The poor are punished for demanding our constitutional rights

S'bu Zikode, The Daily Maverick

The word 'democracy' has often been misunderstood. It has been misused to legitimise certain projects in a way that is incorrect and misleading. For many shack dwellers and other poor people in South Africa, democracy has meant free corruption for members of the ruling party, a life mired in the mud and fire of shacks, illegal evictions and forced removals to transit camps.

For the eThekwini Municipality, democracy means that they are a law unto themselves and can act in total disregard of the rule of law. The poor are automatically viewed as criminals even when we act within the law. For those of us who have organised to defend the dignity of the poor, democracy has come to mean death threats, torture, arrest, violence and assassination.

This has been evident in Cato Crest in Durban between September 2013 and January 2014. Violence from the ruling party is worse in Durban than in other cities, but state violence is everywhere in South Africa. The Marikana Land Occupation in East Phillipi in Cape Town has been met with state violence just like the Marikana Land Occupation in Cato Crest. Everywhere in South Africa the state is unaccountable to poor people and tries to control us with violence.

The ruling party has worked hard to make sure that housing is only allocated to its members and their friends and families and to exclude those who are critical of them as a punishment. Evictions are political; only those who are not loyal members of the ruling party are having their homes illegally destroyed without court orders. In Lamontville, residents of Madlala Village who went to the Constitutional court on 12 February 2014 were told by local party structures and their councillor that their shacks would be demolished if they brought any party other than the ANC to the settlement.

A day after the Constitutional Court heard their appeal, the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit were instructed to demolish all the shacks in Madlala Village. This was a form of punishment for taking government to Constitutional court. In 2009, we were attacked and driven from our homes by armed members of the ruling party. The police refused to come to our aid. This was also a punishment for taking the government to the Constitutional Court.

It is not just housing that is corrupted. The ruling party has worked hard to make sure that only its loyal members benefit through the tender system and employment through Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP). In Durban this is evident in the Kennedy Road, the Forman Road and Cato Crest settlements.

Local councillors have become gangsters and hit men during the night. They only act as leaders during the day and to impress the public. We have seen this in KwaNdengezi near Marianhill and in Cato Crest.

The politicians and the rich are trying to divide the poor. In Durban, Xhosa speaking residents have been told to ‘go back to Lusikisiki’ by senior politicians in the ruling party. Those who are from neighbouring countries are told to return back to their respective countries because they are taking jobs from South Africans. Sometimes it is said that they are taking girlfriends from South Africans. And xenophobia in this democracy does not only come from senior politicians. We all remember the attacks on people born in other countries in 2008. Now some rich businessmen in Durban are trying to tell poor Africans that our real oppressors are Indians.

Democracy from above is working very well for the members of the ruling party and their friends and families. For the rest of society it is a new form of oppression. In fact it has become a crisis. People are protesting everywhere.

There is a danger that this crisis will cause some people to give up on democracy. There are now lots of forces including NGOs, political parties and businessmen looking for tenders that want to capture the anger of the poor for their own purposes. It is clear that most of these forces want to use the poor as ladders and cannot be trusted. It is clear that the solution to this crisis is not to have different people use the poor as ladders. It is time to take the ladders away.

Abahlali believes that every person’s humanity must be recognised and that every person’s life and intelligence must count the same. We therefore believe in a democracy from below. We believe in democracy that comes with responsibility and dignity. We believe in democracy from below as a form of struggle and as a goal of struggle.

We believe in a democracy that allows general members to set an agenda without being forced to engage in an agenda already formulated to further someone’s interest. We believe in leaders who are there to facilitate democratic decision-making. We want a responsive government that will cater for the needs of the people equally, starting with the worst off. We understand that this will only happen when the poor have organised to build their own power and to reduce the power of the politicians and other forces like business and NGOs.

We organise from below to fulfil and strengthen our voice. We organise in the dark and confined corners of our society so that we can move, together, out of the spaces where oppression wants to keep us. We protest peacefully in order to show our strength and to give voice to the oppressed.

We occupy land and struggle to defend land occupations because we need to start reducing the power of the rich and politicians to make all decisions about how land is allocated. People are alive now and their urgent needs have to be met now.

It will not be easy for democracy from below to replace democracy from above. It is clear that we will need to continue to risk our lives and to speak out in the mist of all the death threats and violence. We will need to not fear intimidation, violence and death. None of us can do this on our own. Our strength comes from our togetherness.