Lessons in democracy from the poor


Mike van Graan

The decision by members of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) in KwaZulu-Natal to endorse the Democratic Alliance in the 2014 election has not only raised many eyebrows, but has also unleashed stinging vitriol against this branch of the shack-dwellers’ movement. Started in 2005, AbM with its anti-evictions focus and its campaigns for decent public housing is recognised as one of the most effective social movements in the country. With its core struggle for land and housing, it has boycotted previous local and national government elections under the slogan of “No land! No Houses! No Vote!” Abahlali baseMjondolo has experienced severe repression from both ANC municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal and their DA counterparts in the Western Cape. It is against this background — and the strong anti-capitalist sentiment of the movement — that questions have been raised about the decision of AbM-KZN to call upon their members (estimated to exceed 25 000 nationally) to vote for the DA.

In making this choice though, AbM-KZN has taught us all some crucial lessons about the nature and practice of democracy in South Africa.

First, they have affirmed that the struggle against apartheid was not simply about the struggle for democracy; it was a struggle for social justice, for systemic (economic, political and social) changes that would correct apartheid’s iniquities and that would restore the human dignity of black South Africans in particular. That shack dwellers continue to live in sub-human conditions 20 years after the country’s first democratic elections — and especially in the light of Nkandla — is scandalous. While we have democracy (at least in the form of parliamentary elections), the struggle for social justice as exemplified by the living conditions and struggles of AbM’s members, continues.

Long before the “Sidikiwe Vukani” — or the “Vote No” — campaign, AbM had decided to boycott elections. There is much emotional — but essentially hollow — talk about our alleged “moral responsibility to vote since many have given their lives so that we can vote”. Secondly then, AbM has taught us that voting is not a “moral responsibility” but simply a tactic available to citizens to appropriate — whether by voting or choosing not to vote — in their strategic interests. As AbM itself says “we will not take membership of the (DA) party, we do not endorse its policies … we do not love or trust the DA … we have made a purely tactical choice”. AbM clearly states that their decision to support the DA “is for this election … when the next election comes we will again decide whether or not to vote and, if so, which party to vote for”.

Third, AbM has shown that electoral politics is not the only, or necessarily the most effective means of pursuing or affirming democracy. Giving content to our democracy is also about seeking to hold accountable those who assume political office by advancing demands through organisation, on the streets and by using the courts, which is what AbM has done on a daily — rather than five-yearly — basis. As a civil-society organisation, AbM is exemplary in giving concrete expression to our democracy and in not allowing politicians to define democracy in their interests. They expressly forbid anyone who has joined a political party to hold an elected position in AbM to ensure that their policies and strategies serve the interests of their members rather than party political interests.

Fourth, that AbM members have been tortured, shot at, assassinated and victimised in pursuit of their goals, reflects the extent to which regular free and fair elections may give the illusion of democracy, while the struggle for real democracy continues.

Fifth, in arriving at their decision, Abahlali baseMjondolo employed thoroughly democratic principles. They did not leave their party leadership or membership in the dark as was the case with Mamphela Ramphele’s short-lived affair with the DA; it was not a decision made by the leadership of AbM. Parties were invited to address branch delegates to determine who would do “the best job in opposing repression and take the best position on shack settlements”. Delegates then reported back to and discussed the options with their branches and returned to a later meeting to vote on which party to support. AbM’s leadership refrained from voting with branch delegates voting in favour of the DA (146) with 2 delegates being undecided, 2 voting for the Workers and Socialist Party, 16 for the Economic Freedom Fighters and 26 for the National Freedom Party. The internal democracy and the related transparency are examples of grassroots, bottom-up democracy.

Sixth, while there are many who question their strategic choice in voting for the DA, AbM members displayed impeccable democratic maturity in making their choice in that they decided to vote, not on the basis of loyalty, racial solidarity or liberation history, but out of their direct experiences and immediate strategic interests in contemporary South Africa. AbM states: “Our politics puts people first. We cannot do nothing but wait for socialism to come one day … our children are dying of diarrhoea now, our old people and disabled people are dying in shack fires right now, we are being evicted and disconnected right now and we are being beaten and shot … right now … we have to act to do what we can to make our members’ lives better right now.”

A final point is that the poor have agency. They are deciding by themselves, for themselves and are more than able to do so without external — patronising or well-meaning — interventions. The AbM has asserted its right to make its own strategic choices, stating “over the last nine years we have protected our autonomy from NGOs very carefully even though we do work with some NGOs … many people and organisations on the left do not accept that we have the right to think our own struggle and to make our own decisions … these people see our decision as stupid and as a sell-out while they are nowhere to be seen in our times of great difficulty”.


Whether AbM’s decision to vote for the DA realises their strategic intent or not remains to be seen; what cannot be doubted, are the lessons in, and about, our democracy with which they have challenged all of us.