Meaningful Engagement | Abahlali baseMjondolo
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Meaningful Engagement

conference presentationMotala Heightspublic participationtransit camps

Meaningful Engagement

The Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Wits, are hosting a colloquium on the topic of ‘Meaningful Engagement’ today. The speakers were asked to prepare and circulate their papers in advance. This is S’bu Zikode’s contribution to the discussion.

I thank Lauren Royston and Kate Tissington for the opportunity to comment on the topic of meaningful engagement.

Our movement is always very happy to visit CALS. CALS is an important ally in the struggles of the poor and all our movements hold your organization in high respect. You have worked with us and not for us. You have not been scared to confront power whether it is the provincial government or a gangster landlord. We remember how Stuart Wilson sat taking instruction from Uncle James in Motala Heights while Ricky Govender’s thugs threw rocks at Uncle James’ house. We know how hard and how well Stuart and your team worked on the Slums Act case.

It is a fact that may not be disputed that not all engagements between the state and the people are meant to be meaningful. What is called ‘engagement’ or ‘public participation’ is often just a kind of instruction, sometimes even a threat. Many times it is done in such a way that all possibilities for real discussion and understanding are closed from the start. In these cases what is called engagement is really just a way for the state to pretend to be democratic when in reality all decisions are already taken and taken far away from poor people.

However all purposes of engagement are meant to be meaningful by virtue of their intention. When you engage for a particular purpose you want the purpose itself to determine the nature of the engagement. The purpose therefore comes first. In each engagement we must be clear about who we are and what we want. This determines our tactics and what we can accept and not accept in each engagement.

It is one thing if we are beneficiaries who need delivery. It is another thing if we are citizens who want to shape the future of our cities, even our country. It is another thing if we are human beings who have decided that it is our duty to humanize the world.

Some problems are technical. Some problems are political. But we find that without our own political empowerment we can not even resolve the technical problems. The solving of even very small technical problems, like a broken toilet, requires that we are first recognized as people that count. If you are not recognized they will just say ‘who the hell are you?’. To be recognized requires struggle. It took Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban three years of hard struggle – with many police attacks, many beatings and arrests – before we were even recognized as people who could negotiate with the state. Then there was another year of a different kind of struggle within the negotiations before we were properly recognized there. Right now in Cape Town Abahlali baseMjondolo are still fighting the first struggle against repression. Right now communities all over the country are in rebellion. Many are still at the stage of demanding to be recognized as people that count. We are very much encouraged by many of these rebellions. We support the land occupations, the strikes and the eating of food in the big shops in Durban. Of course we condemn the new xenophobia in Mpumalanga. When the anger of the poor turns on the poor it is nothing but disaster. Terrible, terrible disaster.

The road is long. We have travelled far in Durban but it remains possible that we could be pushed back. Therefore we must always remain strong – we must remain many, we must remain active, we must continue to think and to debate all issues. This is the only way to ensure that we keep going forward.

There are some clear rules for meaningful engagement. Firstly the people that are supposed to participate in that engagement must be informed prior to date of that engagement and they need to be aware of what is going to be discussed during that engagement. The time, place, language and culture of that engagement must suit the people.

The leadership of the movement or community that will attend the engagement also has important responsibilities. They need to inform all of their members about the engagement in good time. They need to explain clearly what will be at stake. The organizing and placing of notices should not only be limited to a leadership or organizational level but to ordinary people to avoid any form of exclusion. Women must be included on the same basis as men. The young and the old must be included on the same basis. The poor and the even poorer must be included on the same basis. There must be no distinction between people born here and people born in other countries.

The local leadership must use its relevant culture and the strategies that are often used in that particular community. It is important not to allow the NGOs to teach people ways of being ‘professional’ about development that separate people from the culture of a community.

Representatives must be elected and mandated. When there is ongoing engagement it is important that representatives are rotated and re-elected for each engagement. All decisions must be referred back to the movement or community before being finalized.

During the engagement the processes should be conducted in a way that all the parties that are involved in that engagement feel that their opinions are being heard. You cannot have a situation where one party controls the agenda and chairs the meeting without consultation. Everyone must be able to speak freely.

My experience in the past has been that some government officials would come up with a concluded decision with no room to accommodate views of the people and then organize an engagement. This is the experience of most communities and most movements. In these cases what is the point of engaging under these circumstances?

This was most evident to us when the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature introduced the KwaZulu-Natal Elimination and Prevention of Re-Emergence of Slums Bill 2007, in the Kennedy Road Settlement. They started with a police helicopter just above us, flying low over the settlement. There were police everywhere. We were not allowed to speak if we couldn’t quote a section of Act. Those who did speak were dismissed without respect. Our concerns were treated as if they were ignorant or stupid.

It became clear that there was no reason for the legislature to hold this public meeting except that they were required by the law to do it. We organized many shack dwellers to attend this meeting. We prepared for it very carefully. We read that Bill together line by line. We discussed each point in that Bill. On the day the Kennedy Road Community Hall was fully packed. But our presence was turned to be used to justify the passing of the Bill into an Act on the basis that a lot of people were present to endorse the Act! It is thus clear that the good move of holding public meetings can easily be monopolized and abused in order to justify the exclusion of the public from the discussions that really matter.

In such instances one can rightful say that, such government officials see no need to engage ordinary people on policy formulation matters that affect them directly. This thinking goes with the idea that ordinary people should just become the passive receivers of services. They must just trust that everything that is done in their name and for them is an attempt to help them. Of course we cannot trust in this because people are being evicted everywhere. People are facing forced removals everywhere. People are being dumped in transit camps everywhere. People are being disconnected everywhere, burnt everywhere, arrested everywhere, beaten everywhere. We have good reason not to automatically trust the state. Where we have achieved trust with some officials it has been after long struggle and long negotiation followed by the experience of learning to work together.

Active citizen participation is discouraged by those that hold the power. Sometimes it is discouraged with contempt. Sometimes it is discourage with violence. Sometimes it is discouraged by making simple issues too complicated for ordinary people to understand. Sometimes it is discourage by just making it too difficult to engage. How many shack dwellers can afford to be on hold on their cellphones for twenty minutes?

We expressed our anger at the so called ‘public participation’ meeting for the Slums Bill. Some members of Abahlali baseMjondolo were then invited to the KwaZulu-Natal parliament to participate in the discussions there. They prepared carefully. They had a written submission and we were ready for all debates. They travelled there on a work day. But the Act was passed in their presence without any opportunity given to them to say a word. The Act was passed against the will of the people.

Meaningful engagement will of course mean different things to different people. But it is clear that a reasonable service provider, stakeholder, leader or official should not be judged by how many public hearing meetings or izimbizos it conducts but by the number of people whom they manage to reach and listen to and to take into serious account during those meetings. Meaningful engagement should make sure that both parties involved will be able to benefit from that engagement. It can never be meaningful if it is just for the people to listen and to never be able to voice out their own thinking.

The government says that it wants to ‘bring government to the people’. It is much better to ‘bring government to the people’ than to send in the police, the private security and the land invasions unit to evict and disconnect and to then call that good governance. But bringing the government to the people is not enough. Meaningful engagement will only happen when we can, through our struggles, bring the people into government.

That does not mean that we want to replace one councillor with another or one party with another. It means that we want to bring the government, iregardless of who is sitting on the comfy chairs there, under the control of the people.

That is why we also say that the struggle of our movements is a struggle to democratize the society from below. Yes we do want services. Services are needed by our lives. They are basic to life. We will always engage to try and get or to keep these services. These little struggles are important.

But we also want full recognition of our humanity. Things must be done with us and not for us or to us. Therefore the government must come under the people. This requires the current political system to be turned upside down. If each community and each movement builds its power by respecting its members fully so that as each individual grows in power each community and movement grows in its power then we can slowly achieve this step by step. That is our vision for meaningful engagement – a slow revolution from below fought day by day across the country.

S’bu. Zikode.

Kennedy Road Settlement, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, 24 July 2009