On the SMI, from the Anti-Eviction Campaign

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.

7 thoughts on “On the SMI, from the Anti-Eviction Campaign

  1. Anonymous

    Dear Nafisa

    I agree that Mondli’s attitude is even more authoritarian that the ANC. He really does seem to think that any poor person who challenges his authority is ‘criminal’. It is very disturbing that so few people have stood up to his truly atrocious behaviour. I am wondering if there is any hope at all for the SA left. If it tolerates this kind of behaviour now when it is just fighting over trips to the WSF how would it be in power? Re-education camps in the Karoo I guess.

    At a time when people and movements are being widely slandered by well known individuals (very obviously) writing under other people’s names (e.g. Ashwin Desai is so clearly writing his attacks under Brandon Pillay’s name etc)I really do wish that I didn’t have to make an anonymous post. This is the time for people to speak reasonably and clearly, as Anna Weekes is courageously doing, in their own names. If there is some hope for the SA left it rests in people like Anna. But I have colleagues on these listerves and am just not prepared to become an object of slander and even subject to (at times clearly gendered) threats of violence for daring to speak up against the men who see themselves as The Leaders of the Left and insist that everyone bow down in awe of their almighty cocks. We all know who they are.

    But I do want to say two things. The first is that last night I saw the film that Anthony Collins made of the AEC/ABM protest at the SMI. It is a VERY BIG eye opener.The people in SMI/CCS who made such wild public attacks on the movements after the protest claimed that the protest was criminal, violent, irrational and all about the academics that were purged from CCS. Having twice met ABM people in workshops and been highly impressed with their dignity and seriousness I knew that what had been said was definitely an exaggeration but I did still expect to see some sort of conflict in the film. But in fact the film shows very clearly that the protest was entirely peaceful, was entirely rational and was simply a request for the NGOs/SMI to act democratically. The film shows that, with out any doubt, the SMI, and especially Hlatswayo, Naidu etc, were simply lying when they publically attacked ABM as ‘criminal’. Surely this film should be put on this site or on IndyMedia? The film will reveal quite clearly that attacks on the movements by the NGOs/SMI are utterly dishonest. The people who have told such wild lies about the movement to protect the power of the NGOs against movement requests for democratisation of the SA left will be 100% exposed once the film is put online. I know that the film doesn’t expose all the lies in the SMI/CCS attacks on the movements – for example Naidoo claims that ABM got money from SMI networks for lawyers but I happen to have met their lawyer and know for a fact that this is not true. But having the film online will expose the main lies that have been circulated.

    The second thing is that reading the stuff in the M&G and online it is very striking how highly racist the attacks on ABM are. The SMI people do, you are right, do often just sound like more vicious versions of the ANC. But they also pander to racist streotypes in very crude ways. They sound just like middle class suburbanities who are terrifed of ‘dangerous’ slum dwellers who have ‘invaded’ their space. Why is no one talking about this elephant in the room?

    The movements are stronger than ever. Is this why the NGOs people are attacking them? A depressing thought.


  2. Leonard shang-Quartey

    I hope all is cool with the comrades working to help social mov’ts to maintain their independence and to act for themselves in their own interest. That indeed is a tall one, and your courage is worthy of emulation. I am not the least surprise the way things have turned out considering the resources available to NGOs which they deny social mov’ts of.

    The thing with the Ghanaian exprience is that, despite the pre-independence struggles of the masses some how there arose a gap which the NGOs filled and have not relinquinsh their leadership ever since. Even with some of the prominent social mov’ts that you’ll find in Ghana, you only have to go into them to realise that it is the NGOs and not the communities that owns leadership. The point is that in Ghana the leadership and authority of NGOs within both the NGO world and that of social mov’ts stands unchallenged.

    I have this idea that I am trying to experiment to see how independent social movement can emerge at the level of my community Osu. The idea is to begin with a community newspaper which will raise questions on issues of daily existence in relation to local government and its mandate. Out of these issues such as sanitation, water, fishing concerns etc then the paper will then proceed to mobilise and organise its respondents around these issues, The object of these mobilisations is to check against public sector corruption at the local level but more importantly facilitating to give ordinary people the benefit of their greatest tool; their numbers in the struggle against the previledge class for public resources. Of course we need a CBO that will faciltate all these. The point now is to complete the blue print that will take us there and all the technicalities involved. Comrade I don’t know what you think about this idea yet, but for now I will feel good if you will be available to assist with some of the technical details. My special greetings to all the comrades in the resistance mov’t.

    Yours in the struggle

  3. Nafisa Mall

    I have seen Mondli Hlatswayo’s hysterial and truly atrocious emails. They are vastly more paranoid and authoritarian than the statements of the ANC but it is striking how they echo, exactly, the discourse that the ANC uses against poor people’s movements. And as for Ashwin Desai’s public threats of violence (isued in Brandon Pillay’s name)against anyone that questions the power that NGOs like Khanya, Ilrig and CCS exert over poor people’s movements….well….. The only good thing is that Desai has now finally exposed himself. For too long his thuggery has been romanticised.

    At least the AEC are speaking out. But where is the statement from abaHlali? They have borne the brunt of the attacks from Mondli, Desai etc for daring to ask to be able to speak for themselves…Surely abaHlali should be challenging Hlatswayo like they challenged Sutcliffe and Mlaba?


  4. Anonymous

    “Some of the dominant classes join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation. Theirs is a fundamental role and has been so throughout the history of this struggle. However as they move to the side of the exploited they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin. Their prejudices include a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know. So they run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as harmful as that of the oppressors. Though they truly desire to transform the unjust order, they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his [sic]trust in the people, which engages him [sic] in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favour, without that trust.
    To substitute monologues, slogans, and communiques for dialogue is to try to liberate the oppressed with the instruments of domestication” (Freire, P. Pedagaogy of the Oppressed, 36 & 41).

    But, of course, what this leaves out is the heavily racialised and racially paranoid manner in which individuals in SMI/CCS have responded to Abahlali’s requests to ‘Talk to us, not for us’. This includes their slander and their attempt to substitute a 3 person all middle class all non-African ‘social movement’ for a mass movement of shack dwellers.

  5. Anonymous

    “At all stages of their liberation, the oppressed must themselves as people engaged in the vocation of becoming more fully human. Reflection and action become essential. True reflection leads to action but that action will only be a genuine praxis if there is critical reflection on
    its consequences. To achieve this praxis it is necessary to trust in the oppressed and their ability to reason. Whoever lacks this trust will fail to bring about, or will abandon, dialogue, reflection and communication, and will fall into using slogans, communiques, monologues and instructions.”
    Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

  6. Anonymous

    it is, indeed, quite clear that the public attacks on aec and abm from the smi are highly raced. their whole position is premised on the assuption that poor black people couldn’t possibly have thought or acted for themsevles when they challenged the donor funded power which the ngo networks that run the smi wield over movements. the white agitator thesis was rightly condemned as racist under apartheid and has rightly been condemned when it has been used against post-apartheid struggles. the fact that the smi is so fanatically committed to the idea that all and any critique of them must come from a white agitator who is ‘manipulating’ poor African people reveals a fundamentally racist (and classist) orientation.

    i have also seen the film (but it was made by antonios vradis and not anthony collins). it shows quite clearly that the claims of criminality publically levelled against aec and abm by the smi are just blatant lies. the movements make a completely rational case – they are really just asking to be listened to. this was hardly a case of, as marcos recommends, the vanguards being shat on.

    but maybe abm is right not to respond to the smi. when there is such a complete lack of integrity in a political space is it not better just to walk away from it and to concentrate your energies on the real work? if you step in dog shit you don’t fight with it. you clean it off your shoes and keep walking. maybe that is what abm are doing.

  7. Pingback: NEWS [+ PDF] (w. comments) Samson, van der Walt, 2000, “Communities Mobilise: interview with Virginia Setshedi of SECC” | Lucien van der Walt: writings + PDFs on labour/ left history, political economy, unions + class struggles

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