I. Shack Dwellers Movement Fights for Land and Housing
S’bu Zikode, president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Shackdwellers Movement of South Africa, spoke in New York City Nov. 16 during his tour of the U.S. He described the five-year old organization’s origins in a Durban slum, when shack dwellers resisted the government’s attempt to demolish their shelters. “The Movement was organized by hunger and homelessness, and sparked when land that had been promised for housing was instead sold to businesses. When we protested, the government sent in police to kill and jail us,” Zikodes said. The government is run by the African National Congress (ANC), which has been in power since the fall of apartheid in 1994 (see editor’s note below).
Today Abahlali is the largest organization of the militant poor in South Africa. It assists communities to resist evictions when the government sells the land they are living on or tries to evict them simply so they won’t be an eyesore, as happened before the World Cup games last summer. The organization currently has 64 member communities around the country, and ties with rural landless and urban tenants’ organizations as well. Along with the Landless People’s Movement (Gauteng), the Rural Network (KwaZulu-Natal), and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, it is part of the Poor People’s Alliance, a network of radical poor people’s movements.
“What happens when the poor become powerful outside the state, when the unorganized organize and speak?” Zikode asked. “When we recognize our humanity and begin to define ourselves before someone else does it for us? We want our full humanity, we want justice, we want dignity, and we want to participate in making our communities, our cities, our provinces, our country.”
He cited two dangers facing organizations of the poor: first, they are always told that they need leaders from outside to speak for them. Abahlali hears this from all the political parties, from those who want to co-opt them, and from some intellectuals, including some leftists. The organization remains resolutely independent, democratic, and transparent, defying the prevailing view that power comes only through the political party you belong to. It boycotts elections and will not work with the government or NGOs.
The second danger he discussed comes from rich landowners and the state, which have met the movement’s resistance to the clearance of slums with police violence, killings, jailing, and attempts to criminalize its members. In September 2009, the Durban police, undoubtedly with the sanction of the local ANC, permitted a mob to attack Abahlali’s headquarters and its leaders’ shacks. Two members were killed, and Zikoda and others were rendered homeless. He and other leaders have been forced to live underground ever since. He credits international support, particularly from people in the U.S., for saving their lives.
Referring to his organization’s activities as “class struggle” and lamenting that some South African intellectuals denounce their basic fight for survival, he told the audience, “I’m here to beg you to use your intellect to help us. We are humble, not clever, but we oppose injustice. We’ve taken an oath that we cannot live in peace under these conditions.”
In 1994, President Nelson Mandela declared that housing for all was an “unbreakable promise,” and the right to a home was enshrined in the new constitution, along with a prohibition against evictions. But the number of people living in shacks has doubled since then, and ANC’s policy has been to destroy the slums without building new housing for the residents. In 2007, the government passed the Slums Act, which attempted to legalize its destruction of shack settlements and to make homelessness a crime; the highest court in South Africa declared the law unconstitutional in 2009, in a case brought by Abahlali.
Abahlali is also affiliated with organized “flat dwellers,” who live in public housing but are frequently evicted because they cannot afford rising rents. The poor are being pushed out of cities, Zikoda said, not on the basis of color but on the basis of socio-economic class. “The ‘new South Africa’ was declared a ‘rainbow nation,'” he said, “but the poor have become refugees in our own country, our own cities, our own settlements, and sometimes in our own families.”
Zikoda described “some successes.” The movement not only helps communities resist eviction and fight for decent housing, but it also feeds children, cares for the sick, builds gardens, and holds classes in its “university.” “The movement has created its own space,” he said. “We have organized and used the space to learn and to cry and to enjoy life.”
The government is currently building some new shacks (“camps”) for the homeless, but Zikoda said it is not clear that they will have electricity and plumbing. Nor is it clear when people who move in can expect to leave for a real home. When Zikoda was asked if President Zuma has improved housing conditions, he said that the government cannot listen to Shack Dwellers organizations unless the ANC approves, so their treatment depends on their relations with the local ANC. Zuma did visit a white shack settlement, he said (the Shack Dwellers were surprised to learn that there are white ones), but he didn’t visit any settlements where people are speaking out.
Asked about allying with the labor movement, Zikoda replied that “the labor movement has its own challenges,” citing the cooptation of the major union, COSATU, into the government. COSATU invites the mass movements to its protests, he said, but it will not come to theirs. He cited the “Tripartite Alliance” formed by the ANC, the South African Communist Party, and COSATU in 1994, and added that the Communists are now buying big houses.
Zikoda ended his remarks: “Down with homelessness! Down with capitalism!”
His talk was preceded by an excerpt from the forthcoming documentary about Abahlali entitled “Dear Mandela,” featuring the youth who began the movement. Dara Kell, a South African film maker who is its co-director and producer, added to the discussion, citing the problem faced by artists and intellectuals to aid mass movements without imposing their views on them.
II. Editor’s Note: On the History of Class Struggle in South Africa
The African National Congress (ANC) was a leading organization during decades of struggle against apartheid-a system of legally mandated segregation and restrictions on Black people that began to be codified in 1948. Blacks could not choose where to live, work, or even travel within the country, nor could they vote.
The ANC has been in power since the first time Black and mixed race people were allowed to vote, in 1994. Is famous leader Nelson Mandela became president. The Party still claims to be “the Left” based on its history, in spite of having failed to improve the lives of most people in the country over the past 16 years. In fact, there were 1.7 million more people living in poverty in 2007 than in 1994. South Africa also continues to have one of the greatest disparities in incomes in the world. Apartheid is no longer a legal system, but it continues to exist in fact because where people can afford to live, whether they own property, and what jobs they can get all depend on their class, and the vast majority of Black people remain poor.
The ANC has governed in accord with the dictates of international capital. For example, it has sold off public water and electricity production to private companies, who often charge more than the poor can afford to pay for their services. The ANC’s promise to bring electrification to everyone, like its promise of housing, has been an empty promise.
During the past few years, the country has been shaken up by movements of the poor, both unemployed and low-wage workers: public employees, rural workers, the homeless, and movements opposing privatization of basic commodities, destructive mining, and pollution. All have organized resistance and demanded change.
To those familiar with the ANC’s decades of alliance with the South African Communist Party and with communist parties’ world-wide history of class collaboration, ANC’s recent history is no great surprise. But it is still shocking that the number of homeless has so greatly increased rather than decreased since the post-apartheid government first promised to house everyone and enshrined it in the constitution as a right. It is also shocking to realize that the ANC acts exactly like political parties in many other countries that lack South Africa’s recent history of struggle: political party membership and elections operate as means for obtaining the country’s spoils for oneself, not for improving life for the masses of people.
When Zikoda discussed the dangers to poor peoples’ movements, he cited the “first” danger as being the ideology that the poor cannot lead themselves. This understanding of the importance of ideas to a mass movement undoubtedly reflects South Africans’ decades of experience in the struggle against apartheid, as well as what people have learned since then from the ANC and COSATU’s betrayals of their professed ideals. The youth who began the Shack Dwellers Movement may not even have been born during apartheid, but they inherited a legacy of struggle and thought. We give them our wholehearted support.