Shack Dwellers on the Move in Durban

Radical Philosophy #141 January 2007 (written September 2006)

Shack Dwellers on the Move in Durban

Shack settlements began to be constructed in the South African port city of Durban following the loss of land and the imposition of various taxes after the destruction of the Zulu Kingdom by English colonialism in 1883 and the simultaneous movement into the city of Indian workers who had completed their indenture on sugar plantations. Colonial authorities soon tried to act against the settlements but they were defended by a series of rebellions. For a while Umkumbane, the largest settlement, flourished and its urban cosmopolitanism produced all kinds of social innovation including its famous gay community where institutionalised homosexual marriage was pioneered in South Africa. But in March 1958, with the population of Umkumbane at 120 000, and the apartheid state achieving its full power, the Durban City Council, working within a colonial academic and policy consensus with a global reach, began a ‘slum clearance’ project that forcibly removed shack dwellers to racially segregated modern townships on the periphery of the city.

Forced removals were militantly opposed, primarily on the grounds that transport costs from the new townships to work were unaffordable. In 1959 demonstrations stopped the evictions 3 times. There were moments when the resistances were clearly organised and articulated as a women’s project. As the conflict escalated lives were lost. In January 1960 6 000 people marched into the city. Protest in and around the settlement had been tolerated to a degree but when shack dwellers went into the city that toleration was withdrawn. The army was bought in and resistance crushed. The mass evictions were largely completed by August 1965 and are remembered as a great crime of apartheid.

But by the early 1980s the apartheid state, occupying Namibia, at war with the Cubans and the MPLA in Angola and battling insurrectionary township rebellions across the county, lost the capacity to completely regulate the movement of Africans. People were able to flood into the city, seize land, and found communities autonomous from the state. This movement into the city was greeted with tremendous racialised panic in white and Indian suburbs but was celebrated by the ANC underground and in exile.

There was a bitter stand off. But by the late 1980s the World Bank backed elite consensus was that shack settlements, now called ‘informal settlements’ rather than ‘squatter camps’, were opportunities for self help via popular entrepreneurship rather than a threat to white modernity, state and capital. NGOs embedded in imperial power structures were deployed to teach the poor that they could only hope to help themselves via small businesses while the rich got on with big business in gated office parks.

With the unbanning of the ANC in 1990 settlement committees were expected to affiliate themselves to the ANC aligned South African National Civics Organisation (SANCO). After the ANC took state power SANCO was tied to the state via a system in which each SANCO settlement committee got one seat on the Branch Executive Committee of the local ANC branch which was chaired by the local councillor. This was supposed to facilitate the bottom up expression of popular views. In the beginning it seemed to work.

Throughout the 90s the ANC promised that, as their first priority, they would ‘together with our people address the concerns of the poorest of the poor living in squatter camps like Kennedy Road, Lusaka and Mbambayi.’ Their power, including their power to demobilise popular militancy and to speak for its traditions, was justified first and foremost in the name of the poorest – people in ‘squatter camps’ like Kennedy Road.

Things began to change in 2001 when Durban was selected as a pilot for the United Nations Habitat Cities Without Slums project. This was initially celebrated as the beginning of the redemption of the ANC’s promises. But now that shack settlements were ‘slums’ to be ‘cleared’ rather than ‘informal settlements’ to be ‘developed’ the provision of electricity and other services to settlements was immediately halted. It slowly became clear that the Slum Clearance project plans to subject the minority of shack dwellers to forced removals to badly constructed shack size homes in new townships on the rural periphery of the city. The majority are being cast as criminal, dirty and carriers of disease and will simply have their homes destroyed. The city has promised to ‘clear the slums’ in time for the 2010 football World Cup and the settlements are being destroyed in an order determined by the degree to which they are visible from the bourgeois world. Relocation to the rural periphery of the city moves people away from work, schools, health care and everything else that the city has to offer and is invariably catastrophic. This return to the brutal logic of apartheid is masked by a technocratic rationality which declares itself the vehicle that will ‘deliver’ to the poor. Because ‘delivery’ is relentlessly presented as a technocratic rather than a political project opposition can easily be presented as criminal or anti-national in elite publics.

As all of this has become clear the party structure reaching down into the intimacy of daily life has been used to contain dissent. This has often taken the form of outright and at times armed intimidation. But in 2005 the police registered just under 6 000 illegal protests across the country, most of them issuing from shack settlements. Both the ANC elite and the left intellectuals who work on policies for the poor, rather than in the politics of the poor, share the view that the poor are demanding a more effective technocratic ‘delivery’ and refer to this upsurge in popular militancy as ‘service delivery protests’. Speaking to the poor rather than for the poor would quickly disabuse them of this assumption.

In Durban the first major break with party control of the settlements happened on 19 March 2005. The day before bulldozers had started digging up a piece of land adjacent to the Kennedy Road settlement which had long been promised for housing. People had discovered from the workers on the site that this wasn’t the beginning of the long promised housing development but that a brick factory was being built. They gathered on the promised land, stopped the construction and asked the local councillor to come and explain what was happening. He arrived with the police and demanded the arrest of his constituents. They are, he said, criminal. That night there was a mass meeting in the settlement. The SANCO committee came under serious pressure and after long and careful discussion a new course of action was decided on. Early the next morning a few hundred people barricaded a nearby 6 lane road with burning tyres and held it against the riot police for 4 hours suffering 14 arrests. Alfred Mdletshe told Fred Kockott, the first journalist on the scene, that ‘We are tired of living and walking in shit. The council must allocate land for housing us. Instead they are giving it to property developers to make money’. With this spectacular act the settlement announced its independence from party control.

On the Monday after the road blockade 1 200 people staged an illegal march on the police station where the 14 were being held. Their demand was that either the 14 be released or else the entire community be arrested because ‘If they are criminal then we are all criminal’. The march was dispersed with more beatings, dogs and tear gas. There were no arrests this time because the police were looking for one person in particular – S’bu Zikode, the young chair of the Kennedy Road Committee. He escaped by dressing in women’s clothes amidst the protection of the throng. Back at the settlement the line of young men returning the gaze of the riot police lounging against their armoured vehicles were entertained by a drunk sarcastically shouting ‘Viva Mandela!’ and ‘Viva ’makhomanisi!’ (communists) to derisive laughter. At a packed meeting that afternoon there were none of the empty slogans, pompous speeches or ritualised invocations of the authority of leaders that characterise national liberation movements in, or close to power. There were just short and intensely debated practical suggestions. They had entered the tunnel of the discovery of their betrayal and discovered their capacity for open resistance. There was, in that moment, an overwhelming sense of profound collective isolation from the structures and pieties of constituted power. The shroud of obedience had been torn open. Zikode declared that ‘We are on our own now’.

People feared that they would pay a high price for their exile from subordination to external authority. But they undertook this exile although they were staring into an open abyss and they sustained it as it steadily revealed itself to require accommodation with hiding in the bushes, beatings, arrests, anxious families, circling helicopters, nightmares and, for some, death threats. The idea of exile often functions as a pathologically narcissistic form of legitimation for the power of a self selecting vanguard. But Zikode has often taken care to insist that ‘our homemade politics’ must be ‘made by everyone together so that every old gogo (grandmother) can understand it’. There is a clear and often publicly restated commitment to think in common rather than for the mass.

The first two illegal protests from Kennedy Road were followed by a series of legal marches on the nearby local councillors, some involving as many as 5 000 people. The state was not impressed and went so far as to have the army occupy Kennedy Road in a spectacular display of state power. But the marches continued and included people from more and more settlements. In each of these marches the protestors carried a mock coffin and then staged a performance of a funeral for the councillor outside his office. They were not just burying the councillors as deficient instances of councillorhood but were burying the whole idea of top down party control. Kennedy Road had had to break with SANCO when they accepted political exile. But now other settlements began to vote out SANCO committees, seen as accountable to the local councillors and to elect autonomous committees, seen as accountable to the people in the settlements. In some settlements this resulted in serious and often armed intimidation from members and associates of former SANCO committees. But on 6 October 2005 17 men and 15 women elected as representatives from 12 settlements that now had autonomous committees met to formally constitute themselves into a movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo (people who stay in shacks), and to commit themselves to stand together and to fight together for popular democracy and land and housing in the city. A year later 34 settlements would be affiliated to the movement.

In this time the Abahlali have democratised the governance of settlements, stopped evictions, won access to local schools, won some concessions around services like water, toilets and refuse removal; won sustained access by men and women to voice in elite publics; set up crèches, a sewing co-operative and vegetable gardens; enabled collective bargaining with the state and capital and forced the city’s slum clearance project into a serious and popular legitimation crisis.

From the beginning the meeting was the engine of struggle for the Abahlali. Music, dance, ecumenical memorials for people who have died in the relentless shack fires, just hanging out and a now a 16 team football league all work to sustain courage and weave solidarity. But the meeting, which is always open to all, is where the intellectual work is done. The discussion at Abahlali meetings is not a performance of inclusion to legitimate an outcome determined elsewhere. Elected leaders and individuals with various forms of relative privilege are routinely subject to positions that they did not arrive with. When the meeting produces a result everyone is committed to it. This is due to deeply valued ethical commitments. But it is also due to necessity. There is no other way to build and sustain popular consent for a risky political project amongst a hugely diverse group of vulnerable people with profound experiences of marginalisation and exploitation in multiple spheres of life, including political projects waged in their name. There is no patronage to dispense. If democracy ever does become a performance rather than the reality the collective movement out of the places to which shack dwellers are supposed to keep will stop. Everyone knows this.

At the beginning of the new year the elections for ward councillors were looming. It was decided to stage a collective boycott. The boycott was carefully theorised in a series of discussions that concluded that there is a difference between ‘party politics’ and ‘people’s politics’ and that the former, identified as a mechanism of elite control, will always seek to capture the latter, identified as a space for popular democracy. The decision to commit to people’s politics was not a commitment to pursue autonomy from the state. On the contrary there is a hard fought day to day struggle to subordinate the local manifestations of the state to society and to win, on the terms of each settlement, access to state services like water, electricity, toilets, refuse removal, education and health care. However it was a decision to pursue the political autonomy of the settlements. The principled decision to keep a distance from what is widely seen as a mode of politics that has an inevitably corrupting influence on any attempt to keep a struggle grounded in truth was key to the rapid building of a mass movement. People in other settlements were generally very keen to talk to people who had publicly committed themselves to remain politically autonomous from constituted power and permanently subject to the questioning of constituent power.

It was decided to announce the election boycott with a march from the Foreman Road settlement into the city and on the mayor under the slogan ‘No Land, No House, No Vote’. As in 1960 this was a step too far. Mike Sutcliffe, the city manager and a former Marxist academic, illegally banned the march by fax. Two days later more than 3 000 people missed a day’s work and gathered in the Foreman Road settlement which had been surrounded by riot police. The Foreman Road committee explained that marching would be very dangerous under these conditions. Speaker after speaker from the assembly replied that living in the settlements was just as dangerous and the 3 000 set off up the steep dirt track that leads out of the settlement singing Yonk’ indawo umzabalazo uyasivumela (Everywhere struggle is welcome). The banners in the front read ‘University of Abahlali baseMjondolo’ and ‘No land, No House, No Vote’. As they stepped onto the tarred road that marks the beginning of the bourgeois world they were attacked, shot at with pistols and rubber bullets and severely beaten. There were a number of serious injuries, many with permanent consequences, and 45 arrests. But the police violence could not break the resolve of the marchers. Protestors, led from the front by Fikile Nkosi, a young domestic worker, successfully kept the police from entering the settlement with barrages of stones. While the settlement was under siege a suited effigy of the mayor was burnt. Although the city managers, with all their obsessions about being ‘world class’, were horrified when this detail made it into the New York Times the illegal ban on conducting political action outside of the settlements remained in place. They even went so far as to use the police to violently prevent Abahlali from taking up an invitation to send a representative to debate the mayor on a popular television talk show.

Another attempt was made to march into the city on 27th February. Once again all of the necessary steps had been taken to stage a legal march into the city. By this time the movement had grown to the point where 20 000 people were expected. Sutcliffe issued another illegal ban and early on the morning of the 27th the police moved in on the three largest settlements in a military style operation using armoured vehicles and helicopters. They arrested and assaulted key people and blocked off all the exits from the settlements. But this time the Abahlali had garnered the connections to be able to take Sutcliffe to the High Court. They won a quick victory and with the interdict in their hands marched into the city in triumph. Sutcliffe loaded his furious press statement with words like ‘criminal’ and ‘anarchy’. Two days later the election boycott held across all the Abahlali settlements.

After the failure of more than a year spent trying to break Abahlali with direct repression the state came up with another plan. In July they informed Abahlali that if they wanted to be able to ‘engage with government’ they must ‘be professional’ and ‘serious’ and join the transnational NGO Shack Dwellers’ International which is often used by governments to simulate popular consent for repressive policies. Tellingly sections of the professionalized NGO linked left have been equally keen to subordinate this actually existing mass movement of the militant poor to various docile simulacrums of people’s power. The 19 year old Abahlali militant Mnikelo Ndabankulu first called these people ‘the conference specialists’ who, he insisted, ‘want to talk for us but don’t want to come where the people are to fight live with us, or even to talk to us’. For a while it looked as though the emergence of an actually existing militant mass movement of the poor would be able to democratise and deracialise some of the spaces and networks through which the professionalized left use donor money to exercise their various modes of authoritarian vanguardism. But it has now become clear that these spaces are not reformable. In many instances the response to the eruption of an actually existing mass movement of the militant poor into these spaces has been paranoid and startlingly authoritarian rather than celebratory. Abahlali have routinely been instructed to passively attend, and thereby legitimate, meetings planned by email, held in a language and jargon most don’t understand, with agendas over which they have no influence and in places which are difficult for the poor to access. The standard division of labour in these meetings, a division that is often racialised, is that the poor get a few minutes to report on their experiences while professional activists do the thinking and decision making. In many instances the real function of the meetings is to simulate the appearance of legitimacy for local and transnational networks of professional NGO based or linked activists. When middle class people in the movement have sustained a reasoned fidelity to it’s basic axioms, like ‘talk to us not for us’, ‘speak in a language that everyone can understand’ or ‘the meeting not an individual will decide’ they have endured sustained attempts at institutional discipline, organised campaigns of slander, threats of violence and even the hostile attention of open alliances between the left and state power.

After the failure of the state’s attempt to co-opt the movement via Shack Dwellers’ International there has been a return to open repression. On the 11th of September, following a series of successful actions, Abahlali were invited to an interview on iGagasi FM. S’bu Zikode, Philani Zungu and Mnikelo Ndabanakulu were just about to leave for the interview from Kennedy Road when officers from the Sydenham police station, notorious in the settlements for its corruption, brutality and anti-African racism, pounced thrusting guns into the faces of the Bahlali and subjecting them to racialised verbal abuse. When they saw that Ndabankulu was wearing one of the famous red Abahlali T-shirts they pulled it off him, insulted him, pushed him around, threw the shirt into the mud, made a great show of standing and spitting on it and announced that ‘there will be no more red shirts here’.

Philani Zungu politely but firmly told them that they had no right to act like this in a democracy. He was assaulted and, together with Zikode, thrown into the police van. As they left the police picked up Ndabankulu’s red shirt saying they were taking it ‘to use as a mop in the station’.

Someone sent a text message to the radio station explaining that their guests were under arrest. This was announced on air. Bahlali began arriving at the police station from all over Durban. In nearby Kennedy Road hundreds of people were at an emergency mass meeting. A group of women in the front decided to march on the police station. Within minutes of people getting onto the road the police arrived. They gave no warnings to disperse and began shooting with rubber bullets and live ammunition. Anyone on the road or even moving between the shacks was shot at.

Back at the police station there was a glimpse of Zikode and Zungu lying face down on the floor handcuffed and bound at the feet. Ndabankulu’s red shirt was lying on the floor next to them. Suddenly a group of men in camouflage arrived at the police station armed with machine guns and pumped up with adrenalin. They declared the gathering outside the police station to be illegal and began herding people off using their guns like cattle prods and threatening to shoot.

The next morning there were hundreds of Bahlali in red shirts in the Durban Magistrates’ court. The state, bizarrely, charged Zikode and Zungu with assaulting a police officer but the Magistrate released them without asking for bail. They were joyously carried out of the court on the shoulders of their comrades. Both men had visible wounds and explained that they had been personally assaulted by Superintendent Glen Nayager who had hurled political abuse on them as he bashed their heads against the wall. A group of policemen had enthusiastically photographed Nayager’s assault which only ended when Zungu was knocked unconscious and could not be revived. The City Manager responded with dark insinuations about foreign funded red t-shirts.

Mnikelo Ndabankulu has a new red shirt. It was made, with hundreds of others, on a rented pedal power sewing machine by the Abahlali Sewing Collective in an all night song filled sewing session in a candlelit shack. Yonk’ indawo umzabalazo uyasivumela.

(longer version attached)