“No democracy in SA” says Shack Dwellers Movement leader
By Rebecca Coleman
Lindela Figlan is deputy chair of the Abahlali BaseMjondolo (AbM) movement also known as the Shack Dwellers Movement, a housing and land rights movement formed by residents of Kennedy Road shack settlement in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Founded in 2005, AbM campaigns for relocation of the rural poor to houses in the urban areas closer to where they work and away from where they were forced to live during apartheid.
Their struggle has most recently been told through Dear Mandela (read review), a documentary that follows AbM as they campaign against the unconstitutional destruction of and forced removal from their shacks. Dear Mandela was screened last week as part of Film Africa 2012, the UK’s largest African film and culture festival.
TheSouthAfrican.com caught up with Figlan to find out more about the organisation.
You’re here in the UK for the screening of Dear Mandela. Is the film a good representation of what’s happening in South Africa at the moment?
Yes, it is. Our slogan is, Don’t talk about us, talk to us. What’s there in the film is happening in South Africa. The only thing they (the government) are doing… they come to our settlement only if they need votes. That is why we said if there is no land, no house, no respect, there will be also no vote. We know how they can emancipate us from poorness. We are the masters of that condition so they must come and ask us.
Should the film not have been addressed to the leadership of the current government instead of Mandela?
The people gave it that name because they want to know if this is the freedom he fought for. It is just a wake-up call to him saying, “Just look at us, we are still where we were before.”
Dear Mandela has received critical acclaim internationally. Are South Africans looking for international assistance for the land struggles or is it something South Africans can solve themselves?
We had a march in order to give our grievances to the president but it seems our complaints fell on deaf ears and our president has decided not to listen to the poor people. They always say they are the masters of democracy whereas we can’t see that. There is no democracy in South Africa. There are people still sleeping on the road. There are people still sleeping in the shacks. They are burning in the shacks! What kind of a democracy is that?! That is why now, the tactics they were doing before 1994 to fight apartheid… we were there also and we are going to use all those tactics.
So is one of your tactics to work with the international community to highlight these issues?
Yes, we are.
Is South Africa facing a crisis over land or is the land issue isolated to certain pockets?
The land is the core of our struggle. We need the government to build houses just because that is what they promised us. They mustn’t do what the apartheid government did and take people to the rural areas, we want to be in the city because that is where we are working.
Surely the government alone can’t be blamed? What are some of the other factors that may have hindered progress on land issues?
I think maybe the other thing that causes problems is the escalation of corruption. The adoption of the capitalist system in South Africa is also another problem because it means those who are poor must become poorer and those who are rich must become richer.
So are you proposing a socialist system? Or communist even?
He laughs. No the people will decide this. It will depend on the people.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your childhood and what it was like to grow up in South Africa.
I am from the Eastern Cape, from an area called Flagstaff in the former Transkei. My father passed away in 1983 when I was three [this should be thirteen] years old. He was such a good man who would always talk about politics. He was so proud of Mandela and he was involved in the struggle. I was a soccer star playing for my team known as the Winners and they used to call me Mashumi. I have a wife and three children now and I really love them.
It’s interesting that you mention your wife and children because the kind of activism you do is very risky work. You have received many death threats and attempts on your life. Wouldn’t it be much easier to stop or to move to another country?
If we are running away it means we are betraying those who are poor like us. I think the best way is to remain in South Africa and to make sure the government understands what we are talking about. I used to stay in Kennedy Road, a shack settlement. On 26 September 2009, a group of people came to destroy my shack. They were wearing t-shirts from a certain political organisation. I was inside the shack. I put my hand on the mouth of my child to silence my child just because my child was 3 years old, she was screaming. Then those people said no, we will come back. Then after that, another gang came and people told me that they say they want to kill you. If people want to define themselves, they try to silence them.
The international media show us images of only black South Africans striking and protesting. Is that an accurate portrayal of the land issue? Where is there room for the rest of South Africa and is this their issue?
It is not only the black people sleeping on the road or who are poor; there are white people, there are Indians. Some are living with us in our settlement. Those people need everyone in South Africa to say no to poverty. Take for example what happened in Marikana. They nominated a commission. They are going to give that commission millions. Why couldn’t they take R1 million and give it to the families who lost their people? It looks like the government has decided to create a project over their dead bodies.
Why do you think those shootings in Marikana happened?
It’s because they were protecting their money. They don’t want the people who are suffering to get any money.
Do the killings there bear any relevance to the land issues you’re campaigning for?
Yes. The people working in Marikana stay in shacks. Some companies provide accommodation. I think it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that the companies provide housing for them and their families. The reason why the companies don’t respect their workers is because they notice that the government doesn’t care about their people. Take, for example, the unions. They are just exploiting us, same as the companies. That is why sometimes we notice that the people in the mines say, We don’t want any unions to represent us because the unions are the liars. They don’t want to listen to you; they only want to impose their opinions.
Churches and international NGOs used to be very vocal on South Africa’s social injustices but it seems those traditional advocates aren’t speaking out as they used to. Do you agree, and if so, why do you think that is the case?
Some churches are a little soft with capitalism because it benefited them but some other churches and NGOs really support us. The South African Council of Churches give us a platform to talk about our suffering as the poor people on the ground. The Church Land Programme has been established by the church people and is always willing to help the movement. They ask us, how can we help you? War on Want, another NGO here in London, listens to the voice of the people. We really appreciate the support of these organisations because without them we can do nothing; it is because of them that I am here in the UK.
Euronews reported recently that impartial observers say Zuma has every reason to feel confident about remaining the ANC’s leader after December. Is that an accurate assessment? Should he feel confident?
We say we will leave the politics with the politicians but I don’t think there is anyone who can feel confidence if there are people burning in shacks, people are being shot in the mines. If I was president and I noticed the way people were being killed in the Marikana mines, I would resign. How can people get killed under your leadership and how can they sleep on the road? The people who sleep on a mat by the road are very cold and you notice them trembling. How can you be proud if that? You can’t.