Following this article in the M&G the following letter was sent to the Mail and Guardian but, despite their publishing three letters attacking Abahlali baseMjondolo in a specially dedicated extension of the letters page, it was not published. (Scroll down to read What Happened at or to the SMI)
Letter from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign to the Mail and Guardian
The Western Cape Anti Eviction Campaign (WCAEC) was, together with the Anti-Privatisation Forum, Jubilee South Africa and the Landless People’s Movement, a founder of the Social Movement Indaba (SMI) in 2002. That is why it is incorrect for your reporter Niren Tolsi (“On the far side of left”, December 8-14) to echo the claim of SMI secretariat member Mondi Hlatshwayo that the WCAEC “invaded” the December 2006 SMI in Durban. The SMI was set up as a platform for social movements and we regarded its space as our space. Yet some SMI ‘leaders’ attempted to deny us and Abahlali baseMjondolo access to the meeting!
Mondi Hlatshwayo’s description of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the biggest social movement in Durban, and the WCAEC as a “mob” merely shows the degeneration of the SMI secretariat. It is the kind of description used by apartheid agents against the mass movement of the 1980s.
Our joint grievances were twofold. One was what your reporter calls the “familiar complaint” that the SMI has been taken over from community-based social movements by NGOs and academics. If it is familiar, that is maybe because it is correct. Unaccountable NGO’s are using their access to financial resources to dominate the SMI and to marginalise social movements in it. We believe that the role of NGOs is to be the servants and not the masters of communities, and we called for the SMI to return to its founding idea of being owned by community-based social movements.
Our second grievance was that Abahlali baseMjondolo had been mandated by the 2005 SMI to host the 2006 SMI in Durban, but had been so marginalised by Durban NGOs on the organising committee that they had been forced to walk out of it. This took place not “a week” before the SMI, as Des D’Sa is quoted in your article as saying, but more than a month before. Yet the organising committee did nothing to remedy the situation.
We also firmly deny that we chanted down fellow-activists or, as Hlatshwayo claims, that we insulted them or used abusive language. We regard it as monstrous that he should also state that “we didn’t want a situation where people were going to get injured” as our aims were entirely non-violent. We appealed to the rank and file of the SMI to take responsibility for owning and controlling the process and agenda of the SMI – and we still appeal to them, up and down the country, from Limpopo through Orange Farm to Cape Town, to do so.
We also deny Hlatshwayo’s claim that we did not give the secretariat a platform to reply. We specifically asked them to respond to our grievances — but when we had finished there was complete silence from them.
After our intervention ‘leaders’ of the SMI, including Hlatshwayo, Virginia Sethsedi and Roy Chetty, to their eternal shame, attempted to evict WCAEC members from our rooms on UKZN campus which we resisted, as we always resist evictions by council, banks, agents, and the mayor in Cape Town. The SMI secretariat also refused meals to the WCAEC delegation.
We reaffirm our solidarity with academics Faizel Khan, Richard Pithouse, Richard Ballard and Raj Patel, all marginalised or persecuted because of their links with Abahlali baseMjondolo.
For the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign
Ashraf Cassiem, 082-480-5489
This document was written and circulated around Durban and ‘Martizburg for signatures last year but in the end it wasn’t published at the time due to the heavily intimidatory climate that included appalling public slander (often emailed under faked identities) and various kinds of threats and intimidation, including threats of people being sold out to their bosses and threats of violence against people that spoke up about what was happening. It is now published here anonymously.
What happened at or to the SMI national meeting?
The SMI has been quite important. One of its key actual functions is to occupy the political space claiming to represent social movements in South Africa. Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), the only organisation of the poor large enough to be considered as a social movement in KZN, were part of planning the national event until they pulled out.
Our understanding is they felt they decided to pull out because they were not being taken seriously, and that those driving the agenda for the national meeting would not make it responsive to the actual needs, priorities or issues that AbM were raising. If the agenda for the SMI was not being defined by actual movements of poor people, then who’s agenda was it?, and why should AbM give legitimacy to a process that while carried out in the name of popular movements of the poor in their experience was in fact undemocratic? – but the SMI carried on.
It seems clear that key parts of the de facto leadership of the SMI ‘brand’ began to speak about AbM’s withdrawal as the result of AbM being manipulated by one white academic activist as part of what they claimed was that individual’s fight with other activists and academics who have a lot invested in the political space associated with the representation of social movement politics. Interestingly the very odd claim that one white man was somehow ‘behind’ a democratic movement of thousands was exactly how the state initially responded to the emergence of AbM…
On Sunday, AbM, joined by members of the Anti Eviction Campaign (AEC) from the Western Cape, went to the SMI meeting in their numbers to make their position known, to put forward the agenda they would have wanted, and to ask for an apology for the way they had been treated in the build-up to the meeting. When this intervention failed, they walked out and were joined in this by some others too, including the Socialist Students’ Movement) – but the SMI carried on.
On Monday, shack residents from Siyanda settlement in Durban – not organised into, or directly connected with, AbM – protested against the destruction of the homes and their threatened removal to ‘low cost housing’ elsewhere. Police shot them, killing one person and locked up the injured in jail cells – but the SMI carried on, making no comment or intervention about this. However ABM and the AEC were on the scene within minutes and immediately began organising practical solidarity.
In fact the the SMI carried on surrounded by newly erected security barriers, beefed-up security personnel and an emergency plan, just in case their meeting (now let’s remember, this meeting is the Social Movements Indaba meeting) got disrupted again by an actually existing social movement of actually existing poor people, actually speaking for themselves.
That evening, when AEC comrades returned to their accommodation at the University (where the SMI meeting was happening), they were subjected to threatening and insulting jeers and songs, and they were physically evicted by SMI heavyweights. The evictees joined the other AEC comrades who had been staying in jondolos with AbM members all along anyway – but the SMI carried on.
The SMI carried on and vilified the AbM as ‘criminal’ from the podium. In a tragic alignment with the ways in which the authorities have tried to undermine AbM, the SMI’s ‘line’ bought into the idea that AbM are criminals being manipulated – manipulated by a white academic activist. As should be obvious, this is blatantly racist and insulting to the obvious and demonstrated capacity of AbM to think and act all on their own. From our own experiences of some of the events we talk about here, we know that it is also a lie – a vicious, racist lie.
It seems to us that, pretty much from the beginning, AbM have been a rather uncomfortable phenomenon for much of the established South African left. Unlike almost every other ‘social movement’ in the country, AbM emerged, grew, and exists, outside of the initiative and political direction of self-consciously ‘left’ NGO activists. As such, it has never been susceptible to the control that vanguardist activists exert; it has never quite fitted the fantasies of what a social movement ‘should’ be/act/talk/think like. The movement’s origins were within the actual experiences of poor people and that is where it orientated its praxis. Moreover from the beginning it organised without funding and never developed a dependency on donors or people who mediate relations with donors.
If nothing else, it must be clear that the SMI can no longer claim to speak for social movements in South Africa. Hopefully, intelligent and reflective comrades will start to go far beyond this obvious conclusion and begin to think very carefully about what else these events actually mean for all of us.
These notes were written by a couple of people based in KwaZulu-Natal at the time these events were unfolding in December 2006. (For what it’s worth, none of us is called Richard.) Initially we hoped, vainly perhaps, that putting some thoughts down might encourage critical self-reflection before perceptions that were being deliberately created hardened, and before lessons that could be drawn to the benefit of broader processes of movement building were lost. If nothing else, we thought that reflection was essential in the aftermath of a national meeting of a thing called the ‘Social Movements Indaba’ that found it necessary and justifiable to erect security barricades to prevent its deliberations being attended (‘invaded’ and ‘disrupted’ they would say) by an actually existing social movement with an actually existing mass membership joined together through actually existing democratic practices. We thought that reflection was essential when, in the varied justifications from within the SMI after these events, the languages and the lines of attack mirrored completely the attacks on AbM from other hostile elites who also cast AbM as essentially a gang of criminals manipulated a white activist. We never developed these notes beyond these opening comments but the extraordinary stream of emails from within the SMI camp that followed after their national meeting will provide plenty of truly horrible data for careful analysis at some point in the future.
Abahlali baseMjondolo is not the only grassroots black movement to be subject to appalling racist attacks by the white dominated academic/NGO left who are unable to understand that poor black people think their own struggles themselves. As Ashraf Cassiem famously put it, “We are poor, not stupid”. There is an eerie familiarity with the response of the 1968 obsessed white/institutional Parisian left to the recent Parisian uprising and the appalling attacks on Abahlali following their very polite and well reasoned (see the raw video footage here) declaration of intellectual autonomy from the NGO left at the SMI meeting. See Emilio Quadrelli’s Grassroots Political Militants: Banlieusards and Politics. Alain Badiou’s ‘What is the Left?’ is also rather useful for thinking through the astonishing authoritarianism, ruthlessness, propensity to wild slander and complicity with some of the practices of the state that have typified the response of a section of the NGO left to the emergence of actually existing mass movements of the poor resolved to think and act for themselves.