South Africa’s Shack Dwellers See Politics Very Differently Than the Average Westerner

Vijay Prashad, AlterNet

Walking into the settlement at Kennedy Road in Durban, what one is confronted with is the familiarity of the place. I’ve been here before. Not to this settlement, but to others like it. To bastis in India and favelas in Brazil, to Mexico’s Neza-Chalco-Izta to Bangkok’s Klong Toey.

The United Nation’s agency that monitors housing – UN Habitat – has said that there are a billion people in informal settlements (slums). A demographer at the UN tells me that within a few decades, he assumes that the number might easily double. In fact, he says, given how bad the data is, two billion people might already live in these kinds of vulnerable settlements. ‘We just don’t have the numbers,’ he said. 

The residents of Kennedy Road do not use the word ‘slum.’ They find the term dismissive and pejorative. Words aside, the residents would agree that they live in informal settlements. Kennedy Road is only one of Durban’s such habitats. A million of Durban’s citizens live in such places.

Zandile Nsibande gives off a quiet confidence. She is one of the leaders of Abahali baseMjondolo (AbM) or the People of the Shacks – based in Durban. She tells me that of the one million people who live in shacks in Durban, half of them do not know where their next meal comes from. Most children do not know when they will next eat. ‘They pick up anything to eat,’ she says. At least fourteen million of South Africa’s fifty-six million citizens go to bed each night hungry.

Zandile seems saddened to share this kind of information. She prefers to talk about what Abahali has done to relieve the problem. What is Abahlali’s goal? Not merely to deliver food to its members. It is run by the shack dwellers themselves. They tell me clearly that they want to lift the confidence of their neighbours and bring them into the struggle.

But Abahali cannot ignore the pressing needs of the people. The movement fought the local government to get education and get medical care for their neighbours. But it was not enough to get a teacher and medicine. ‘You can’t take your medication on an empty stomach’, Zandile said. Abahlali had to get involved in feeding scheme of one kind or another – including the creation of community gardens in the settlements. ‘We are becoming the state,’ Mzwakhe Mdlalose – another Abahlali leader – told me.

State Violence

For people who live in informal settlements from South America to South Africa the state has become a wretched instrument. It no longer provides education, health care or even food. It is now identified with the police.

Old ideas of the ‘slum’ as the home of disease and criminals remains alive and well today. It is so easy to create a panic in a city, for politicians to point their fingers at the ‘slums’ and to believe that these informal settlements must be cleared away on security grounds. It is as if the ‘slum’ breeds the social ills that plague the modern world – crime, drugs, riots. If the ‘slum’ is erased, then it is assumed that these ills will disappear. Robert Neuwirth, a journalist, lived in informal settlements across the world for his book Shadow Cities (2006). His conclusion is important: ‘Squatter communities may be illegal, but that doesn’t make them criminal.’

Last year, 5000 Brazilian soldiers entered and occupied informal settlements in northern Rio de Janeiro – under the pretext of going after drug dealers. In the Philippines, President Duterte has given the police a free hand to attack people inside these settlements. In the shanty town of Market 3 in Manila, the residents cower at home. They are too scared to go outside. They do not fear the drug dealers as much as they fear the police and their Tokhang operations. Neita Bravo told Reuters a few days ago, ‘Many people have left. They leave because of Tokhang.’ So many people have been killed, Bravo said that ‘we can’t really count them.’

Matters got so ugly in Durban that the province’s head set up the Moerane Commission of Inquiry to look into the violence. Journalist Vanessa Burger told the commissioners that the police is actively involved in the violence. They have been hiring killers from the Glebelands Hotel – a ‘reservoir of hitmen’ – to kill politically inconvenient people.

Abahlali leader S’bu Zikode told the commission in August of last year that the state – specifically the local political bosses in the African National Congress – had organised the attacks on leaders of Abahlali. This was a part of a series of attacks on Abahlali activists who tried to protect their homes and land. In September 2014, a local councillor helped seize land and have houses built on this land for his supporters. The councillor was confronted by Thuli Nlovo, an Abahlali activist. Not an hour later, Thuli was dead. ‘A gunman shot Thuli while she was holding her baby,’ said S’bu Zikode. ‘She died on the scene immediately. When she was shot, she was with her two children.’

There is no social democratic state here. It has all the violent intensity of fascism. 

Those who live in the shacks are seen by sections of the political world and by the business world as an impediment to real estate expansion. The right to build malls and houses for the wealthy seems to overwhelm the right of people to live where they have built their modest homes.

Our current economic values are inhumane. Land is not seen as a place for people to live regardless of their means. It is seen as a form of property that should generate wealth for its owners. Those with Money and their Politicians will – in this world – favour ‘real estate development’ rather than humane development.

Living Politics

S’bu Zikode is a serious man but he has a very soft and gentle laugh. The violence clearly bothers him. So does the inhumanity of the system. ‘Brutalities of the state,’ he tells me, ‘force our communities to come together. We are forced together. The very suffering that is produced by the state violence against us, the very evictions that are brutal and unlawful, this violence throws us together. The movement has become a home for us to cry together, to fight together, to stand together.’ He goes on. It is lyrical.

‘Ours is a movement of the uneducation, a movement of those who have been sidelined,’ S’bu says. It is a movement of the Gogos and the Mamas – the grandmothers and the mothers, a movement of people whose politics is located in their bodies.

Victories are few and far between. What keeps groups like Abahali going is the impossibility of stopping doing what they are doing. They have no choice but to fight on.

In 2005, S’bu wrote an influential essay called ‘We are the Third Force.’ It challenged the political order of South Africa, suggesting that Abahali stood outside the control of the dominant African National Congress (ANC). ‘We are on our own,’ he S’bu wrote, ‘We are completely on our own.’ This is somewhat true within South Africa. But it is not true across the world. On the wall of their office hangs a flag from Brazil’s Homeless Workers Movement (MTST), a shack dwellers movement that emerged out of the Movement of the Rural Landless (MST). A delegation of the MTST came to Durban recently.


I am walking away from the Abahali office. It is getting late. Hawkers wrap up their goods from the sidewalk. They are rushing to get on board the minibus taxis, many of which will head out towards places like Kennedy Road. I board a bus. We head off down Dr. Goonam Road – named after the brave Indian anti-apartheid activist and doctor Kesaveloo Goonam. In 1991, when Dr. Goonam returned to her native Durban from exile she told a reporter, ‘I hope that South Africa will become a true democracy. And I hope that means democracy not bureaucracy or autocracy.’

The light fades as we take a left onto a road named after the communist leader Joe Slovo. In half an hour we will get to Kennedy Road. These hawkers will go to their precarious homes. They will struggle to feed their children. It is unlikely that they themselves will be able to eat.