Guide for NGOs, Academics, Activists and Churches Seeking a Relationship with the Movement

“Abahlali baseMjondolo is a movement of the poor shack dwellers in Durban, Pinetown, Pietermaritzburg and other parts of the province and the Western Cape. Abahlali’s call for land and housing in the cities has become a threat to the authorities, some NGOs and some academics who still believe that social change cannot come from the bottom, who still believe that democracy is all about being loyal to their authority. Such top down system has terrorized our society. In fact it is an insult to assume that poor people can not think for themselves, that someone else must talk for them without their concern. In view of a rejection of this understanding a new living politic of the poor has been born.”
-S’bu Zikode, October 2007

Brief Guide to the History and Praxis of Abahlali baseMjondolo for NGOs, Academics, Activists and Churches Seeking a Relationship with the Movement
-May 2007

Abahlali baseMjondolo is a radically democratic, grassroots and entirely non-profesionalised movement of shack dwellers in South Africa. It grew out of a road blockade organized by residents of the Kennedy Road Shack Settlement in the City of Durban in early 2005. The words Abahlali baseMjondolo are Zulu for people who stay in shacks.

Abahlali refuses to participate in party politics or any NGO style professionalization or individualization of struggle and instead seeks to build democratic people’s power where people live and, to a lesser extent, where people work.

Since the 2005 road blockade the movement’s membership has grown from the entire population of the 6 000 strong Kennedy Road settlement to the point where 13 entire settlements have voted to collectively affiliate to Abahlali and govern themselves autonomously from state politics. There are also a further 23 branches in other settlements that are not collectively affiliated to Abahlali but which do allow independent political activity.

This means that around 30 000 people have a direct and formal affiliation with the movement but many more have been inspired by it. The movement receives excellent media coverage, especially in the isiZulu media, and it is increasingly common for people who have not ever been in touch with the movement’s formal structures to organize protests in the name of Abahlali or to phone into radio talk shows identifying as Abahlali. Abahlali is, by a considerable distance, the largest movement of the poor outside of the ruling party to have emerged in post-apartheid South Africa.

However in many settlements it remains impossible to organize openly as local elites, often armed, do not allow any politics that challenges the power of the political party dominant in their areas. By contrast in Abahlali settlements people who prefer to organize in the party political mode are entirely free to do so. The democracy in Abahlali affiliated settlements is not only for Abahlali members – it extends to people with other political views and affiliations.

The movement now also works with street traders and has a further 3 branches of street traders, all of which are in the city of Pinetown. It also has members in two areas in Pinetown in which people live in poor quality houses rather than shacks and who joined because they became familiar with the movement as their communities are adjacent to Abahlali shack settlements. The movement is multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-national and operates on the principle that everyone living in a settlement is from that settlement and has full rights to participate in the political life of that settlement irrespective of their origins.

The movement’s red t-shirts have become famous and Abahlali is often simply known, especially by the state/party as Izikipa ezibomvu (the red shirts). Individuals in the state/party, and linked to a local left NGO, have alleged that the shirts are provided by some nefarious source. But in fact the shirts have most often been made in the shacks on rented pedal power sewing machines in all night sewing sessions organized by the Abahlali Women’s Sewing Collective.

The movement is best known for having democratized the internal governance of many settlements and having organized numerous large marches on local councillors, as well as the mayor and the provincial Minister of Housing. The movement has also successfully fought against evictions and forced removals by mass mobilization and court action; successfully used access to information law to force the city to reveal its plans for the forced removal of many shack settlements; demanded the electrification of shack settlements to stop the regular fires; won scattered and limited victories around access to water and toilets; campaigned for access to water and sanitation; campaigned around access to schools; fought for land and housing in the city; started crèches; held quarterly all night music, poetry and drama evenings; run a 16 team football league; provided HIV/AIDS care; started a ten thousand copies per issue newspaper [although there has not been a second issue – this is a donor dependent project]; undertaken various education projects including computer training; vigorously opposed authoritarianism from government, business and some left NGOs with vanguardist delusions; won major and sustained media attention; campaigned in support of shack dwellers in Zimbabwe and Haiti; and sought to win popular control over decision making that affects poor communities. A key slogan (along with ‘Land! Housing!, ‘Sekwanele!’ – ‘Enough!’ etc.) is ‘Talk to Us, Not about Us!’ and this demand has been addressed to the state, capital, the academy and also to NGOs. Abahlali has produced a number of shack dwelling public intellectuals who regularly comment and, in some instances, write in the local media in English, Zulu and Xhosa and who frequently participate in the public life of the country in various ways.

Office holders at branch, settlement and movement level are elected annually in open assemblies. Women are well represented at all levels of the movement’s structures.Office holders are given mandates for action at open weekly meetings and are subject to recall. People elected into office are not elected to make decisions on particular issues but rather to ensure a democratic decision making process on questions and matters related to those issues. People who present the movement to the media and who travel to represent the movement elsewhere are elected, mandated and rotated and at least half of the people elected to fulfill these responsibilities are women. At large assemblies male and female questioners and speakers are alternated. The movement has a number of sub-committees and internal organizations such as a Churches Sub-Committee, a Youth League, a Women’s League and a football committee.

The movement accepts no money from political parties, governments or from those NGOs which seek to use donor funding to substitute their own voices and projects for those of the poor and is 100% run by unpaid volunteers. Funds are raised by a small annual membership fee of R7 (1$ US) and occasional irregular small donations from individuals and one or two progressive donors who accept that the movement will have democratic control over all funds. Money is strictly used for movement (not individual) expenses such as transport, printing, bail costs etc. The movement and individuals in the movement have often refused money from NGOs and donors when this money appears to have been offered as an attempt to co-opt individuals or the movement to any authority, be it left or right, outside of the movement’s membership.

Individuals in the ruling party, including the Durban City Manager Mike Sutcliffe and Mayor Obed Mlaba, Provincial MEC for Housing Mike Mabuyakulu and his spokesperson Lennox Mabaso and many others, have very often accused Abahlali of being manipulated by a ‘third force’ or a foreign intelligence agency ‘bent on destabilizing the country’. No empirical evidence has ever been adduced for these claims and they are patently ludicrous and paranoid but they have created a climate that justifies violent repression. The movement has suffered sustained illegal harassment from the state that has resulted in almost 200 arrests of Abahlali members and repeated and often severe police violence in people’s homes, in the streets and in detention. More or less all of the key people in the movement have suffered serious assault at the hand of the police at some point. On a number of occasions the police have used live ammunition, armoured vehicles and helicopters in their attacks on unarmed shack dwellers. In 2006 the local city manager, Mike Sutcliffe, illegally implemented a complete ban on Abahlali’s right to march which was eventually overturned in court. The movement has also laid numerous assault, as well as theft and wrongful arrest charges against the police. On 4 December 2006 a pregnant women lost her child and a man was killed when the police attacked residents of the Siyanda settlement who had blockaded a major road. Police harassment has been strongly condemned by human rights organizations including, most notably, the Freedom of Expression Institute which has issued a number of statements in strong support of Abahlali’s right to speak out and to organize protests. Police violence against Abahlali has been quite widely covered in the mainstream international media (e.g. The New York Times, The Economist, Al Jazeera, Le Monde etc). Thus far not one of the arrests of Abahlali members has ever led to a trial and no member of Abahlali has ever been convicted of any offence. But that may soon change. Six members of the Kennedy Road Committee have recently been arrested on a fake murder charge after a local criminal died in police custody (the state intelligence agency previously used a similar strategy against the Landless Peoples’ Movement in Johannesburg). The state initially detained the Kennedy 6 without bail and they were finally released on exorbitant bail and an order banning them from the settlements and confining them to rural areas after a 12 day hunger strike.

The banning order was later over turned in court. However the state seems determined to push ahead to a trial. Excellent legal representation has been secured and victory in the trial seems assured. In this crisis, as in other matters, the movement has received strong support from the progressive current in the churches. Within the churches it has been argued that Abahlali has become a prophetic voice in the churches encouraging them to return to the theology of liberation that played a powerful role in the struggles against apartheid.

A number of Abahlali members have come under major pressure at work due to their activities in the movement and some have been forced out of jobs in both the public and private sectors including S’bu Zikode, the current elected head of the movement. He remains unemployed.

Individuals in the state have, often pandering to the most base race and class stereotypes, presented the organization as a group of criminals under the malevolent influence of a white man. From late 2006 a few individuals in and linked to two local left NGOs have described the movement in exactly the same racialized language as the state. They undertook a public campaign of slander in elite English media (but not in the popular isiZulu media accessible to Abahlali members) and, also, a more covert campaign of slander via the telling of outright lies to other NGO leftists, sending emails from faked identities etc. This followed a decision by Abahlali to refuse left NGO attempts to exert control over popular poor people’s struggles. Abahlali were joined in this refusal by the (Cape Town) Anti-eviction Campaign and the Socialist Students’ Movement. No empirical evidence has ever been provided in support of the claims levelled against Abahlali by people in left NGOs and none of the people making these claims have ever attended an Abahlali meeting or undertaken interviews with members of Abahlali. Moreover, all of this slander is predicated on racist assumptions very similar to those which drove the way in which the state and white civil society typically described mass movements of the African poor under apartheid. There have been renewed (and often racialised) outbreaks of slander from the vanguardist NGO left against the movement and individuals in the movement at times when the political temperature rises. At times this has been presented in pseudo-academic form but even a casual outsider can see that these types of interventions are not grounded in any research and are riddled with the most basic empirical errors. Some people have argued that the walk out from (often racialized and always authoritarian) NGO control of poor people’s movements and the affirmation of a democratic politics of the poor may turn out, over the long term, to be as significant as the walk out from white controlled political structures led by Steve Biko in 1968. It has already succeeded in shifting the centre of left political gravity outside of the NGOs and in to grassroots popular politics.

Some NGOs have taken this event seriously and instead of responding with paranoia and authoritarianism have fundamentally rethought their praxis seeking to develop ways of working with popular movements of the poor rather than for them and in their name.

Abahlali welcomes support from independent activists and activists in churches, NGOs, universities, independent media projects and so on. But while the movement has often experienced deeply principled and invaluable solidarity that has enabled the development of popular democratic power in the settlements it has also had some very bad experiences with particular individuals and organisations which include a considerable degree of financial and political exploitation, as well as self promotion at the expense of the movement’s praxis and the simple disrespect of (often racialized and classed) assumptions of an automatic right to lead, decide and teach in the name of solidarity. At times there has been deliberate out and out misrepresentation and deliberate attempts at sabotage. There have also been consistent NGO attempts to bypass the movement’s democratic structures and to determine who can represent the movement at meetings, to the press etc from outside (this has often been accompanied by attempts to offer money to individuals who will be prepared to take instruction from the NGO – most often these are people who have never been active in the movement in the first place….)

Abahlali welcomes support that is prepared to work within or in partnership with the movement’s democratic structures and to accept that this is where all the movement’s decision making should occur. It rejects ‘support’ that seeks act above the movement’s structures and assumes a right to take decisions for the movement outside of the movement’s structures. Abahlali asks that the following general requests be respected:

  • All proposed solidarity initiatives (including invitations for members to speak, attend meetings, workshops and so on) should be bought as a proposal to one of the weekly Abahlali meetings well in advance of its anticipated start date and discussed there and agreed to there before they are begun. If you want the support of the movement for your projects you will have to negotiate this with the movement’s democratic structures – all of which are always open to all. The support of the movement for your project cannot, as the most notorious of the NGOs seems to assume, be bought by offering money to individuals.
  • All conditions set for a project following the discussions at such a meeting must be adhered too. If for some reason this becomes impossible then this should be discussed with a sub-committee set up to work on the project or taken to a weekly meeting.
  • Abahlali works very hard to ensure that the movement is as broad based, as democratic and as representative of the movement’s geographic diversity as possible and that at least 50% of all people elected to represent the movement are women. It also works very hard to ensure that as many people as possible get as much experience as possible. Therefore other organisations are asked to extend invitations to speak and attend meetings etc to the movement rather than to individuals of their choice so that the movement can elect a revolving set of representatives. Invitations to individuals will either not be accepted or the movement will, if it is decided to accept the invitation, ask to elect its own representatives. It is completely unacceptable for NGOs to decide who should represent Abahlali at their meetings.
  • Any meeting or project that is serious about developing a politics of the poor must be serious about arranging for translation if the meeting is to be conducted in English. Similarly it should be held in a place that is easy for people to access.
  • All media produced on the movement (articles, films, photographs etc) should be shared with the movement and, where possible, translated into Zulu or Xhosa.
  • No one acting outside of the movement’s structures should speak for the movement, decide who should represent the movement or attend meetings or workshops or events on behalf of the movement, raise money for themselves or their organisation in the name movement, allocate money to people in the movement, make deals on behalf of the movement, or in anyway act for the movement.
  • No one should claim to be working with the movement or to be part of the movement when they have never attended its weekly meetings and have not had their claims for involvement with the movement negotiated at these meetings. Furthermore NGO activists need to be aware that working with people who live in shacks is not the same thing as working with Abahlali and does not give them the right to make claims in this regard let alone to try and make decisions for the movement, raise money for themselves in the name of the movement, produce media for the movement etc. It is far from the case that all shack dwellers are Abahlali members or that all shack settlements are affiliated to Abahlali.
  • After a number of bad experiences Abahlali took a decision in October 2006 to refuse to work, in any way, with the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal or with anyone at the Centre (including visitors, interns, film makers etc) and has stuck to this decision resolutely. Claims to the contrary have no validity. People wanting to develop solidarity with the movement are asked to respect this decision. Please also note that AbM is not the only grassroots organisation to have taken a decision to refuse any involvement with the Centre for Civil Society.