Shack Dwellers Chart Self Determination
For years NGOs and academics would represent the struggles of poor people in South Africa at international forums. It has been a long struggle for us to get to the point where we can represent ourselves in these spaces. We wish to be very clear that some of the NGOs and academics have resisted our demand that we be able to think and to speak for ourselves with as much hatred for our humanity as the state.
Some of them want to be our bosses and not our comrades. Some of them have tried to destroy what they cannot control using some of the same tactics as the state. They have presented us as criminals. As people that can’t think for ourselves. As people who are being used. We draw a clear line between those who are willing to struggle with the poor, to become part of us, to think with us, and those that insist on their right to think and speak for the poor. We are not looking for new bosses in the name of our own freedom. We draw a clear line between that part of the left that thinks that it has a right to rule the oppressed and that part of the left, that, however they were born into this world, works with the oppressed day after day, and year after year, to build the power of the oppressed.
Abahlali was formed out of anger, hunger and frustration. It developed out of a road blockade in Durban in March 2005 in which 14 comrades were arrested and charged with Public Violence. This road blockade was organized in a settlement called Kennedy Road. At this time none of us knew what the future entailed for the shack dwellers in Kennedy Road who refused to be excluded from the fruits of our new democracy and from development. A democracy that has come to serve the interest of the few while the majority of South Africans continue to live in deep poverty. The first thing the movement did after it was formed was to define itself before someone else could define us.
It was already clear that we were seen as the people who do not count in our own society. It was very clear that the state and the NGOs wanted to define us. We realized that the shack dwellers are presented as people who are helpless and useless. As people that need an NGO intervention or an academic who will give us a good education in politics and even provide us with a political direction. We refused this. We defined ourselves by a process of discussing our situation and coming to our own conclusions about who we are, what we need and how we can struggle for it. We mobilized shack dwellers and poor communities around a common goal and understanding. We started advocating for land and housing in our cities, pushing for the upgrading of informal settlements and against forced eviction.
We are still pushing for the right to the city for the poor. We stage protest marches. We petition, we picket outside state or municipal offices and yes we hold candle light vigils etc. We also engage in direct action. We connect ourselves to electricity. We occupy land. The state has proven to the people of South Africa that the only language that they understand is protests. We have to force them to accept our humanity. Without organisation and protest there is no progress. That is why we have adopted the "No land, No house No vote" campaign. This is to put pressure on the authorities to listen to our plight and take us seriously. But it is also because we don’t want to give our power away to politicians that use the people as ladders. We want to keep our power for ourselves. We want to build our own power from the ground up.
We believe that our struggle is our school. This is why we have created the University of Abahlali baseMjondolo. This is our own political school where we learn from one another. We learn from our meetings, at our all night camps that we hold on every quarter year. We learn from the streets during protests and we learn from the court rooms. But most importantly we have learnt from the old and young women and men. Our meetings are the center of our movement. This is where we discuss and think together. We talk things through until we come to a common understanding. Comrades from America are often shocked at how long our meetings are and at how many meetings we have. But the meetings are the foundation of our strength.
We have made alliances with those few NGOs that are willing to engage us as comrades rather than children. We hold paralegal workshops in collaboration with legal NGOs such as Socio Economic Right Institute of South Africa (SERI) and other partners but we also hold political schools that help us become who we are.
Abahlali have produced a new politic that we call a Living Politic. It is a living politic because it is understood by the old and the young, the educated and the uneducated. It is the politic that speaks to the fact that we have no water or electricity in the shacks or that it has become too expensive while in fact, as Mnikelo Ndabankulu from Abahlali puts it, “our lives need these services.” Everyone can see the justice of this politic. Everyone can own this politic together. This is the politic that drives us. This politic rejects the party political system that encourages a top down development approach that is sometimes against the will of the people. It is the politic that carried us in 2009 when the state backed gang attacked us in Kennedy Road and drove many of us, including myself, from our homes.
It is very clear that South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world and that the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen. We believe that the problems that we confront are political and not technical. We believe that we should build the power of the poor from below. We also believe that freedom and equality can only be achieved when the poor themselves take charge and lead themselves in their own lives.
The movement has won many victories including the victory against the ‘Slums Act’ which was a piece of legislation that was aiming at bulldozing all shacks in the province without the safe guards that all the policies and national legislation provides. It was a war on the poor. The Constitutional Court found this legislation invalid and inconsistent with the constitution. We have stopped most of the evictions that our shack communities are facing in our cities. We have won a struggle against the criminalization of activists by the state e.g. in the case of the Kennedy 12. We have successfully protected our space for our living politic and we have made our own international connections.
However Abahlali is not a perfect movement and we have many challenges as well. Some come from inside and some come from outside. Repression has damaged our movement. Some of our members who were displaced by the violent attack in Kennedy Road in 2009 remain homeless. The state still refuses to provide services needed by our communities or even to listen for that matter. Shack fires, floods, crimes and diseases caused by neglect of the state and its agencies continue. There is still no political will from our government to oppose the corruption in governance, the politicization of service delivery or an economic system that continues to make some us poor and others rich.
We were supposed to be quiet, to be good boys and girls, while others discussed our lives for us. We have, despite serious resistance from the state and some NGOs, succeeded in taking our place in the world as people that think and have a right to participate in all discussions. However we have a very, very long way to go before we are strong enough to stop this very modern apartheid that continues to divide us into rich and poor, people that count and people that don’t count, people that must burn and people that can be safe, people that are allowed to think and to speak and people that are supposed to be silent in the dark corners. But we know that we are not alone. People are struggling all over South Africa. People are struggling all over the world. Together we are strong.
By Comrade Mzwakhe Mdlalose
Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement of slum dwellers of South Africa.