Building a movement of courage and dignity

Building a movement of courage and dignity

Delivered by S’bu Zikode, president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, at the Active Citizens’ Movement Biannual General Meeting in Durban on 29 July 2023.

Thank you, programme director, for this wonderful opportunity. Greeting comrades, friends and colleagues. May I take this opportunity to extend my deepest gratitude to all comrades from the Active Citizens Movement, particular Comrade Yashika for inviting Abahlali to speak here at this Biannual General Assembly. I must also thank Abahlali baseMjondolo, a movement that has entrusted me with the responsibility to speak here today.

We cannot begin to address the worsening crisis in our country if we do not work together. We need as many progressive organisations as possible to find issues where there is shared commitment and to work together, with mutual respect, on these issues. Of course each organisation has its own history and character, its own set of key issues and its own principles. We do not have to agree on everything in order to work together on issues where there is shared commitment.

Our movement is democratic. For us democracy – real popular democracy, direct democracy, democracy that is in the hands of the oppressed – is both the means of our struggle and its goal. You cannot say that the dignity of the people should be achieved in the future while denying it in the present. You cannot make meaningful changes without the people building their own power from below.

We hold monthly general assemblies to deliberate together on issues that affect our communities on a day-to-day basis. These general assemblies are open to all, and democratic to everyone that attends them. They are not only attended by Abahlali members but also by people from non-affiliated communities and individuals that care about their communities and their country.

Our movement was founded on the principles and values of ubuntu, on the recognition of the full and equal humanity of every human person. We call our philosophy of praxis ubuhlalism. This philosophy is deeply rooted into the idea that everyone was born into this world with dignity and deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.

Our country faces a lot of challenges ranging from mass impoverishment, to social abandonment and pervasive violence, state repression, corruption, political gangsterism and climate change. Most young people do not have work and unless something changes they will never have work. Without hope many young people sink into depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and sometimes addiction.

The poor and the working class are pushed into the margins and denied a voice. The political elites in the ANC and the state, and sometimes in NGOs too, make decisions about us and our future without us.

This crisis require all people of conscience to stand together in solidarity and take on the work of thinking together and working together to humanise society.

When we found ourselves poor, desperate, alone, forced to live like pigs in the mud and abandoned by the state we got together, thought together and built a movement together. We built a movement of dignity, a movement where the dignity of the poor is recognised and affirmed and where we struggle together to get the same recognition from wider society. When that movement was met with violence and repression our movement of dignity had to become a movement of courage and dignity.

Before we formed our movement many of us had started to organise communities to build unity and an enabling environment for government to deliver to its promises. We did not just fold our arms and wait for handouts. We registered NPOs and ran drop-in centres that were aiming at uplifting our communities, such as early child development centres. We ran community gardens and feeding schemes and worked with local businessmen to make sure that no one went hungry and to try to find employment for people in our communities. We remained passionately committed to our communities and patriotic to our country. At the same time we worked hard to democratise our settlements. We committed ourselves to the project of nation building as envisaged by Nelson Mandela and others. We were inspired by the values of our constitutional democracy and held our flag so high.

We knew that change was not going to be easy. We knew that the damages of the past were not going to go away any time soon. We also thought that the pain that we had experienced in the hands of the white minority government was the pain of the past. We were very aware of our responsibilities as impoverished communities to work for our country and contribute to peace building, unity and harmony.

But being good citizens, loyal to the elected government and the new democracy, did not help us. Local politicians were always prepared to lie to us and treat us like children. Lies were put before the truth, the commercial value of land was put before its social value and party control before popular democracy. At the national level politicians decided that our shacks must be eradicated. This project was driven by Mike Sutcliffe in Durban and we were forced off our land and our homes were destroyed at gun point in the name of ‘development’.

We remained impoverished, excluded, silenced and living without jobs or hope. Our dignity was not respected. In fact our humanity was vandalised. This is why we had to break from the ANC, build our own movement and develop a progressive politic of the strong poor. This was a homemade politic which, because it gave a home to the oppressed, continued to grow despite severe repression. We currently have more than 120 000 members in good standing in four provinces.

Today the gains of our Constitutional democracy, which are important even if limited gains, gains won by the struggles of the people, are being reversed.

Last weekend armed men from the land invasion unit here in Durban showed up to tell us that a meeting was an ‘illegal gathering’ and to shut the meeting down. It is their actions that were illegal. We have been beaten, arrested, had our homes destroyed, slandered, jailed and murdered for the crime of standing up for our dignity and for justice. More than twenty of our members have lost their lives in the course of our struggle, with the majority being lost to assassination.

Today we continue to live in shacks of indignity like pigs in the muds. Today we continue to face state repression each time we insist on the dignity of the people. Today we remain without land and decent houses. Today we remain poor in a rich country. Today many communities in both rural and urban areas are still without basic services such as water, roads and electricity. Today many schools and hospitals are crumbling dirty places that insult the dignity of our people. Today the whole nation is dark as a result of the energy crisis.

We know that while we suffer we live in most productive economy in human history with enough resources to feed, clothe, house and educate everybody. These resources are not shared fairly because of the greed that drives the dominant global economic system. That economic system is capitalism.
Capitalism is monster that mangles our lives and hopes as it puts profit before human needs and destroys the earth. It has degraded the very values that makes our society more humane. Capitalism is supported by imperialism. In South Africa and across the world it makes a minority rich while the majority remain poor.

Of course capitalism is not the only monster that we must confront. The political gangsterism that has taken over much of the ANC and the state, and some other parties, also robs us of our hopes, and the possibility of building a decent society. Abahlali have acted against state corruption when public money meant to develop our communities has been stolen and services and houses have only been allocated to ANC members or whose who can pay for them. We have named and shamed high-ranking politicians implicated in corrupt activities. The price for this has sometimes been paid in blood. Leaders like Nkululeko Gwala, Thuli Ndlovu and Sifiso Ngcobo have been assassinated for speaking out against corruption.

In the face of all this, and at the cost of 25 lives, we have built a movement of courage and dignity committed to the flourishing of this country and its people. We work with others in South Africa, across Africa and around the world to build a movement of movements committed to building a world where land, wealth and power are fairly shared, a world where everyone is safe and everyone’s dignity is respected.

We do not only make demands to the state. We work to build communities from below. We build and run creches, gardens, meeting halls, and much more. We work to build communities of care in which people thrown together by the forces of structural oppression support each other like families. It is this family feeling between neighbours, in communities and in the movement that allows us to survive and keep going. Often the middle classes will not find this work threatening.

But we also have a political school, the Frantz Fanon school at the eKhenena Commune in Cato Crest, and participate in the work of other political schools such as the Nkrumah School in Bela Bela, the Amilcar Cabral School in Ghana and the ENFF school in Brazil. These are movement run radical schools where we learn, teach and discuss the experiences of struggles around the world and the ideas of thinkers that come out of struggle, thinkers like Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Angela Davis, Paulo Freire, our comrade Ruthie Wilson Gilmour, and many other great thinkers.

This world is a world of extreme oppression, a world that must change radically, a world that requires radical ideas and radical action towards humanising the world.

And, yes, we do reject the idea, introduced by colonialism and enforced today by capitalism, that land should be allocated on the basis of private profit rather than social need and the public good. When people have no land Abahlali have occupied vacant and unused land so that those who are homeless can build a place to call home for their families, develop a community and have a place in a city.

These occupations are not ‘land invasions’ or ‘land grabs’. They are urban planning from below. They are decommodification from below.

There are people, usually linked to the ANC who seize land with the aim of being able to rent or sell it, to get tenders to provide services and build houses, and to sell access to services and houses. In these cases the shack settlements that arise are ruled with an iron fist. This is violent privatisation and commodification of land from below.

A parcel of land big enough to build ten shacks goes for around R50 000. Shacks are sold for between R10 000 to R30 000 and rented for between R700 to R 1 500.

In our occupations rent and the buying and selling of land are not permitted. A branch can only remain in good standing when it follows this and other principles of our movement such as democratic forms of organisations and opposition to xenophobia and sexism.

In the logic of oppression impoverishment is not seen as a question of justice. When the poor have no place in their city it is not seen as the question of justice. But when they occupy land, their actions are seen as a question of law and order, even criminality. Where there is no provision of basic services and the poor, like any other human beings, require these services they will connect themselves. This too is seen as a matter of law and order, even criminality.

There is something deeply wrong with society when land and water are only available to those who can pay, or who are close to the ruling party. Taking some small steps to give the oppressed a place in the world, to share a little of the world, cannot be considered to be criminal by anyone who respects the humanity of all people. In fact these actions are small but important contributions to the humanisation of the world.

Today I wish to take this opportunity and make a call that South Africa belongs to the people, all the people that live here, and not to the politicians. They do not own this country and they do not own us. We all have the responsibility to build a movement of movements from below. We have been working to organise the oppressed since 2005, to take our place in the long history of building popular organisation that goes back to the UDF in the 1980s, the trade union movement that began here in Durban fifty years ago and right back to the ICU in the 1930s.

We do not only organise the strong poor within our own movement. We are also part of the Durban Coalition, an alliance of progressive organisations and professionals from a range of disciplines, and a range of individuals committed to building a city for all. Abahlali is also part of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Network (ESCR-Net) a global network made up 300 organisations and individuals from over 70 countries. We are in alliance with progressive organisations, movements and unions across South Africa and elsewhere in the world, such as the MST, the movement of the landless in Brazil.

In this crisis it is imperative that we work to organise the poor and the working class on a progressive and democratic process, and build their power and unity. We must identify possible allies and build solidarity between and within the poor and the working class and, where possible, with progressive people in the middle classes too. When we are together, we are stronger and there is no doubt that when we are strong we can become a real threat to the forces that are determined to keep us divided and weak.

It is also imperative that we all work to unite and defend migrants and other minorities in this country who are facing violence and discrimination. A neighbour is a neighbour, a worker is a worker and a comrade is comrade without regard to what language they speak and the place where they were born. We have said over and over that unyawo alunampumulo – a person is a person no matter where they were born.

Today I wish to congratulate the Active Citizens’ Movement for being consistent in speaking out against corruption. We have seen your courage in advocating for the rights and safety of whistle blowers in this country. You understand the importance and urgency of this work. Imagine what would happen if we were all afraid to speak out against all the injustices and social ills that are destroying our country. South Africa would sink into catastrophe.

Nokuthula Mabaso, Thuli Ndlovu, Babita Deokaran and many more who have demonstrated such a high level of courage and integrity are gone. These are just a few names of our heroes whose courage remains with our hearts. May their spirit of courage and integrity live with us as we love and honour them. May their spirit and courage be with us all as work to build more movements of courage and dignity, and a national and international movement of progressive movements.

Today we also say that our freedom is not complete without the freedom of the Palestinians and their right to self-determination. We express our full solidarity with the Palestinians and all the many struggling communities and nations across the world.

Woza moya oyingcwele.

I thank you.