artwork.
On the face of it, the legal response to #WeSeeYou’s protest art seems positively benign by comparison with the Pussy Riot example. But that in itself highlights the vulnerability of the majority of South Africans, in a country where a R50,000 fine has the potential to be crippling.
There’s also the disturbing allegation, in a #WeSeeYou media statement, accusing the law firm representing the property company of using "racist, homophobic and classist language including statements like … ‘We do not negotiate with terrorists’."
Assuming this is accurately reported — this is an untested allegation — it does point to the power of art as a political vehicle. When you’re calling artists terrorists, that art is working.
There’s been a lot of pushback to the #WeSeeYou collective, accusing its members of being indulgent artists rather than efficient activists. I prefer to see them as efficient artists, which is a different kind of activism. They’ve achieved one of the things they say they set out to do, which is to get people who wouldn’t necessarily even think about "broken backgrounds and cemented wounds", the stark racial, class and gender fault lines of the Cape, to see them.
In the end, it appears to be a simple message. "There are more of us who are not happy under the system and want to make things better for all … It is scary, but the world requires us to show ourselves and be seen."
I’d also argue that one of their important interventions is in the question (an almost always rhetorical one, alas), "To whom does activism belong?"
Their answer, and indeed the implied assertion of their artwork, is that activism is like art. It should belong to everyone, even those who don’t want it. Which is, arguably, the overriding characteristic of an artwork: everyone is entitled to interpret it. The artists can’t control those interpretations, but they can use the power of their artwork to at least force you to make them.
Right now, there are a lot more people in Cape Town (and by extension, SA) thinking about the plight of the homeless than there were a month ago.
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