Why Abahlali endorsed the DA: S’bu Zikode speaks to GroundUp


On 2 May 2014 Abahlali baseMjondolo (ABM) –a social movement of shack dwellers– endorsed the Democratic Alliance (DA) for the 2014 general elections. Abahlali baseMjondolo are better known for their protests against unlawful evictions and their advocacy for public housing and urban land for the poor. Sibusiso Tshabalala of GroundUp spoke to S’bu Zikode, leader of Abahlali baseMjondolo, to find out why they took this decision.

GroundUp (GU): Abahlali’s politics are fundamentally different to that of the DA. Why did you decide to endorse the DA?

S’bu Zikode (SZ): We [ABM members] have suffered under the ANC’s rule. The ANC has consistently demonstrated that it lacks the political will to take the issues of the poor seriously. Being a shack dweller is similar to being imprisoned. The only difference is that a prison sentence can be short-lived, but when you’re poor and have no guarantee of upward mobility, living in a shack can be a life sentence. How long should we, the poor, be confined to this shack sentence?

Here in Durban, many of our comrades continue to be assaulted by the ANC. We fear for our lives and assassination attempts are the order of the day.

As a movement of the urban poor, we think our priority is to vote out the ANC. We do not agree with the DA fundamentally on many core issues. This decision is not one that is based on ideology. Poor people do not eat ideology, nor do they live in houses that are made out of ideology.

So for this decision, we have decided to suspend ideology for a clear goal: weaken the ANC, guarantee the security and protection of the shack dwellers.

GU: The 'Sidikiwe! Vukani! Vote No' campaign is also advocating for a weakened ANC. Wouldn’t that have been the most appropriate channel, if your primary goal is to weaken the ANC?

SZ: As you might know, Abahlali has always had a ‘No Vote’ campaign of its own. Leaders of the Sidikiwe! Vukani! Campaign approached us for our support. We respect their efforts but we think it’s a little too late for a ‘No Vote’ campaign.

When we championed the idea of a ‘No Vote’, we never received much support. Now that, they [the proponents of the Sidikwe! Vukani! campaign] are angry, we [Abahlali] must join?

We want to weaken the ANC, hence our endorsement of the DA. But ultimately, this endorsement is tied by demands from Abahlali that the DA will have to honour.

GU: The interesting aspect to this endorsement is that it goes against Abahali’s long-held view that electoral politics are doomed. Have you regained hope in electoral politics?

SZ: We have never said that electoral politics are doomed. Our view has only been that the politics of the poor and working class must be the politics of our society. Electoral politics are constricted; narrow interests often influence them.

I think if we are to advance the politics of the poor and working class, we will have to build inside and outside of the electoral space. Abahlali has built a people’s democracy outside of electoral politics. We have affirmed the agency and autonomy of the poor. We have built a politics of dignity, not a politics of power.

GU: In the Western Cape, where the DA governs, residents of the Philippi Settlement have been repeatedly evicted unlawfully over the past two years. While I appreciate the pragmatism in your decision to back the DA, isn’t this a stark contradiction? To endorse a party that acts in the same way the ANC does?

SZ: I should have been clearer. Our endorsement of the DA does not mean that we are now members of the DA. Joining a political party means that you agree — broadly — with its policy positions.

Endorsing a party is different. It means you look at the political landscape and say, “Where is my backing going to make a difference?”

Now, you’re right. The DA in the Western Cape is not angelic. Our comrades at the Marikana settlement in Philippi have also faced the might of the City of Cape Town’s shameful land invasion unit.

The difference though [between the DA and the ANC] is that the DA engages with us courteously. They recognize that we are human beings. In Durban, the ANC has been unable to engage with Abahlali meaningfully. Violence and arrogance characterize the attitude of the ANC to the poor.

If you meet a DA councillor working in the eThekwini council, he/she will not ask you for a membership card.

The ANC here in Durban uses membership cards as currency — a membership card will get you ten places ahead on the housing list. It might even get you the attention of your local ward councillor.

In our discussions with the DA, we have raised the Western Cape issue, and we have been guaranteed that the approach will change.

GU: Is the endorsement restricted to Abahlali’s KZN constituency, or is this a national endorsement?

SZ: The agreement we have signed with the DA is specific to the KZN. However, Abahlali Basemjondolo as a countrywide organization endorses the DA for the general elections.

We have consulted with our comrades in the Western Cape and we’ve been very conscious not to force this onto them. This is why Abahlali in Cape Town will be meeting with the DA that side to sign an agreement.

GU: Will this agreement be similar to the one you signed this past Friday?

SZ: Yes. This will be a similar agreement, but tailored to Abahlali in the Western Cape. We expect to meet with the DA on Monday or later in the week to finalize the Western Cape agreement.

GU: Wouldn’t political parties like the EFF, APC or WASP been a more likely choice for endorsement? Their policy positions mildly represent Abahlali’s aspirations.

SZ: We have engaged with the EFF. We are very clear on our position to them and others. Our move to endorse the DA does not dismiss our commitment to the politics of the left.

This decision is a tactical one. Tactics lies in acknowledging that if the left is going to have a real political future in South Africa, the ANC must fall. Now, is the EFF a significant opposition party to ensure that this happens?

Endorsing the DA is a means to that end. The EFF is still new, and while there might be agreement on some issues, we have not seen what they’re capable of. We have said to the EFF, "Allow us to endorse the DA for this election. We are vulnerable and you [the EFF] are unable to assist."

GU: You endorsing the DA does not aid the poor and the working class though?

SZ: It does. I think it’s important to note that we have thought long and hard about this decision. We are the poor and we know our struggles. Equally so, we also know when something is favourable to our cause.

It’s been interesting to note the disappointment from people who have never really supported or identified with our struggles. The same people now criticize us for our decision. Do they enjoy it when our lives are endangered? Do they enjoy it when our children grow up in flea-infested slums?

We understand our pain and we have agency. Analysts and commentators don’t. We do not have to impress anyone but ourselves. I think that should be the starting point, the acknowledgement that poor people have agency and are capable of making their own decisions.

GU: Many people are curious to know what the terms of the endorsement are. Can you share some of the terms with us?

SZ: Our agreement with the DA is not a secret one. We can make it available for anyone to read upon request. The agreement, in short, says Abahlali will encourage its members to vote for the DA provided that they [the DA] will prioritize shack settlements and the poor.

The central theme that binds this agreement is a simple principle: nothing for us without us. Above all, the agreement is a demand for respect and dignity.

I was speaking to a leader of the DA. He looked at our agreement and said, “This agreement is not only legally binding, but for us, the DA, this agreement is morally binding." That is the kind of acknowledgement that has been missing from our interactions with the ANC.

GU: The DA’s outlook on economic policy and the poor does not correlate with this agreement. Besides, the DA is not governing the eThekwini council of the KZN province for that matter. They’re in no position to fulfill this agreement?

SZ: The key to this endorsement is that the terms of the agreement are legally binding. The agreement was co-drafted by our attorney. Abahlali set the terms and the DA has accepted the terms.

Now, yes, the DA does not govern in Durban, but they’re the official opposition party. That carries weight.

With our endorsement, the DA could increase their electoral share in KZN and in other places in the country. But more importantly, our endorsement means that we put the struggles of the shack dwellers and the poor on the DA’s agenda.

GU: Many of these terms seem to be focused particularly on Abahlali in Durban. Wouldn’t it have been more realistic to endorse the DA in the 2016 local government elections?

SZ: The 2014 general election is important. The contempt of the poor and violent state repression cannot carry on. This is why we did not wait for the 2016 local government elections to endorse the DA. Our struggle is a daily one; it is not tied to election cycles.

GU: Abahlali has been a strong partner of the the Poor Peoples' Alliance since its formation in 2008. Does your endorsement of the DA diminish your standing in the alliance?

SZ: The Poor Peoples’ Alliance has not realized its potential. It is weak. We haven’t met for the past twelve months, so there has been a lack of coordination. Some alliance partners have also been unable to move swiftly. The Rural Network is on its knees and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign basically fell apart two years ago.

Nonetheless, I think the alliance partners will respect Abahlali’s decision, even though they may disagree with us.

GU: What was the process of arriving at the decision to endorse the DA?

SZ: We invited political parties to outline their manifestos to us. We invited the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the Democratic Alliance (DA), the National Freedom Party (NFP) and the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP). The ANC was not invited deliberately; this was a conscious decision we took.

I must add that the decision to invite the DA was a contested one. Many of our members argued that the DA is just like the ANC and would be unable to take our plight seriously. We debated it at length and decided to invite them. Internal democracy is important for Abahlali, so this is a decision that has the support of the members.