S’bu Zikode’s Presentation at the Fanon Colloquium, Rhodes University, July 9, 2011
The idea that shack dwellers can think and that Abahlali can sustain its autonomy has created a crisis. There is a price to be paid for such thinking, for such autonomy.
The university is slowly opening spaces for grassroots organizations and some of us have fought hard for a relationship of equality between grassroots organizations and the university. We appreciate that Nigel Gibson has brought Fanon into conversation with us, with our struggle and our thinking. The conversation has been very rich and also difficult. We speak of Fanon from our own working environment. What hasn’t been covered in these 4 days is that Fanon was an activist, committed to daily work with people, talking with people.
Each time we travel, we give hope to the people in Abahlali, we report back. How do I report back and make this colloquium meaningful to ordinary men and women, especially in the shacks and rural communities? It is a tough task.
Fanon said that each generation has to discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it. This is being done in the shacks. We had to discover ourselves, take our own step into struggle, and then we meet friends and comrades in struggle. We discovered that we didn’t count and that it didn’t matter to anyone. In learning we began to define ourselves before someone else from somewhere else defines us. We then said this is who we are, this is where we are, this is what we want and this is how we want what we want. The assumption has been that poor people do not think. The assumption has been that if we do think we only think about survival, about food, that our thinking only revolves around hunger and starvation. Others come and try to represent us and to make decisions for us as if we cannot think.
We come from the University of Abahlali baseMjondolo which is never heard or seen because the university is the struggle. What we have learned here we have learned in the struggle. We have learned from old mamas and gogos; really learned from below, learned with those who really wants to learn. Thinking takes place in the meetings, protest marches, rallies and in the camps. We read Fanon in parallel with what we are doing. Fanon is in the shacks. Fanon is part of the broader struggle thinking with the people. For us there is no point in using one theory to evaluate another theory. We try to bring every theory of a living freedom, every theory of real equality, every theory of a living communism into a conversation with our living politics.
When Abahlali began in 2005 with the road blockade, we had no idea it was a political act. It was only the next morning that we realized that we were playing with fire because we should “know our place”, in the shacks. We thought the streets were ours but in vain. When we were told that we were disrupting public life and charged with public violence, we said, we had thought that we are also part of the public. We realized that the public were others. We realized that it was considered threatening and criminal for us to take our place in the public - on the street, in the discussions.
Then a politics of fear emerged. Every peaceful and polite effort that we made to build our country was called out of order. Ours became an out of order politics. We had to accept this and to continue with our out of order politic.
We are fighting for land, housing and freedom in the cities. AbM is not a single issue movement. Our struggle is reduced to service delivery as an effort to silence the people and to make us not question the government and our society because allowing these debates will speak to reality of our society. It will be interesting to know how Fanon would behave with the politic of fear masterminded to silence the thinking and voice of ordinary people.
AbM also speaks about a living politics in the shacks, a living practice. A politics understood by ordinary people who have not set forth in school. A politics of water, of school, of electricity, of rebellion against exclusion from participating together in decision making. A politics of the simple fact that either we all need electricity or we all don’t need it. And it is clear that our lives, all our lives, need electricity, as our Media Liason Officer Mnikelo Ndabankulu has said. We have seen how language is used to exclude and confuse people. Living learning session are used to transfer skills to communities and break theory into practical and meaningful contributions. We use experience as a starting point. We reflect, together, on our experience of suffering and our experience of struggle. Shack intellectuals are being produced in this fashion. We have camps from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m where the old and the young discuss politics and their children’s futures. As a social movement we see change and are agents of the change we want to see.
AbM refuses to be told that we are free. Instead of celebrating Freedom Day we created unFreedom Day. This is not to disrespect the struggle and the sacrifice made by those who came before us, but rather not to fool ourselves that we are free. Leading up to unFreedom Day every year we have a series of serious discussions about many issues. Fanon would be part of these discussions. It doesn’t mean that we have all the answers. We are always all learning. The important thing is that we must keep learning together and that our learning must remain a living learning, a learning in the practice of struggle.
We are being tested about our commitment to what we want to see – a world where everyone is equal, where everyone is recognized. Some civil society organizations do not like shack dwellers thinking. “Who the hell do you think you are?” they say. For them we are not part of the public, we have no rights. Highly educated people confront us with the idea that we shouldn’t have a say. It is not only the government and property owners that oppress us.
AbM has been researched, perhaps over researched. Our struggle is important for our lives, for our children. We are not a professional organization. We are not paid to struggle. We always have to organize in the middle of crisis - evictions, arrests and fires. We have had to keep organizing through serious repression. We welcome students and researchers that are willing to negotiate a partnership with us, a living solidarity. But it is not right that the movements of the poor must always be expected to make time for those researchers that only take and make no contribution in return.
We have been kept busy in the courts and in workshops to make sure that the streets are not ours. The system that keeps us apart is so smart. Everyday the system is ahead with its plan and thinking. This venue truly must confront the smartness of the system. Our agendas are always being diverted to something else and our struggle diverted from the direction of the movement. There is a syndrome of criminalization of people’s struggles and trials in criminal courts rather than political courts that divert us from our struggle where everyone counts. We have to think in the midst of all this. We know that Fanon developed his thinking in the midst of the Algerian revolution.
AbM is not a perfect social movement. We have our own challenges and live in the same world of errors. But we have created our own space. Part of the victories we have won is the space that we have managed to create and defend. It is a precious space and despite homelessness, despite poverty, despite repression we are able to think together. While creating this space we appreciate that Fanon is alive in our shacks. We must also see Fanon as an activist - not a professional but a participant in what has to be done where our thinking together can change the world in practice. I invite you to the shacks, to our rural homes, to our struggle - you have a role.
We have lost great comrades who have been co-opted. Great minds have been lost into something else, and not just into money. Other comrades have been with us on every step that we have taken, in every danger that we have faced. It goes back to your humanity, to refuse to be co-opted. How do I enjoy a house when others are homeless? What does a position mean when others are not recognized? The real question for each of us is 'What constitutes you and humanity?' There is a high price for every commitment. How many of us are prepared to risk our lives in defense of humanity?