In one of few appearances since he was forced to go underground, S’bu Zikode, a founder and leader of the Shack Dwellers Movement of South Africa (Abahlali baseMjondolo), spoke at the People’s Forum in New York this month. This is not his first time in hiding—he has faced threats and attempts on his life throughout the years—and many leaders of his movement have been assassinated. In New York, S’bu spoke of the struggle of his people and how they are moving forward in the face of brutal repression. How, in his words, they are not only living but marching forward “in the shadows of death” despite frequent raids, evictions, and assassinations. Despite what he faces at home—violence, separation from his family and his community, betrayal by his comrades—S’bu is calm, collected and kind. He walks into the room with the confidence and wisdom of a leader and the humility of a soldier.
The movement that S’bu belongs to, Abahlali baseMjondolo, is among South Africa’s largest social movements, with 50,000 members in 40 settlements throughout five of South Africa’s nine provinces. The movement started in Durban in 2005 when public lands that had been promised to shack dwellers for public housing development were instead given to a private developer. Shack dwellers took to the streets to protest, blockading major roads. The uprising “was out of anger, hunger and frustration. It was out of need,” says S’bu. “There weren’t any clever individuals that sat around the table and thought of building this movement.” Since 2005, however, the movement has developed structures to strengthen and grow its membership and set a vision that goes far beyond their initial demand for housing.