Everybody Thinks!

This speech was presented to the conference of the Development Studies Association by Thapelo Mohapi on 28 June 2024 on a panel organised by the Translocal Learning Network.

Everybody Thinks!

When our movement started in 2005 many of the people who founded the movement insisted that everybody thinks, and that the poor must be given the same right as everyone else to participate in all discussions and decision making affecting their lives and communities, as well as wider issues.

There were two reasons for this. One was that the ruling party and the government thought that its role was to think for poor people. The second was that some NGOs and academics also thought that their role was to think for poor people. This included liberals and the kind of leftists who see their role as giving political direction to the oppressed rather than working with the oppressed on the basis of mutual respect.

It is important to understand that colonialism did not just expropriate land and cattle from African people, and then labour. It also expropriated the right of African people to make decisions about their own lives and communities. Just as we struggle for land to be returned to the people, and to be shared fairly among the people, and just as we struggle for wealth to be restored to the people, and to be shared fairly among the people, we also struggle for the right of all people to be able to participate in all discussions and decision making.

This is why we adopted the slogan ‘Nothing for us without us!’ which was originally developed by the disabled movement in the United Kingdom. This is why we adopted the phrase ‘grassroots urban planning’ from our comrades in the urban movement in Brazil. This is why Ashraf Cassiem, the leader of the militant Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign developed the slogan ‘We are poor not stupid!’.

We insist that the poor must be afforded the opportunity to be part of their own development whether this is autonomous self-organised development from below or development that emerges from engagement between the oppressed and the state and NGOs.

It is often perceived that when you are poor and living in shack settlements, former Bantustans or on white farms, you cannot think about how the future development of your community must take shape. This is often the perception of the Western donors who fund governments and NGOs in Africa. This is seen as a ‘realistic’ view and the idea that poor people can think and plan for ourselves is dismissed as ‘romantic’. 

Such thinking leads to development being imposed on communities, sometimes at gun point. Sometimes some people in communities, a small minority, are paid to support the development against the majority who do not support this. This divides communities and leads to tensions and revolts in communities. Sometimes what is called ‘development’ is actually just more oppression, such as when people are forcibly removed from centrally located shack settlements to human dumping grounds far from the cities, dumping grounds where there are no opportunities for people. All this could be avoided if poor people were taken seriously as people, as people with the same right to participate in discussions and decisions as all other people. Being poor does not mean that your capacity to think for yourself has collapsed. Every human being can think. Being poor means that you don’t have money, not that you don’t have a mind.

Many communities who have occupied land in our movement have planned their development without the interference of government and NGOs in the community. Autonomy, self-organisation and self-management have achieved some incredible results, radical results. 

One example is the eKhenana land occupation in Durban which was developed into a commune. There you can see the results of careful, collaborative grassroots urban planning with well laid out homes as well as a communal garden, a communal poultry project, as well as a Political School that is named after the great revolutionary intellectual Frantz Fanon. A high price was paid for this. Three comrades were assassinated. 

No government or NGO official would understand the need to centre development around a political school. This is because the poor are seen as victims who need services to be ‘delivered’ not as political protagonists who want to change the world from below. For us building communes means building the political power of the poor from below as well as meeting basic material needs.

Not long ago the municipality tried to evict Hlanganani (meaning ‘coming together’), one of our occupations in Salt Rock, on the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal. The people in the community resisted the eviction and forced the municipality to listen to them. They refused to be treated as human waste and protested to demand their recognition as human beings. This led to the municipality in KwaDukuza to finally recognising them as people and giving them the dignity that they deserve. Respectful engagement is usually something that must be struggled for. 

Today the community are part of the development in their community. They discuss and plan as a community on how the area can be developed. This has made the work of the municipal officials much easier. The development will not only provide housing, it will also provide skills that will create employment opportunities beyond the development. This happens because the community is part of the development. 

We have made real progress with both completely autonomous forms of development and forms of development with the state, but in both cases progress is only possible when people insist on the right to think and decide for themselves. In both cases people had to be organised and had to resist the forces of repression before progress could be made.

Often when people refuse to be treated as people who can’t think and have no right to think the first response of the state (or NGOs, academics, etc) is to claim that someone is else is thinking for them, remoting them from behind, and to criminalise the community or its leaders.

We don’t need think tanks to think for us. We don’t need people who have never lived in a shack settlement to think for us. We need people who are willing to think with us. For university educated people this requires that they are willing to humble themselves, to understand that they are people among other people. People can learn important skills in universities but these skills need to be brought into conversation with the people, with the organic thinking of the people.

A radical state, NGO or academic should understand the difference between charity provided to victims of history and solidarity with people who are committed to making history, to changing the world. Development should be about popular political empowerment as well as meeting basic material needs.

Everybody thinks!