Jacob Byrant: Abahlali’s Narrative

This chapter from Jacob Byrant’s thesis on Abahlali looks at the movement’s narrative of itself. It is based on time spent with the movement as a day to day participant observer and a large number of in-depth interviews conducted in November 2005 and August 2006. To go straight to the fully annotated .doc version click here.

Chapter 3: Abahlali’s Narrative

“Our politics will therefore mean that everyone, every human being, can understand without actually going to political schools, without referring to any books, because it is about what you need. So our politics is elementary politics for it answers everyone’s questions about humanity”


This chapter centers on an analysis of the “narrative” of Abahlali, or the story that the movement tells about itself, and on the ideology and language of the movement. Taking evidence from meetings and quoting members of the movement, sometimes at length, it will examine the way that members of Abahlali understand and communicate the movement’s goals and identity.

Naturally, the movement’s narrative is intertwined intimately with the structure and leadership organization of the movement, analyzed in the previous chapter. Much of the “narrative” of Abahlali is a simple statement of its frustrations, its goals and a description of its own democratic practice. But the story that the Abahlali tells about itself and its motivations is important in its own right, over and above a description of the movement’s structure. Eschewing the rigid and distant language of the left and the technical jargon of the local state, Abahlali’s articulations of its frustration and its vision capture a humanity, a consciousness, and a gravity that have been at the heart of its success. This narrative draws members and sympathizers to the side of Abahlali, including media, and projects Abahlali, its constituency, and their needs into the public imagination. In the same stroke, it critiques the state, ideologically and politically, and offers its “people’s politics” in place of what it calls the state’s “power politics”. When Abahlali talks about itself, it also criticizes about the state, because the movement seeks to embody in itself what it wants in the state – a consultative, accountable and democratic forum where people work together towards their mutual development.

One should be careful not to describe an Abahlali narrative in a singular sense; the movement is not monolithic, but made up of several dozen communities each with its own leaders, representing in total tens of thousands of shack-dwellers across a wide geographic area. Different people say different things about the movement, but the things that most leaders say are strikingly similar, to the point of using similar vocabulary and emphasizing the same points. This belies the collectivity of Abahlali’s “narrative construction”. In the meetings of its leadership, in its acts of defiance and the long nights that go into planning and then reviewing them, Abahlali is forging a common narrative and a common understanding of themselves and their situation. Much of the language used to describe the movement among different members is shared because the discussions between leaders and community members about the movement and its key events never seem to stop. People in Abahlali talk about their struggle all the time.

But the Abahlali narrative is also flexible. Never in my observation or in the media it has produced has the message of the movement contradicted itself, but it takes various frames to suit changing goals and varied situations. It is also evolutionary, as new terms, ideas, diagnoses of the state’s shortcomings and slogans are introduced frequently, and many become part of the vocabulary of the movement. With each new challenge faced and step taken, the voice and scope of the movement has grown. A movement that began in frustration with the local councilor has come to realize a much greater scope of injustice against which it must struggle. The movement’s narrative has grown in step, drawing on a range of inspiration to present its own frustrations and its solutions. The movement’s narrative has also assumed spiritual and historical dimensions, as activists link the movement to Christianity’s “preferential option for the poor,” the basis of liberation theology, or to the historical narrative of the anti-apartheid struggle.
All of this poses problems for the municipality, and intertwined in most aspects of the Abahlali narrative is an implicit or explicit critique of the local state.

Abahlali’s historical linkage seems to generate particular frustration for the state, and represents one domain of the struggle for “legitimacy.” Much of the electoral success and public image of the ANC and its partners in the ruling coalition is premised on their ownership of the liberation narrative. When Abahlali asserts itself as the continuation or reinvigoration of the struggles of the United Democratic Front, as when it posits itself as a participatory democracy against what it sees as the state’s carefully choreographed charade of “consultation”, the state is not surprisingly discontent. And Abahlali has reached a level of prominence and power that the state cannot simply ignore it, and must now deal with the claims that the movement makes, many in very public view via the media.

The power of Abhalali’s structure and the resonance of its narrative depend on one another, and it is difficult to analyze them in separate chapters. Without a praxis to match the movement’s story about itself, the movement’s energy and power would wane as its members lose trust in it. Lacking the coercive force or financial incentives to force participation from its member settlements, the claim that the movement makes to represent the interests of the poor must be substantiated if it is to recruit and maintain its membership. If the movement says that it represents the poor, then it must represent the poor to their satisfaction, or it will lose support. The Abahlali constitution, as discussed in the previous chapter, is structured to make the whole movement accountable to the people it consists of. Importantly, the structure of the movement also submits whatever resources the movement obtains to the democratic decision-making process, to guard against cooptation. Much of the Abahlali narrative consists of describing these simple things. Abahlali leaders are the first to say that they will lose their constituencies’ trust and energies if they abandon the consultative, bottom-up structure of the movement: the maxim “as leaders, we need the people more than they need us” was repeated more times than I can recount. The basis of anything that could be called the movement’s “narrative” is a simple description of its identity, goals, and structure: “We are a movement of the poor, working for land, housing, and basic services, and we are democratic in order to ensure that people’s voices are actually heard.” But from this basis comes a moving and multi-faceted articulation of what the movement is about and what it is trying to do, drawing on everything from a sense of patriotic loyalty to South Africa to the anti-apartheid struggle to Pentecostalism.

This chapter is divided into sections, each analyzing a specific component of Abahlali’s narrative. The chapter will begin with a basic outline of the critique on which the movement was founded – that the local council had ignored and betrayed the poor even as the conditions that they lived in worsened, and that the state’s promises and claim to represent the poor were, in fact, a farce. From there grew an avowal on the part of the movement to take things into their own hand. The second section will examine the way that Abahlali theorizes its relationship to the state and the story it tells about itself – as “non-political”, in the sense of a political party, but a strong reminder to the state. The chapter will then move to analyses of two important threads woven throughout the Abahlali narrative: its spirituality and its educative, consciousness-raising mission.

Suffering, Betrayal and Action: Abahlali’s Driving Narrative

This section will chart the movement’s narrative in its most basic form, on which all other claims that the movement makes about itself and about its situation are layered. With the road blockade in March of 2005, residents of Kennedy Road described a feeling of being able to speak for themselves. Indeed, the newspaper story the following day in the Sunday Tribune was highly sympathetic, and quoted at length several residents of the shack settlement . Other newspaper articles on civil disobedience in informal settlements previous to that had often only reproduced police or ANC press releases, portraying the settlements as atavistically violent or simply selfish and impatient, trying to jump the queue for housing delivery . In the Sunday Tribune article, the reporter first quoted Alfred Mdletshe describing the conditions of the settlement in his own words: “We are tired of living and walking in shit. The council must allocate land for housing us. Instead they are giving it to property developers to make money. . . We vote for a party which tells us it is fighting poverty, but look what’s happening . . . If you are poor, it means you only get poorer. . . . The rooms are hard to live in, and there are no toilets, so the bush around us is full of excrement. When it rains, there’s sewage slush all around. It really stinks. ” In this quote, Mdletshe touches on two of the central themes in Abahlali’s narrative: a statement of the depravity of the conditions in which shack-dwellers live, and a frustration with the local state’s inaction to address those conditions because of their perceived indifference in the poor, in spite of the promises the shack-dwellers have been made . The third component in the movement’s narrative was supplied in that first article not by Mdeltshe, but by the actions of the protestors around him – a resolution on the part of shack-dwellers to take matters into their own hands.

These narrative components have been repeated from new platforms to broader audiences in the subsequent protests and the news coverage that came with them. From a rotating cast of spokespersons, including some only in high school, the movement has made its case to wider and wider circles of the South African public, through radio and television news interviews and in articles in the local and national newspapers. In each article and interview, the core tenets which Mdletshe touched on were descriptively and powerfully rearticulated. Perhaps most notable was an article in November 2005 published in the pop culture and celebrity gossip magazine Drum and its Zulu and Afrikaans sister-publications, with a combined circulation of 5 million. There S’bu Zikode wrote powerfully and plainly of the suffering in the shacks to a broad national audience in a form that is representatives of the movement’s communicative style:

“Most of us are not working and have to spend all day struggling for small money. AIDS is worse in the shack settlements than anywhere else. Without proper houses, water, electricity, refuse removal and toilets all kinds of diseases breed. The causes are clearly visible and every Dick, Tom and Harry can understand. Our bodies itch every day because of the insects. If it is raining everything is wet – blankets and floors. If it is hot the mosquitoes and flies are always there. There is no holiday in the shacks. When the evening comes – it is always a challenge. The night is supposed to be for relaxing and getting rest. But it doesn’t happen like that in the jondolos. People stay awake worrying about their lives. You must see how big the rats are that will run across the small babies in the night. You must see how people have to sleep under the bridges when it rains because their floors are so wet. The rain comes right inside people’s houses. Some people just stand up all night. But poverty is not just suffering. It threatens us with death every day. We have seen how dangerous being poor is. In the Kennedy Road settlement we have seen how Mhlengi Khumalo, a one year old child, died in a shack fire last month. Seven others have died in fires since the eThekwini Metro decided to stop providing electricity to informal settlements. There are many Mhlengis all over our country. Those in power are blind to our suffering. This is because they have not seen what we see, they have not felt what we are feeling every second, every day. ”

Commenting on Zikode’s story and on the language of the movement in general, Raj Patel, an academic involved with Abahlali, noted that it appeals to people for its narrative coherence and its direct appeal to human experience. He likened it to Desmond Tutu’s writing and to sermons in the school of Christian humanism, using “experience as the necessary grounds for action because the experience is so appalling”. In this, he said, it differentiates itself from most writing from the Left, who tend to be the ones who write about other movements of the poor, whose often reductive language of class struggle and bourgeois oppression (or, more recently, of neo-liberalism and resistance) already significantly narrows the complexity of what it can communicate and the audience that it can effectively reach. Circumventing this language, Zikode instead appeals to people with a straightforward, moving description of the conditions in which people live.
Importantly, Zikode’s article and the movement’s discussion of itself does not end with an appeal to the state or to the public to take action on behalf of the movement, but it continues with an invitation to partnership and to learn from the experience of living in the shacks, with an avowal to take action for itself and to hold leaders accountable whether or not they accept the invitation. Later in the same article, Zikode extends an invitation to those who claim concern for the poor (a central theme in the ANC’s 2006 election-year platform) to come and learn from them:
“My appeal is that leaders who are concerned about peoples’ lives must come and stay at least one week in the jondolos. They must feel the mud. They must share 6 toilets with 6 000 people. They must dispose of their own refuse while living next to the dump. They must come with us while we look for work. They must chase away the rats and keep the children from knocking the candles. They must care for the sick when there are long queues for the tap. They must have a turn to explain to the children why they can’t attend the Technical College down the hill. They must be there when we bury our children who have passed on in the fires, from diarrhea or AIDS.”

In offering this invitation, Zikode’s strong implication is that the poor should not simply be viewed as helpless and incapable, children to be tended to with decisions made for them, but that they can and should be partners in decisions made about policy that affects them. This view of partnership will be examined further in the next section, and it should be noted that it requires a new self-confidence on the part of shack-dwellers and thus hinges on a building of consciousness and on a powerful, representative structure through which the poor can assert themselves.

But Zikode’s offering of an invitation to come and understand the conditions of shack-dwellers, and the hitherto refusal of anyone in the local state to accept it, also underpins Abahlali’s critique of the state. As Abahlali tells it, the authorities of the local state, whether elected councilors or administrative appointees, are removed from the experience of the poor and, partly as a result, the actions they claim to take on behalf of the poor are at best ill-conceived and at worst undermine the livelihoods and dignity of poor people. This view was repeated to me again and again, that the “fat cats” working for the municipality and living in swanky suburbs who claimed to care for the poor in fact knew nothing of them or their needs.

Importantly, this particular critique represents a primary domain for the contestation for ‘legitimacy,’ over the question of who represents the poor. In national, provincial and local elections, the ANC has run on a platform of pro-poor rhetoric, promising housing and service delivery, better education and employment opportunities – “a better life for all.” Anti-poverty rhetoric is not a new feature in ANC speeches, but one present since the Freedom Charter, perhaps the ANC’s best-known articulation of its goals. There, in passages that Abahlali members often quote, the charter declares that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it . . . The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people . . . All people shall have the right to live where they choose, be decently housed, and to bring up their families in comfort and security. ” This pro-poor language is woven throughout the speeches and writings of Presidents Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, former Vice-President Jacob Zuma and is affirmed by leading figures in the ANC’s local branches. Speaking about the 2004 National Elections to the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Zuma emphasized the centrality of poverty alleviation to the ANC’s agenda: “We were responding to the need to address the twin evils of poverty and unemployment. In the 2004 Election Manifesto, we said that we would . . . [prioritize the] reduction of unemployment by half through new jobs, skills development, assistance to small businesses, opportunities for self-employment and sustainable community livelihoods. All of this is work in progress,” and went on to speak about the growing South African economy. In an April 2006 speech, Mbeki reaffirmed the ANC’s commitment to the delivery of basic services to the poor, one of Abahlali’s central demands: “Clearly, the matter of service delivery is central to our freedom because we cannot enjoy this freedom while our fellow South Africans have no clean water, have no sanitation and are still using the bucket system. We cannot enjoy this freedom while many among us still have no electricity and other basic services. It is therefore very important that all spheres of government combine their efforts to ensure speedy implementation of programmes around these basic services.” Locally, the Durban Mayor lists among his ten priorities for the new government, elected in 2006, the slightly vague “Housing Regeneration,” “Economic transformation” and “Equitable, citizen-focused access to services.”

But Abahlali’s statements in the media about the conditions in which they live and their elected representatives’ indifference to these conditions, and the protests originating in the movement and independent of it, call into question the validity of the ANC’s claims, both about the extent to which they have delivered for the poor and the extent to which they are concerned with it. When describing the material conditions that they face, Abahlali often include explicit reference to the proclamations of the ANC and the depravity of their own circumstances. Writing in an article he titled “I am a Professor of My Suffering,” M’du Hlongwa referenced the freedom charter in contrast to the conditions that he faces:
“The Freedom Charter said that the wealth of South Africa should benefit the people of South Africa but it is not like that. The land of our ancestors was taken for the farms and the forests. Our grandparents and parents worked on those farms and in the mines and factories and houses. Now we are either trying to make a living selling to other poor people or we are the servants who come quietly into the nice places with our heads always down to keep them nice and to keep them working for the rich. Most of our time goes into just trying to survive. To get some little money, to get water, to see a doctor, to rebuild our homes after they have burnt down, to get our children into school or to try and stop evictions. We shouldn’t be suffering like this. ”

The movement has also taken public opportunities to make light of the contrast between ANC rhetoric and the plight of the poor. In April 2006, on the holiday celebrating the 1994 independence called “Freedom Day”, Abahlali held a “UnFreedom Day” gathering, declaring that there “is no freedom for the poor” . Undoubtedly, this domain of representation – both of accurately representing the conditions of the poor as they actually experience them, and the representation of poor individuals through democratic structures – is an ongoing site of contestation between the Abahali and the local state.

Finally, the third component of the basic Abahlali narrative is an avowal on the part of the poor to take matters into their own hands and to take action for themselves. At a party celebrating the return of the “fourteen heroes” arrested after the March 2005 after their release from prison, Zikode held the crowd rapt with the following affirmation of their actions. “The first Nelson Mandela,” he explained, “was Jesus Christ. The second was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. The third Nelson Mandela are the poor people of the world. In Zikode’s speech lay first an acknowledgement of the struggles of the past and the victories they have one – first in Jesus, and then in Mandela – but also a situating of the Abahlali movement in a trajectory and a history of positive change. In likening the acts of the “14 heroes” to those of Christ and of Mandela, Zikode conjured the specter of the two most important figures in the South African national consciousness, and assigned the same legitimacy to the fourteen and to their co-conspirators in defiance. Beyond a articulation of the depravity of the conditions in which they live and a critique of the local state’s inaction (or opposition) to change these conditions, Abahlali’s narrative is one of public avowal to seize control of their own situation and work to change it.

Critically, the Abahlali narrative is not just one circulated within the settlements or in the theses of curious researchers, but one that has consistently won national print, radio and news coverage. Following the first protest, a series of articles driven mostly by interviews with people in Kennedy Road that have been published in Durban’s Mercury, the national Mail and Guardian, and the Sunday Tribune, and a rotating set of speakers have been interviewed in Zulu, Xhosa and English radio programs. These initial articles seem to have won over the sympathies of other journalists, who regularly called Zikode and other Abahlali activists for comment in a series of articles covering the announcements of the municipality’s plans for a housing development for them in Phoenix East. Through media sympathy, which has since the beginning of the movement come and gone at times, people in Abahlali have increasingly able to tell their story in their own words. And when they tell their narrative, it is straightforward and moving, but also convincing. The backdrop of any of its member settlements lends Abahlali more than enough credibility when they describe their plight – clearly they are not fabricating the conditions that they describe.

“We are not a political party . . . but a reminder” :
Abahlali’s political identity

Even with the sympathies of members of the media, the movement realizes that their help is typically reactive, and as System Cele articulated it, “if we want something, we must struggle for it ourselves, ” that they cannot passively wait for service delivery from the state. This section will examine the orientation of movement towards the state and towards the ANC, what Mashumi Figlan described as an orientation of “strong reminding” to the ANC of the promises it had made. Zikode’s invitation to anyone who would come to learn in the settlement is important because it illustrates a sense of hope on the part of Abahlali that their elected leaders will change, but it comes with a realism from the movement that, unless pressed and held accountable, few of these political leaders will genuinely change their ways. If real politics are “truth-procedure,” as Badiou writes , one truth that Abahlali has learned and now underpins the movement is that leaders must be held to what they say, and spoken to in a language that they understand, whether they are leaders in government, NGOs, or the movement itself. To find the right language to speak to local authority, interviewees often repeated, “we have been encouraged by our municipality that the Zulu language cannot be understand by our officials, Xhosa cannot be understood, Sotho cannot be understood – even English cannot be understood. The only language that they understand is us getting into the street. We have seen the result and we have been encouraged”.

But in speaking the language of protest, the movement is painstakingly careful to assert that it is not seeking political gain and that “we are not a political party, ” and this orientation towards politics is critical to an understanding of the movement. When the “No Land, No House, No Vote” campaign was adopted in early 2006, it came after strong appeals from some Abahlali members that Zikode stand for election against Baig in the race for local councilor. Zikode declined, in consultation with the movement’s leaders, thinking that he would have little power to bring about change in policy from the council. This move was decisively important, as it set the precedent for the movement to function outside of state politics. In fact, at the beginning of the movement, “politics” was a dirty word, and speech after speech declared that while the councilors could only “talk politics,” Abahlali was a place where people spoke about their needs – land, housing, and basic services – without the evasiveness or jostling for position of elections and “party politics,” what the movement read as the real interest the ANC and the local state.

Zikode described the movement’s collective disillusionment with politics thus: “The community has realized that voting for parties has not brought any change to us – especially at the level of local government elections. We can see some important changes at national level but at local level whoever wins the elections will be challenged by us. We have been betrayed by our own elected councillor. We have decided not to vote. The campaign that has begun – ‘No Land, No House, No Vote’ .”

Since that time, the movement has remained wary of the promises that people make when they have something to gain or someone to pacify, but it has coined a new “politics,” different from the politics that it critiques. Now the movement has embraced, as described in the previous chapter, the notion of a new ‘politics’ but has reinterpreted and redeemed the word. What it calls “people’s politics,” Mnikelo Ndabankulu explained, “Is about people, not about getting a position. It’s about what people want, land, housing, and work. When you talk about policy or, speak of council, the people don’t understand. Our politics is about being understood by the people. It’s about you getting houses – people understand. It’s about Loon Rd – the people can see Loon Rd. It’s about water, people understand. It’s about what really hurts to people. ” A commitment to these people’s politics, or a politics of inclusion, serves as the operating principle of the movement.

But, as S’bu Zikode describes them, people’s politics are not so much an ideology as operating principle: “Our politics will therefore mean that everyone, every human being can understand without actually going to political schools, without referring to any books, because it is about what you need. So our politics is elementary politics for it answers everyone’s questions about humanity .” In the movement’s narrative, as Zikode implies and Ndabankulu makes explicit, after the principle of inclusion, the movement is not based on pre-theorized ideology so much as people’s felt-needs. These are the things that all people know, in their words, the suffering, frustration and hope for a better life, not the Marxism of the left or the technical jargon of the municipal managers.

Despite this skepticism, however, every interviewee acknowledged that for a movement whose material demands can be met fully only by the state to be successful, some engagement with institutional “party politics” is inevitable. So what should the nature of this engagement be? Foreman Road leaders Mashumi Figlan and Mnikelo Ndabankulu theorized Abahlali’s role not as a new and oppositional political party, but as a constant reminder to the ANC of what it promised to achieve. Addressing the suggestion from local councilors, from the municipal manager, and from the mayor that they were trying to oppose the ANC, Ndabankulu lamented that “They think we are fighting the government, but we are doing nothing to fight the government.” Instead, he said, “We are reminding them of what they promised us. ”

Mashumi Figlan, like most Bahlali, emphasized that he continues to maintain his membership in the ANC, but that he is dissatisfied with the performance of the party thus far: “Even now I’m still an ANC member. But I’m also Abahlali baseMjondolo. Now we are fighting, let me put it like this, we are not fighting, we are reminding our government what our government promised us. If I put it as if I’m fighting it would mean I am against, whereas I am not against. I am just reminding our government to fulfill their promises. What we have been fighting for before, let the government not forget. ” Like many of the older members of Abahlali, Figlan linked the struggles of Abahlali to the struggle he had waged against the apartheid government, as an ANC and UDF member, which he saw as giving him a particular credibility to critique the ANC, because of his demonstrated loyalty.

The narrative that Abahlali offers is thus one of partnership with the government, not opposition to it. When asked what the responsibility of the state was and what the responsibility of the shack-dwellers themselves was in an interview, Zikode elaborated that

“It is the duty of the government to deliver. So for us it is not only to challenge the government and say ‘please deliver.’ Our duty as the shack-dwellers, as the poor of the beneficiaries of the wealth of this country is to get ready ourselves, is to mobilize ourselves not only to challenge the government but to partner the government, to say ‘this is who we are, this is where we are, this is what we have, this is our ability, this is what we need’ . . . Therefore our duty is to mobilize ourselves, to get ready to partner the government. It’s easy for the government to say ‘here is the housing’ then its duty therefore is to deliver the services, any government of the day. ”

But for this partnership to occur, the poor need a sense of self-confidence or consciousness and a robust, democratic structure with which to engage the state. This confidence comes in part of the spiritual power of the movement, declaring often that “God is on the side of Abahlali.”

“God is On the Side of Abahlali . . . Our Struggle is a Holy Struggle ”

For many members of Abahlali, as they describe it, the struggle for land and housing is as much spiritual as it is material or political. Skeptical readings of spirituality in social movements understand spiritual language primarily as a justificatory tool to give the movement spiritual sanction within religiously-valenced cultures, as some scholars interpret in the civil rights movement in the American South. In Abahlali, though, members don’t only speak of their movement’s mission as divinely appointed and an outgrowth of God’s concern for the poor, but they also point to God as a source of hope against setback and motivation towards further struggle. Critically, they often also cite the strength of the movement’s community as an enriching space, which they liken to the experience of church. More subtly, Abahlali’s spiritual narrative has taken a form of liberation theology with a rich history in South Africa, and the movement’s spiritual articulations run through nearly all of the things that it says about itself.

Like much of Abahlali’s culture and energy, its shared spirituality begins in its meetings: almost all of them open or close with a prayer, and many of them include songs of worship. Each week, someone different is invited to open the meetings in prayer. In one meeting I participated in, the leader’s prayer was simple – that Jesus would protect the members of the movements from physical and spiritual threats, that God would guide the movement and give them wisdom during the meeting, and that God would change the hearts of the politicians. Depending on the time available, some of the meetings included a series of church songs, most of which visibly built up energy for the meeting, and reminded attendees of God’s provision thus far with Zulu refrains like “I just want to say thank you Jesus.” On occasion, the name of Jesus is switched out in these songs for the names of movement leaders, or for “Abahlali” itself: “Jesus will save us” became “Zikode will save us,” or “Abahlali will save us,” just like “Madiba will save us was a refrain for the anti-apartheid movements before it. Perhaps unintentionally, this enforces a sense of the movement’s spiritual dimension and salvific mission layered over its material and political concerns, a dimension which many members spoke of in interviews.

Of course, much of the spirituality that members bring to the movement originates from their church and family backgrounds. All but one of the Abahlali members with whom I spoke was active in a church and a number were leaders within these churches. More recently, several pastors, a church-based NGO, and an Anglican Archbishop have been involved with movement activities and in providing relief after fires. Mnikelo Ndabankulu said he supposed that Abahlali is a spiritual movement simply because so most Abahlali are Christians, and pointed out that the weekly meetings are held on Saturdays so that people can go to church on Sundays . Miriam Sivoko went so far as to suggest that “Abahlali is really a Christian movement, ” but Zikode and others were careful to emphasize that the movement was open to anyone who was willing to work towards its goals . The church backgrounds of the Abahlali members with whom I spoke varied widely within Christianity, excepting one agnostic who dismissed God’s hand in the movement’s success “because I am communist. ” Amongst interviewees, the most Abahlali members identified themselves as Zionists, followed by Shembes and then Pentecostals, Anglicans and Methodists . Even with a range of church backgrounds, the movement’s basic theological declaration is consistent and clear: “God has always been on the side of the poor ” and God is in the midst of Abahlali’s struggle, protecting and empowering them.

Some interviewees saw the fact of God’s favor towards them as ontological and unchangeable, believing that God is always on the side of the poor and, because Abahlali was an organization of the poor, that God will always be on its side. Most acknowledged the possibility that Abahlali could lose God’s favor, but that God would never lose concern for the poor. Bhekuyise Ngcobo affirmed that God was pleased with the movement, because “God recognizes that Abahlali is the only organization that is really fighting for poor” and “God is happy because the poor can raise their concerns without any rich people speaking for them, the poor can now speak for themselves. ” He left open the possibility that Abahlali could cease to fight for the poor, but supposed that as long as it did, God would continue to favor it. Others theorized other reasons that Abahlali could lost God’s favor. Moses Mncwango, said that the divine favor shown towards the movement thus far has come from the movement’s following God and knowing Him. Citing the first chapter of the Book of Proverbs, he reminded fellow Abahlali during a conversation at the Jahdu place settlement that “The Bible says that the fear of the Lord is the root of all wisdom ” and, in his view, the movement had had success because its members fear God and operate in dialogue with God and with His wisdom about the actions it should take. The conclusion he drew was that if Abahlali ceased to follow God, the depth of its wisdom for decision-making might diminish. Mnikelo Ndabankulu took a similar view, that it was not the case that Abahlali could do no wrong, but that the movement must consult God for direction: “we open our meetings with prayer; God is part of the consultation. ” Miriam Sivoko went farther in understanding the movement’s fate as entirely within God’s hands: “Jesus is the only one who can help us,” so the movement must pray and involve him in the decisions. Vuyi Mvula agreed that “Jesus will give us the power; everything that we do we will do [is] by the power of Jesus, you can’t do nothing without him. Abahlali depends on God, we are going to make it because God is there.”

In practice, the movement appears to have adopted as a principle of operation a view of God that allows for more human agency than would a rigid theological determinism. Meetings are indeed opened with prayer, but they do not pause at every decision for divine consultation, and no single individual is the sole arbiter of spiritual wisdom. Important in interpreting Sivoko and Mvula’s words, then, is an understanding that their proclamations of God’s complete control is coupled with a trust that God will continue to continue bless the movement in its current form, as it works to practice “people’s politics”, basing decisions on discussion and consultation. On this point of God’s blessing, all were agreed that God had provided for and protected Abahlali thus far, whether or not they thought that the assurance of God’s favor was a given or they thought it remained the responsibility of the movement to follow God.

Ndabankulu saw this first in the protection that God had provided: “We see that Jesus is involved in our struggle, [otherwise] we would have been killed on the 14th of November,” the day of the march at Foreman Road. He added that because “No one died, we see that God is protecting us. God is always on the side of the poor. The government has all the means to stop us ,” but thus far it has not been able to, an indication of God’s favor. Likewise, Senzo Glbashe declared that he can see that “God is on our side because we are so successful,” not to suggest that God had adopted Abahlali after its initial success, but that its successes were an indication of God’s favor. Zodwa Nsibande added that God’s favor had led to the growth of the movement, and that God enabled people to see Abahlali’s motives for what they were “If He wasn’t on our side, we wouldn’t get this much membership; if he wasn’t with us people wouldn’t see our motives.”

Emphasizing an additional relationship between God and the Abahlali movement, Louisa Motha suggested that God was using Abahlali as a means to care for the poor, saying that “God looks after Abahlali because he wants things to come to these people ”. Miriam Sivoko said that this provision was not just in the distant future, when Abahlali’s demands are eventually met, but was happening through churches making clothing and food donations to Abahlali because they trusted that the donations would be used well.

Glbashe further theorized the movement as operating in a parallel, complementary role to that of the Church: “Abahlali is fighting physically, the churches are fighting spiritually, but we are fighting for the same things. We give reports to [our] churches about Abahlali and they pray for us to get what we need. We are fighting with marches. They are fighting through prayer”. M’du Ngqulunga agreed, saying he “believes that Abahlali is in a spiritual struggle as well, I am praying in my house and everyone is praying for Abahlali.” Ndabankulu suggested that the personal uplift and hope for salvation offered in the church and the movement were also parallel: “Abahlali is like a church because it gives hope. If you go to church you get a hope that you will get to heaven.” Others interviewees argued, relatedly, that Abahlali is like the church in that it confers dignity to people who have been marginalized .

Most interviewees also saw Abahlali as having a parallel mission to the church, but some for more pragmatic reasons. For Louisa Motha, the movement was similar to a church in that both served as vehicles for collective action: “Abahlali is like a church, they take everyone who has problems, put them together and try to make struggles for what we want. ” Ndabankulu recognized the tactical advantage to involving church leaders, because they confirm the movement’s legitimacy and the righteousness of its goals: “If churches are prepared to stand in the front and be beaten then it would be clear that it’s not a political question, it’s a moral one. ” Mashumi Figlan added that the presence of the South African Council of Churches gives the movement dignity.

Most interviewees agreed that Abahlali felt like a church to them, but for many this feeling was based on the strong community within the movement and within their churches. Vuyi Mvula put it this way: “Abahlali is like a church. Whatever I want to say I can say, I can cry or laugh. There are mothers, sisters, brothers, it’s like a church, like when you are with the church members, because we also pray. Prior to meeting we pray and afterwards, too. And we also discuss issues, even personal issues, with Abahlali members. It’s like when I’m going to meet AB, I am very happy, and when it comes time for us to be apart it hurts a lot.” For her, the community of Abahlali and the openness of the meetings were much like her experience in church. Figile Myezma also analogized the movement to a church in the community and mentorship that it provides: “Abahlali meetings feel like church to me, I’m going to see my role models and my friends. It feels so free at AB meeting, I feel so happy because I know that when I go I see my brothers and my sisters.

The sense of community that Myezma and others described does not exist only as an end unto itself, but it indicates solidarity amongst members to the movement and to each other. As Pithouse writes, “From the beginning the meeting was the engine of struggle for the Abahlali, but music, dance, ecumenical memorials for people who have died in the relentless shack fires, just hanging out and a now a 16 team football league all work to sustain courage and weave solidarity . Abahlali thrives as a movement because it also functions as a community, albeit one with a specific direction, goals, and vision. But it is often those communities that exist as an end unto themselves but also work towards a common goal, such as sports teams, churches, or social movements, where relationships become the strongest and common identity the most cohesive. The work of Abahlali as a movement is energized because of the strength of Abahlali as a community, and for many members, this experience was most like that of a church. Referring specifically to the weekly meetings, Pithouse applies Fanon to Abahlali to argue that “the religious language is appropriate not just because the [movement] performs the same functions as religion in the slum – to connect and sacralise the denigrated and to tend hope. It is also appropriate because the [movement], when genuinely open to the wider life lived in common, is a space for people and communities to become something new – in this case historical agents in the material world.”

In a world where much of their circumstances, including the policy of the state towards shack-dwellers, has been out of their control, Abahlali resembles religion most of all in how it gives shack-dwellers a voice in the circumstances that control them, beginning with the control that each shack-dweller exercises over the direction of the movement.
Among a diversity of opinions about the particular nature of the parallels between Abahlali and the church, the basic theological articulation of the movement was universally affirmed: “God is on the side of Abahlali because He is always on the side of the poor. ” This confidence in God’s favor for the movement and His concern for its members contributes to a consciousness of one’s own worth, which is the basis for the practice of “people’s politics.” As Ndabankulu put it, it has “Never been the aim of God that we be poor, we were not born to be poor; we can move from the ‘abandonment’ thinking to believe in ourselves. ” Figlan argued that people’s intrinsic, God-given intelligence is the basis for the movement’s critical self-reflection and for its willingness to direct itself even against the dictates of the state: “God gave us a mind, in order for us to think about ourselves… You see, if you are (assembling) a certain type of car… Once you put an engine inside, it means you want that car to move. God gave us a mind for us to think… So if you say, do it like this, and if you do it this other way, we cannot help you; then stay aside with your help. We know how to do it.”

“The University of Abahlali baseMjondolo”: Learning and Consciousness

Though Figlan speaks of knowing how to direct the movement and how to struggle as an outgrowth of his God-given intelligence, most interviewees described becoming aware of this intelligence and how to use it only after joining Abahlali. At the first protest march organized across multiple settlements in May 2005, what was perhaps the most defiant banner was painted last, reading simply “the University of Kennedy Road, ” declaring the settlements to be places of learning even as they are places of suffering, and their residents to be people worth listening to. When Bahlali speak of their movement, as often as anything else, they speak of it in terms of learning and, more subtly, of consciousness. This sense of the educative mission of the movement serves, like spirituality, as a critical layer over the movement’s driving narrative, and it connects to almost everything that that the movement says about itself.
If part of the mission of the movement is to bring about a change in the way the poor are thought about, this is first a project internal to the movement, in the hearts and minds of shack-dweller, and it has begun even though few of the material demands of the movement have been met. Ndbankulu spoke of moving away from the “abandonment mindset,” the feeling that God had abandoned them, towards a confidence in themselves as God’s creation. Spiritually, but also more broadly, Abahlali is proclaiming a new consciousness, dignity and self-confidence for the poor. This consciousness affirms the basic dignity of each shack-dweller, and the raising of this consciousness makes Abahlali feel like a particularly sacred space . With consciousness-of-self (as human beings with intrinsic dignity, intelligence, and importance) Abahlali raises a parallel consciousness of the inhumanity of the poverty its members live in. Consciousness of oneself as a thinking, choosing, important human being and an awareness of the way in which one’s poverty limits the expression of one’s full humanity form the basis of Abahlali’s structure and its narrative.

As M’du Hlongwa wrote, “We always say that the fact that we are poor in life does not make us poor in mind ,” a motto has become a part of the common vocabulary of the movement. Related to the raising of consciousness, when asked about how they had changed since joining Abahlali, most interviewees spoke of learning. Vuyi Mvula spoke of learning in a broad sense, that she had “improved in [my] ability consult with other people,” had learned to express herself about her basic needs, and had “learned to tell government the truth” and ask “what did they do for us? ” Philani Ndabankulu said that in Abahlali, he “learned to be strong” and to “Believe if you want something you have to go and get it for yourself”, that “Nothing in life comes easy, everything is hard,” but that with Abahlali he had learned “which channels to follow .” Mnikelo Ndabankulu spoke of more practical learning: “as the citizens we were not using our own rights as we are supposed to, we [didn’t] know what our protections from police [were]. Now we can use the freedom of speech that we have heard about we see our heroes talking on TV, men in red t-shirt talking on TV not a man in a tie.” Miriam Sivoko also spoke of learning in Abahali about her rights as enumerated in the South African constitution, a type of learning many Abahlali referenced: “I never knew that I must stay in a right house with water and electricity, I never knew that I got my rights to say whatever I don’t like.

Nkosi Mjavu also spoke of learning what how to struggle and to stand up for himself: “I never knew anything about struggle, know what is struggle and how can you fight for yourself and your community. Joining Abahlali for me has been an opportunity to meet with other people and that has enhanced my knowledge. Now I can difference between lies and truth. When a person is telling me what I am doing is wrong . . . There is no other person that can tell me anything now. Even if that person can try to use lies to prevent my struggle, I can continue because now I know what is right and not right for me. ” Moses Mncwango analogized Abahlali to a university: its opening the eyes of everyone, even the uneducated, who want to push development of housing. ”

At every level, the movement’s narrative about itself represents a threat to the narrative of the municipality and to that of the ANC. The Abahlali declares the liberation narrative inadequate to maintain its loyalties, pointing out that many of its members suffered as much to bring about independence as did any of those now in government. It calls into question the ANC’s claim to care for the poor, giving its own experience of poverty and deprivation, coupled with documented indifference by the councilor and municipal authorities, as counter-claim to the ANC’s promises. Beyond this, it builds a spiritually supported counter-culture that leads to counter-consciousness, which Gramsci cites as prerequisite to revolt.