On the far side of left

08 December 2006 11:59

On the far side of left
Niren Tolsi

Mass Action 101 User’s Manual: Chanting “Down Babylon!” is to be encouraged — but not when directed at fellow far-left activists.

Chanting members of the KwaZulu-Natal shack-dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Western Cape’s Anti-Eviction Campaign raised major hackles when they invaded the Social Movement Indaba’s (SMI) five-day annual pow-wow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal on Sunday, interrupting it for three noisy hours.

The SMI was conceived at the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg as an umbrella body for left-wing organisations such as the Anti-Privatisation Forum, Jubilee South Africa and the Landless People’s Movement.

The invasion wasn’t the only thing to provide excitement at the encounter — high jinks also involved the inmenging of campus security (called by avowed enemies of the state) and a sympathy walkout by another grouping.

“Just after lunch a mob invaded and took over our meeting,” explained SMI secretariat member, Mondli Hlatshwayo. “They aired their complaints and didn’t give us a platform to reply, so we just listened, and when they got tired they left. It lasted for about three hours; they insulted us, using abusive language and all that macho lingo.”

He said the invasion convinced the SMI secretariat to take a “collective decision” to “warn campus security at the [university] gate to keep out people in big numbers who were attempting to disrupt our meeting”.

“On Monday campus security had to be called in because they can deal with conflict and we didn’t want a situation where people were going to get injured.”

One source, who spoke to the Mail & Guardian anonymously, put a sinister interpretation on this move. “Campus security were essentially warned to keep out black and coloured people arriving in taxis.”

A dispassionate outsider might say, unkindly, that the SMI’s response recalls the “batten down the hatches” mentality when the left lays siege to meetings of neo-liberal entities like the International Monetary Fund.

S’bu Zikode, recently re-elected president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, hotly denied that members had acted violently or used abusive language. During their three-hour toyi-toyi, members, including Zikode, had merely aired their grievances and concerns.

These included a complaint that money raised through the SMI was being channelled towards conferences and meetings, rather than “operational activities at grassroots level where the struggles are happening. People are often subjected to police brutality, are jailed and have to find bail money while still dealing with the daily struggles of their lives.”

The AEC and Abahlali also raised the familiar complaint that the SMI’s agenda had been hijacked by “NGOs, intellectuals and academics”.

When the two groups walked out of the meeting, they were joined in solidarity by the Social Student Movement (SSM). “It is a fact that a few individuals play a big role at the SMI,” lamented the SSM’s Liv Shange, who felt there should be “more horizontal democracy” in the umbrella body.

But one of the organisers of the meeting, Des D’Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, believes the two protesting movements were misguided. “Abahlali were involved in the organisation, including the setting of the agenda, until a week before the meeting, when they decided to pull out,” he complained.

Other beefs raised by Abahlali were more closely related to the internal politics of UKZN, including the issue of support for sociologist and trade unionist Fazel Khan, currently facing university disciplinary action.

Another was the perception that three former staffers of the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), Richard Pithouse, Richard Ballard and Raj Patel, had been sidelined without cause.

The CCS, attached to UKZN, has close ties with Abahlali and helped facilitate the indaba.

CCS director and author Patrick Bond said some donor funding had come to an end, leading to a shrinkage in staff. As a result, Ballard had moved to another UKZN department, while Pithouse had a pre-doctoral fellowship in the philosophy department. Patel had moved overseas to marry.

Zikode was unimpressed by this account. “Abahlali appreciate the tremendous work CCS people have done to help us, but it should remember that we have chosen the centre and the people we will work with. Richard Pithouse, Richard Ballard and Raj Patel came to us as servants, not masters.”

He said that the quarrel between the CCS and Abahlali would be “rectified when the centre apologises for inconveniencing us” and Bond showed “public support for Fazel [Khan], not just on email, but in public.”

The meeting voted in a new secretariat comprising leaders from Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town.

For unedited video footage of the 40 minute (not 3 hour) and entirely peaceful and rational protest against the SMI (about which Hlatswayo lies in the article above and has continued to lie about, and about which CCS people continue to tell the most astonishing lies click here. The Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign letter in response to the atrocious slander directed at the movements after their rejection of NGO authority is here.