The Dignity of the Poor is Vandalized from Many Quarters
by Abahlali baseMjondolo (KwaZulu-Natal), Rural Network (KwaZulu-Natal) & the Unemployed People's Movement (Eastern Cape, Free State & KwaZulu-Natal)
When black people rose up against apartheid, the government usually said that they couldn’t have organized themselves and that there must have been a white person making them resist. Some thought that only whites were capable of thinking, speaking, and acting for themselves. But it was not only the government that looked for conspiracies every time black people organized themselves. This also happened within the movement.
For example, on the 19th of August 1977, Steve Biko had to be whisked out of Cape Town where he had arrived for underground meetings because the police were looking for him. On his way back to King William's Town he was arrested at a road block between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown. He was tortured and beaten, and he died on the 12th of September. On the 19th of October that year, all Black Consciousness formations in the country were banned. Some, such as the Zanempilo Clinic, a community health project, were rooted in the community and doing service work.
Important people in the ANC, like Mac Maharaj (today Jacob Zuma’s spokesperson), seem to have responded by calling Biko “a CIA agent.” All proponents of the Black Consciousness philosophy were treated as nothing but “agents of imperialism.” Instead of solidarity there was political sectarianism. Some of what happened is covered in Rian Malan’s book, My Traitor’s Heart, and in Xolela Mangcu's new book, Biko.
Today the Black Consciousness movement is very weak and disconnected from the living politics of ordinary people. It is not a threat to the ANC and so they speak of Biko as a hero; nothing is said anymore about the way in which he was portrayed as a traitor. But when poor and working class people organize ourselves outside of ANC structures, we are referred to as “counter-revolutionaries,” “the third force,” and “criminals.” It is often said that we are being used by other people, usually white intellectuals, who are said to be spies working for foreign governments, or agents for other political parties or people who are trying to restore apartheid. These people portray us as criminals, traitors, thugs, and fools, as people that are short-minded and can’t think, speak, or act for ourselves. We are seen as a threat to those who suppose that they can govern everyone else. It is clear that they think that our only role is to obey.
We are made to be seen as a threat to society and then we are treated as a threat to society. We are arrested, beaten, tortured, driven from our homes and killed. We are treated as if we are beneath the law, as if we don’t count under the law. The Marikana Massacre has become a testament to what happens when you organize outside of the ruling party in South Africa – you are portrayed as a traitor and then you are treated as a traitor. For this reason we treat the allegations that are made against our organizations and struggles as one of the dangerous weapons that this system of oppression uses to keep us in our place.
It is not just the ANC that mischaracterizes our struggles. The dirty politics of the “rule it or ruin it” approach are used by others too. There are middle class people who are usually working in or with NGOs and universities who think that they should be the ones to lead the peoples' struggles. No one ever elected them or mandated them, but there they are – acting like the bosses of our struggles. They often call themselves socialists, but sometimes they call themselves anarchists or autonomists or environmentalists or human rights activists. For many of these people the role of grassroots activists is only to mobilize other poor black people to come to their meetings. Sometimes grassroots activists are paid to bring other people to these meetings. We never have any real role in planning these meetings. Sometimes we are more likely to be asked to sing a song than to give an opinion. The meetings are supposed to be about us and for us, but they are never planned or run with us. We find that what is called a “movement space” or a “People's Space” is really only a space for NGOs and academics. Once again, it is implied that our only role is to obey instructions from above.
When we raise questions about this or we refuse to participate in this, we find that once again it is said that we are criminals and thugs who are being misled by white people. Often there is no difference at all between what is being said by the ruling party and what the Unemployed People's Movement has called the sectarian left (what Abahlali baseMjondolo has called the regressive left). Things are said about us without any evidence. The people making these claims don't interview us or come to our meetings. Many times, we have not ever met them. But they feel that they can speak about us with impunity. We are openly defamed and our middle class comrades who discuss, think, and decide with us in our structures are made to look like devils.
For this reason we have reached the point where we do not see the politicians, the state, or business as our only oppressors. We see any attempt to vandalize our dignity, to lie about our struggles, and to exclude us from full and equal participation in important conversations as part of one system of oppression. That system of oppression does not fear an NGO meeting or three or four people writing articles that no one reads. To the best of our knowledge, no one in our country has ever been arrested, beaten, tortured, driven from their home, or killed for organizing an NGO meeting or writing an article about socialism. What the system of oppression really fears can be seen by what it represses, and that is the power of the organized poor. We do not think that the system of oppression is stupid. To us, it seems that it knows very well where the real threats to its survival are found.
It is very interesting to us that while we have been able to organize ourselves with some success despite serious repression and other challenges, those who think that they have a right to think and speak and decide for us—and who have nothing but contempt for our experiences, our thinking and our struggles, and who think that our only role is to obey them—have no record of sustained successful organization. How can you be an expert in politics when you have never succeeded at politics?
It amazes us that when we are loyal to our humanity and insist on our dignity, we are immediately seen as disloyal to elites. How can you build a society based on dignity in the future when you have such contempt for people now? How can you build a society based on truth in the future when you tell so many lies now?
It seems to us that some people think that because they know all the “zim zims” – socialism, neoliberalism, etc. – better than others, they have a right to dominate. It also seems to us that race, class, and gender are sometimes also part of this. It also seems to us that these people are only able to dominate where they do dominate because of money from donors. It is donors, not the struggles of oppressed people, which give them their power.
Another thing that we notice is that in every struggle it is assumed that political parties, trade unions, NGOs, and all kinds of experts should be the ones to speak for these struggles and to make decisions for them. Recently farm workers in the Western Cape have been struggling for better wages. We heard a lot from politicians, trade unions, and NGOs, but we did not hear the voices of the farm workers very often. The same thing happened in Marikana. As poor people, we are only able to join the high level discussions about our lives, our struggles, and our future when we struggle. Some of our movements have had a lot of success in occupying the spaces where these discussions happen. But we have paid a price for it. Some of those who thought that they had a right to speak and to decide for us will never forgive us for taking our own place at the table. They say that they are for equality in the future but they repress equality in the present by all means. For us this cannot be a real politics of freedom.
The following pie chart is by Jane Duncan, a radical academic who is highly respected by many poor people's movements and organizations in South Africa. This pie chart clearly demonstrates our point. It shows where the media went for comment on the Marikana strike and its repression.
This shows, to us, that the media is playing a role in repressing us. We also feel repressed from within the NGOs and the universities.
Our movements are very diverse. They are made up of people with different political histories and ideas. Sometimes there are regional differences too. For instance, Abahlali baseMjondolo groups in the Western Cape have always been quite different from Abahlali baseMjondolo groups in KwaZulu-Natal. But there are some things that you will notice in all of these movements. One is that our members insist on the importance of dignity. They insist that our struggles are for a society that recognizes human dignity, and that they must also be conducted in a way that recognizes human dignity now. Dignity is the road and it is the destination.
Our movements have many weaknesses. Some are much more democratic, and much stronger, than others. We have never said that we are all angels or that our movements are perfect or have all the answers.
In fact we are constantly discussing the problems we face within our movements. We welcome anyone who wishes to join these discussions in a respectful and dignified way. We have learned many important things from many different people. Many people have also learned from us. However, a discussion about how to build a just world – a world where the land, wealth, and power to decide is shared, a world where everyone counts – is not the same thing as the mischaracterizations of our movement and of poor people generally. No discussion can proceed well when it is founded on falsehoods—it must be founded on the truth.
For us, a left that talks about a better world in the future but has no real support of its own, holds us in contempt, and spits on our dignity and our struggles is a useless left, a regressive left. When the so-called left inside the ruling alliance wants to support the repression of our struggles, it often turns to the lies told by the regressive or sectarian left outside the ruling alliance. For us this is no coincidence. They are all part of one system of oppression – a system of oppression in which the poor and the working class must keep quiet and stand aside while the experts in politics talk, think, and decide for us. As Mnikelo Ndabankulu from Abahlali baseMjondolo said in 2006, if our rejection of this means that we are taken to be out of order, then we are willing to be out of order. In fact, our dignity compels us to be out of order.