Minutes of the Abahlali baseMjondolo meeting to Discuss Legal & Political Strategies to Oppose the Slums Bill

Minutes of the Abahlali baseMjondolo meeting to Discuss Legal & Political Strategies to Oppose the Slums Bill

Held: Friday 13 July, 9:00 a.m., Kennedy Road Hall.

Abahlali baseMjondolo has decided to oppose the Slums Bill by all means necessary. A Slums Bill Elimination Task Team was elected to take the resistance forward. The first task was to lay a foundation for resistance by self-education about the Bill. This took the form of line by line readings and discussions. Everyone’s input has been taken into serious account. The second step was to call a meeting of everyone opposed to the Bill. The meeting was scheduled for Friday 13 July, at 9:00 a.m. in the Kennedy Road Hall, Clare Estate, Durban. People came from all over Durban, Pinetown and Pietermaritzburg as well as from Cape Town and Johannesburg. People who couldn’t attend in person sent written submissions. Everyone who wants to join the struggle against the Slums Bill was welcome to attend this meeting as well as the media. The following notes from that meeting were prepared by David Ntseng and Mark Butler.

Mystica: Frahana Loonat opened the meeting with a short prayer. Sibusiso Zikode, president of Abahlali, lit a candle that was donated to Abahlali by the Kirkens a symbol of hope and solidarity in Abahlali struggles. Lighting the candle brightens the hard journey Abahlali still have to travel in their struggle for land and housing. Throughout the meeting the candle was burning right until the end of the meeting. At the end Louisa closed with a prayer.

One thing S’bu stressed at the beginning was that our struggle is for human being. For our conditions, this translates into demands for housing and land. This struggle provokes a response from the state – part of which we can see in this Bill. Perhaps if Abahlali baseMjondolo did not exist, there wold have been no such Bill.

‘Bahlali who have given careful consideration to, and analysis of, the Bill gave an overview of what the Bill says on its own terms. Zodwa read the preamble of the Bill just to set the scene and refresh people’s memory on the aims and objectives of the Bill. Clearly, it pretends to be in the interests of the poor and makes many claims that it is designed to answer the problems of the poor and the landless and the homeless. But this is not truthful. As Mnikelo said in reaction: the Bill intends to make Durban a world class city by “cleaning up” or by forcing poor people out of the city – that is why demolishing of shacks is so rampant. David also commented that there is a serious contradiction in the way the rationale to have the Bill is presented and the actual content of the Bill. The danger is that the municipality will deliberately misunderstand the overall goal of improving the quality of lives of people living in shacks and making Durban a world class city and a slum free city as a justification for demolition of shacks.

And although the Bill is not an Act of law yet, it seems as if the provincial government is already implementing it in different ways. For example, the delegate from Pietermaritzburg told the meeting that they have already been told by a councilor that the municipality will start to research in the shack settlements counting the houses and the people preparing the ground for the next steps in the Bill – which is most likely to remove the people and criminalise those who resist or return to shacks from the formal shacks they will be removed to. She said: In our area, Ash Road settlement, some officials have come to alert us that they will soon come to audit shacks in our area and we are not allowed to build anymore shacks.

In many ways, the whole exercise seems to us to be a big waste of resources. It is not at all clear to us that the Bill was even needed at all – and yet there has been so much time, money resources wasted just on drafting the thing already. For example, setting up these ‘transit camps’ proposed in the Bill – i.e., that municipalities will erect whilst people are awaiting their houses: government will have to waste time and money to access the land from existing landowners where these will be located. If they’re going to identify such land, why not use it to build decent houses for the people? We were not fighting for ‘transit camps’. ‘Upgrading’ where we are would probably be better but if relocation really is sometimes necessary, then why not use our existing jondolos as the equivalent of the ‘transit camps’? – we are there already! And as S’bu noted, the ‘houses’ in the transit camps are likely to be nothing more than government approved jondolos anyway. Furthermore, as Mnikelo pointed out, these will lead to government becoming shacklords and shack farmers which make it (and its business partners) profit out of people’s despondency. S’bu said that indeed these shacklords and shack farmers will definitely be the government as they intend to erect transit camps.

The process and the content of the Bill is insulting to us. We fought, died, and voted for this government and so that we can be free in our country and have decent lives, houses and jobs – but this government doesn’t treat us as people who can speak and think for themselves and who have the freedom to do so. It would have been better to spend energy into a better process to be in line with the approach in, for example, the ‘Breaking New Ground” national housing policy. But this Bill is not coming from the people who suffer – it is imposed on us from above. In effect, this Bill will make things much worse for us. It could even turn our earlier victories into nightmares – for example, it will make our activists liable to arrests, prison and fines for fighting to stop evictions!

Within the movement of Abahlali we have had many discussions about this Bill. We have decided to oppose it by all means. As Louisa put it: “The government is upset for what we’ve done. Actually we embarrassed the government by pulling down the big Lannie’s pants. That is why they introduce the Bill to shut our mouths and intimidate us. We have uncovered the dirty shit they are doing in our settlements”. As the movement, we acknowledge that this opposition to the Bill includes building a broader coalition of organisations and people to work with us because it is a broad struggle with different aspects.

In the next part of the meeting, Bahlali came from a different angle to talk about what they would say if they were to make a Bill. The first comment was to emphasis that we would take land back from the big private landowners who have shown that they don’t know how to use it properly and fairly. It should go to the people who need it. Secondly, if you are going to write such a Bill, you should come and speak to the very poor people, and consult with us about what is needed and how to make a better Bill. As S’bu said: “I would make sure that I first consult with the poor before I do anything. Proper consultation is a right not a favour”.

We could take what is true and not contentious from existing documents like the Freedom Charter and the ‘Breaking New Ground’ policy and put these into effect – which would have the opposite effect to what the current Bill will do when it is put into practice. The good parts of these existing documents and policies, and also parts of our Constitution, are full of Abahlalism because “these policies somehow prioritize the need to improve the quality of life of the poor” (Mnikelo) – but they are not put into practice. In this way, we are reminding them [the government] not surprising them because these things were promised to us.

It was also discussed that if Abahlali baseMjondolo just relied on the Constitution and so on, there would be problems too because there are bad parts – for example, in the Constitution, there is the property clause that protects landowners and private ownership rights; and in the existing housing policies and laws, people can be removed if there is an ‘alternative accomodation’ available so, when there are these ‘transit camps’, the government might be able to use these to excuse the forced removal of the people.

It’s clear that the poor have become some sort of ‘project’ for the MECs and the politicians. Whether each little project they come up with succeeds or fails doesn’t really matter to them because they move on. They do not include us, or respect us, or listen to us about what we think and need. As Donovan said: “They have embarked on a process of giving us what they think we need including this Bill without asking us what we need. They have taken away our dignity by denying us a right to say what we need and how we think that can be delivered. They are not interested to knowing how we see democracy being practiced in our country”. This was reinforced by Sibusiso’s comment: “we are treated as properties not as people who can think for themselves, someone must think for us. To me our government is a liar”. Mark also added that: “The Bill does not take the poor seriously. Abahlali have made submissions to oppose the Bill and they had already opposed it at public hearings. All that was not taken into account, it just did not matter. As far as I’m concerned this Bill is a waste of time and it shows government’s arrogance as treats the poor as some piece of shit; I would expect someone to write something that shows respect for the poor not this piece of crap. This Bill undermines the intelligence of the poor.”

And while they waste time coming up with Bills like this one, more and more land is being sold off all the time anyway – so we will have to face our oppressors and capitalists in the future anyway when we need land.

Part of the time and resources they have wasted was in the so-called ‘hearings’ they had about this Bill. This was a deeply insulting process which was not for them to listen to the people at all. We in Abahlali worked hard on our submission to the hearings but it was completely ignored – so what were the hearings for then? And so much money was spent on them! It makes it clear to us that we are already in a prison and that they do not want us to get out of it. Louisa said “But we will be needed soon during election time. They can oppress us now during the Bill, but they will need us soon”. So to those who make this Bill we say: you think you can do this to the people, but you forget where you come from; you can fly high, but you will have to come down again! We have said from the beginnings of our movement that we aim to mobilise in order to partner the government – but is becoming clear that this mobilisation has become a threat to the government and the politicians. Some of us fear that, with this Bill as a law, the future will give us hard times. The Bill is like a prophecy of the hard times to come, with arrests, imprisonment, fines and so on. The Bill will make it so that we will have a new Mandela as our leaders will be imprisoned – but we are still going to fight.

The third part of the meeting looked at what was being said in the submissions that we received from others stakeholders like lawyers and academic policy experts and supportive NGOs. Richard commented that: “It’s encouraging that people have taken time and made efforts to express their views about the Bill”. They all seem to agree that this Bill does not follow the Constitution, the law, or the national policy. This fact creates possibilities to oppose it – and also to win over more people who could be sympathetic to our position because we are asking the government to follow the law. The submissions also recognise the way that the Bill does not respect the thinking and the strategies of the poor. This means that we can also point out how dangerous it is to make these kinds of laws because they will worsen social instability and conflicts, they will worsen the growing gap between the rich and the poor. This is important because we must all stress the need to include the poor in any talk about alternatives to this bad policy. We must not allow anyone to fall into a trap to convince the government that this Bill was a mistake but let them get their ‘experts’ to write another one for us!

When we look at the submissions, we should be aware that there might be a danger of focusing on tackling the Bill itself and losing sight of the people’s own issues and agenda. We must not get side-tracked by the details of one proposed law into putting energy into something that might not be relevant to people’s actual issues. It is better to stay on what the people themselves prioritise and define, it is better to continue to assert your/our identity and reality about who you/we are, and fight the Bill ‘outside’ of it’s logic and not within its details. On the other hand, we can’t just ignore the Bill which is partly a response to our mobilisation as a movement and opposing their shit in our settlements. So we can use the Bill to assert the power of Abahlali baseMjondolo, we can rise above it and not be limited to just engaging a piece of technical law. To mobilise around it, we must – as we always do – start with a living politics, a politics of what’s close and real to the people. This has been the basis of the movement’s success. This Bill is bad, it is an attack on shackdwellers and perhaps even, an attack on Abahlali baseMjondolo. Our movement’s successes have createed the crisis that the government is forced to respond to. They could have responded with good laws or bad ones, and this one is bad. So we must engage it. It is true that there would be dangers to lose the living politics if the main thing became technical, legal engagement. So we will always bring it back to the people and back to the living politics. In this way, it is OK to venture into this ‘enemy territory’ with our tactics, but we always return to the people and will not let the enemy’s approaches and language dominate. Even in this meeting, it is the movement that called it and that proposed a legal challenge and broader coalition to support it, not the NGOs or the legal experts. In these ways, we continue to safeguard our intellectual and political autonomy.

This discussion was also connected to the agenda item that followed about legal and political strategies for our opposition to the Bill. Our engagement with Bill is not disengaged from the culture and demoratic practices of Abahlalism that are deep within the movement. This meeting today will also be followed by more of our broader meetings and workshops in the settlements with all Abahlali to share, discuss, report and make sense together with everybody. In this way, we arm ourselves with information which, we have come to see, is power – and a threat to the powerful ones in government. So far, we have agreed that some experts in policy and law will assist Abahlali baseMjondolo financially and legally to take our challenge further. Next week, two delegates will meet with top advaocates and academic policy experts in Joburg. The Premier of KZN has rubbished us in public saying we are ignorant and haven’t read his Bill – well, we will turn the tide and show him when we meet in court if this Bill becomes a law. If our challenge comes to court, we will mobilise in our numbers to fill the courts and create what they call ‘chaos’ but which is actually the disciplined, democratic power of the people. The MEC should be made to know that the ‘3rd force’ is in the conditions and the lives of the poor which are made worse by the government which does not deliver on their promises. The government should stop shooting the messenger, and should rather take the message. Across the country, the people are on the streets to remind the government of its promises.

In building our challenge to this Bill, we should also:

* use connections we have with the Cape Town movements to build wider mobilisations;
* look at broadening the coalition to draw in also middle-class and religious people too who can be concerned and conscientised around these issues of social justice.

The meeting also discussed a possible 3rd legal strategy: so far on actual evictions, we have used lawyers, good lawyers whose work we value deeply, but usually after the evictions have happened. Now we are looking at a Constitutional Court challenge to the Slums Bill which is important but which could take a long time to come to an end. Perhaps we need a 3rd more militant legal strategy too which recognises that the Durban Municipality is repeatedly acting illegally and find a proactive lawyer who is ready to be more aggressive and take on cases at an early stage to challenge this illegality and make the city bosses criminally responsible. We could imagine that within a month or so, there would be a warrant of arrest for Mike Sutcliffe for being in contempt of court. Certainly we have given the bosses in the City and also Mabyakhulu in the provincial government too many chances.

Towards the end of the meeting, the following comments were also made:

S’bu: Operation Clean Up is underway, Operation Slum Free Cities is underway, our role is to connect these crimes to Soccer World Cup 2010. We need to embark on an Eviction Free 2010 Campaign. We need to build a case of contempt of court every time there are evictions taking place. We need to find confrontational lawyers who will deal with municipalities up to issuing of warrants of arrest for city officials who carry out evictions.

Mnikelo: It seems like the government’s response to poor people”s demands is to call them names, like the Third Force. To me if the government wants to do away with the Third Force it should deliver land and houses. So for now we should continue sharing the information about pending evictions with our people especially those who will be affected.

Lisa: As legal processes continue people must not stop asserting their rights in whatever way they can locally. Some of it will involve setting a network of lawyers. But also explore other ways of resisting, undermining and exposing the limitations of the Bill.

Farhana: We may also consider bringing in faith communities to support the strategies of the movement.

S’bu: Basically as Abahlali we see this as a way of demanding respect from government. It is about our life as humans who must have dignity in the society. We are about emancipation of consciousness to fight for our rights. Our supporters must always show that they too respect us as we respect them.

Nokwenzokuhle: Abahlali are an inspiration to us at Ash Road in Pietermaritzburg. Their support and courage has given us strength to stand our ground and assert our rights and interests without fear of the authorities. We are not afraid anymore.

For pictures click here

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