South Africa’s Shack Dwellers Movement Celebrates a Decade of Struggle


Source: Pambazuka News

South Africa’s shack dwellers movement was founded ten years ago by citizens frustrated by the ruling ANC’s failure to deliver the promises of democracy in the “new” nation. It has been a worthwhile struggle against a neo-liberal state that pays scant attention to needs of the majority poor Black people.

On 19 March 2005 residents of Kennedy Road settlement in Clare Estate in Durban organised a road blockade. There were 14 arrests. This event began a process of discussion with residents of nearby communities and on the 6 of October 2005 our movement was formed. During the last ten years we have survived serious repression, including assassinations, and won many victories. (On 3 October we will celebrate a decade of struggle at an event at Curries Fountain, Durban, from 10:00 a.m. to 16:00 a.m.)

Abahlali baseMjondolo emerged out of disappointment and unkept promises. Residents of Kennedy Road were promised housing on a piece of land close to the settlement. On the 19 March 2005 a bulldozer started working on the land. The residents assumed that the promised development was starting. However the workers on the site told them that they were there to build a brick factory. People gathered, the construction was stopped and the councillor was called. Instead of coming he called in the police. When he arrived he called the people gathered at the site ‘criminals’ and instructed the police to arrest them. A demand for negotiation was met with arrests, dogs, teargas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and arrests. All charges against the 14 people arrested were later dropped.

Neighbouring settlements joined the process of discussion and action that followed the road blockade and the arrests on the instruction of the councillor. The name ‘Abahlali baseMjondolo’ emerged out of these discussions as a name that could accommodate all shack dwellers. No NGOs or donors participated in the process that led to the formation of our movement.

Our movement was formed in response to a failed government. In 1994 we voted for the ANC. We had the hope that a black government would be biased towards the poor. People had respect for the ANC. Although it was through the struggles of the people that Mandela and others could return from prison, and Tambo and others could return from exile, it was the ANC that brought up democracy as a state system.

But ten years after this democracy was launched it was clear that a new movement, similar to that of the United Democratic Front, was required to give people the power to question the government. It was clear that a new movement was required to question whether in fact the kind of rule that we were experiencing was the democracy that we were anticipating or something that was, in important ways, similar to apartheid. We had to ask this question because we found that after ten years of democracy we were still people that did not count to the society. We were still living like pigs in the mud. We were still seen and treated as criminals when we wanted to be included in decision-making about our own future.

We were wondering if the horse had changed and the saddle had changed but the jockey was still the same. The movement was formed to question this democracy. Most members were in the ANC but there was a perception that you couldn’t question the ANC inside the ANC. We created our own homemade political space, from the ground up, outside of party politics.

From the beginning it was clear that the ANC, the NGOs, most academics and various other forces were all agreed that we are people that can’t think. All our meetings were open to all. Anyone who wanted to could observe our discussions and how we came to decisions. However we were always accused by the ANC and other regressive forces of being a front for other interests. We have been called a front for the Third Force. In KwaZulu-Natal we have been called a front for Congress of the People (COPE), the Pan African Congress (PAC), Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the Democratic Alliance (DA). In Cape Town we have been called a front for the IFP.

From the beginning we drew a clear distinction between party politics and living politics, or state politics and people’s politics. In 2006, after careful thinking together, we launched a ‘No Land! No House! No Vote!’ campaign. Before each election after 2006, local and national, we repeated the same process of taking a collective position on how to respond to the election. Until 2014 the decision was always to continue with the boycott.

A genuinely democratic government would welcome the self-organisation of the poor. However the ANC turned against its own people. It showed itself to be dishonest and without conscience. It is clear to us that the ANC will always try to crush what it cannot control. In this respect we do not see much difference between the ANC and the regressive left, few as they are and powerless as they are among the oppressed. It is not surprising to us that their dishonesty takes such similar forms.

During the last ten years we have been subject to regular arrest, assault and harassment as well as torture, the destruction of our homes, exclusion from jobs, all kinds of lies and murder. The number of arrests quickly reached a hundred and we have not kept count since then. One person, who later accepted a leadership position in the ANC, and is now in the SACP, pleaded guilty to a charge of making a self-organised electricity connection and paid a small fine. Without exception every single other arrest has either resulted in the charges being dropped before the case has gone to trial or the case failing in court.

We have constantly been arrested on fabricated charges as part of a long attempt to attack our spirits. We have constantly been criminalised by the state and other regressive forces despite the fact that although there have been hundreds of arrests, and despite the fact that we are under constant surveillance from intelligence, there has never been a single successful prosecution of one of our members on any charge.

Repression reached its most serious levels in September 2009 when we were attacked by the ANC in Kennedy Road and many of our members were driven from their homes (there was also an armed police attack on the Pemary Ridge settlement later that year), when three comrades were murdered in Cato Crest in 2013 and in September 2014 when Thuli Ndlovu was assassinated in KwaNdengezi. It has been noticeable that serious repression has often followed major court victories and that all the assassinations have followed access to information that shows serious corruption in local ANC structures.

Our movement has always been membership based and democratic. We currently have 28 branches in good standing – 27 in KwaZulu-Natal and one in the Western Cape. The process to join our movement is slow and the minimum size for a branch is 50 members. There are clear rules that all branches must adhere to in order to remain in good standing. When deemed necessary by the members leaders, including senior leaders, can be, and have been, recalled.

In 2014, after a long and open democratic process, it was decided that we could not continue to boycott elections when the ANC was killing us with impunity. A decision was taken that, in the interests of our own safety and our survival as a movement, we needed to go beyond the withholding of our votes and to punish the ANC. The majority of our members concluded that it was necessary to hit the ANC where it hurts. A decision was taken to make a tactical vote for the opposition party in KwaZulu-Natal. We made it clear that we did not identify with the policies of the opposition but that the majority of our members had decided that we had to raise the costs of repression for the ANC. This decision came out of serious opposition to the ANC among our members and not from support for the opposition party. We continued to draw a clear distinction between living politics and party politics and did not give up any of our autonomy to the opposition party, or include them in our organising and decision-making.

When two ANC councillors were arrested after the assassination of Thuli Ndlovu some comrades concluded that we had made the right decision as this was the first time that the ANC was not able to repress us with impunity. Other comrades take the view that we should continue to boycott all elections or that we should make it clear that, while always keeping our autonomy, we would be willing to support a genuinely democratic and radical electoral alternative even if it has no popular support in KwaZulu-Natal (where most of our members live and where we have faced serious repression). When the next election comes we will, as we have always done, take a collective decision on how to respond. This decision will be entirely in the hands of our members.

Over the last ten years some of our members have left the movement to work for parties and NGOs but we are very much proud of the fact that our movement has retained its autonomy from all NGOs and parties for ten years. We have collectively refused all kinds of offers of money and many of our members have refused all kinds of individual offers of money and jobs. We remain committed to a bottom-up system in which leaders must facilitate democratic decision-making and in which neither a leader, nor the movement as a whole can, at any level, act without a mandate from the members.

We have won many victories over the last ten years. However whenever we think, speak and act for ourselves we are criminalised. When we do win important developmental concessions they are always channelled through party structures and are never made available to our members. There continues to be massive corruption in the state’s public housing programme and it continues to fail to build enough houses for the people, to build decent houses and to undertake development in a participatory and democratic manner. People continue to live in inhuman conditions in shack settlements.

No one has been arrested for the attack on our movement in Kennedy Road in 2009 or the two assassinations and one police murder in Cato Crest in 2013. The ANC, especially at the local level, is increasingly trying to divide people according to the countries or provinces in which they were born. The ANC is also trying to make the question of land and housing a security question instead of a matter of justice. It is trying to roll back the gains relating to protection from eviction that were won after apartheid. It wants to rule us with the gun rather than to engage in negotiation.

The two periods of intense repression, in 2009 and in 2013 and 2014, both put our movement under huge pressure. This pressure created various kinds of difficulties for us but we have healed and moved forward. Today we have more branches in good standing, and more members, than we have ever had at any point in our history.

Today we find ourselves the enemies of the ANC, especially in KwaZulu-Natal. In Gauteng the government has asked us to engage with it on the land and housing issue. That will never happen in KwaZulu-Natal. In this province the politic of blood continues to dominate. The ANC claims to be in support of the Freedom Charter which clearly commits it to sharing the land and to housing the people. However it is trying to move towards a criminalisation of poverty and a repressive urban agenda. We continue to carry the mandate of the struggle against apartheid and colonialism. We continue to struggle for land, for equality and the right to participate in all decision-making relating to our lives and communities. The ANC has sold out. We are continuing the struggle.

After ten years of struggle we remain committed to the principle that there should be nothing for us, without us. We don’t want people to talk for us, or to decide for us, in our absence. Our concern in this regard is not only with the government and the developmental NGOs that work with the government. We are also clear that we want people who wish to be in solidarity with us to think with us, not for us. Support for NGOs that claim a right to speak for the struggles of poor while having no mandate to do so from any credible organisation that has emerged from within the struggles of the poor is not the same thing as solidarity with the struggles of the poor.

After ten years of struggle we remain committed to a living politics. A living politics is a politics which everyone can understand, that is close to people’s daily lives and begins from the situation in which they find themselves. It is also a politics where people represent themselves, leaders are expected to obey members and a bottom up approach is encouraged in the struggle and as an aim of the struggle.

After ten years of struggle we remain committed to a politics that has the dignity of the poor as its main objective. We are all human beings before we are anything else. Oppression constantly vandalizes our humanity. Resistance restores our humanity. Dignity requires land, decent houses, gardens, crèches and schools. But it also requires that government plans development with and not for the people. Dignity cannot be delivered. We insist that each person is a person and must count as a person. We insist that we must recognised as people that can think the same as all other people.

In this system we are only taken as important by the parties on the days when we are asked to vote. We are only taken as important by the NGOs when they want to use us to be able to bus in large numbers of people to make their events look good. We want to be taken as important every day.

We will always retain our political autonomy. The state needs to come under control of society. At the moment it is the other way around. We want a different kind of democracy. A radical democracy. Moving towards this goal requires us to build the power of those who have been made powerless in this system and to reduce the power of those who have been made too powerful in this system.

After ten years of struggle our organisation remains a learning organisation. We continue to educate ourselves in discussion.

There have been difficult times over the last ten years, especially after the repression of 2009 and 2013. However our movement has survived and our struggle continues. Inkani, which is a kind of forceful determination, is the foundation on which the strength of our struggle is built. The land that we are occupying now has been won as a result of inkani. Inkani accumulates through the experience of oppression and repression when this experience is faced in togetherness.

Our struggle for land, housing and dignity continues. Our struggle to ensure that land, wealth, cities and power are shared fairly continues.

We thank all those who have stood with us.

TJ Ngongoma
Zandile Nsibande
Ndabo Mzimela