University of Abahlali baseMjondolo, Seminar 22 September 2007

The full report back will be loaded here soon. But here is some of the initial response from S bu Zikode & briefing notes from one of the regional preparatory meetings. (The donor funding for this seminar was zero – it happens because Bahlali are committed to making it happen).

As much as all debates are good, fighting only by talking does not take us much further. Sometimes we need to strengthen our muscles for an action debate, that is a living debate that does not only end on theories.

I want to assure all who weren t at the University of Abahlali last night that the level of engagement was far exceeding the expectations of most of us.

The second session was about the bigger and beautiful famous term, Globilization, which was described in a number of ways that are genuine and meaningful to ordinary people. It was unbelievable to hear a lot of deep thinkings of ordinary people interpreting the high rise and a seemingly complicated term to most people that often involve the IMF, World Bank etc. into its simplest meaning to ordinary people. What it is, what it involves and how does it affect us direct or indirect. It was clear to all that you have to approach it from the bottom, start small in a form like struggling against Baig, Mlaba etc, because in no ways you can jump into the World Bank while failing to identify a close enemy that you can see, touch, an enemy that denies us a right to life. Thus as much as all debates are good, fighting only by talking does not take us much further. Sometimes we need to strengthen our muscles for an action debate, that is a living debate that does not only end on theories.

We should encourage these kinds of seminars, I thus have no doubt that this delegation has what it takes to fully participate in such global debate that will of course be meaningful to ordinary global poor communities, such as rural and urban communities as opposed to a methodology that seems to pretend that when the struggle is to be thought there is no grass root level, there is no soil, no intellectuals without land and housing but only space where high and good people are to be found. The engagement and our experiences showed us that rural dwellers are our sisters and brothers, thus we will not be doing justice to ourselves if we turn to see these struggles of pain and suffering being divided from one another.

The idea of keeping these discussions in a documented form will be good, because it does say how much we value these discussions of ordinary, it becomes an asset of the Movement. This will still stimulate a debate around the alternative to Living globalization that is before us as we have started this journey of intellectuals. The idea of seeing development and involving ordinary people to things that affect them in a meaningful and practical manner by themselves to themselves is called Abahlalism and is a living politic of ordinary people.


S bu Zikode
Abahlali baseMjondolo

Draft Briefing Notes from the ‘Maritzburg Planning Meeting for the University of Abahlali baseMjondolo Seminar to Prepare Delegates to the ILRIG ‘Globalisation School to be Held at Kennedy Road, 22 September 2007

21 September 2007

1. Globalization

1. 1. We re not necessarily against globalisation . It is a good thing when we can be in solidarity with people around the world. For example AbM has supported the struggle of people in Haiti and people in Turkey have supported our struggle. Therefore we support some kinds of globalisation from below if they can connect and build real democratic struggle and even when they just allow us to get to know each other. But here we are talking about real globalization – a globalisation where people in the poor countries have as much right and capacity to share and express solidarity as people in the rich countries.

1.2 Globalisation is not new. It is because of globalisation that Africans were taken to Haiti as slaves and that Indians were bought here as indentured labourers. Globalisation has always been driven by the rich in the rich countries with local elites as their allies. But it has always been resisted from below. We cannot go back to a time before globalization. What we have to do is to struggle to turn globalisation into something that the poor people of the world control.

1. 3. We are for the technologies that allow us to connect with people more easily – cell phones, internet and so on. We like them. But the problem is that the rich have access to these technologies – producing, selling and using them and so they are most often used against us (even though we do use them in our struggles too – especially cell phones and now we have our own website too although most comrades can’t see it). We have to find a way to put these technologies in common so that they can be for everyone. For example we could start with demanding that there should be more libraries in every settlement with internet or trying to build these ourselves.

1. 4. We are against ‘globalisation’ when it means the ‘globalisation’ of the power of the elite in the rich countries. When they extend their power over the world they try to make sure that governments and local elites everywhere are working for them to be able to exploit the poor and the nature more ruthlessly. Governments are told to spend less on supporting society and more on controlling and exploiting it. They are told not to defend their people against the exploitation of big business. They are told that people must pay for everything – even what God has given us like water. The factories here, like the shoe factories in ‘Maritzburg, are closing down because they can’t compete with cheap imports and so we are losing our jobs. Some of our land is being turned into game reserves for foreign tourists and people are being forced off their land and into shacks. We’re against the situation where suffering, exploitation and damage are globalised and intensified by the rich and powerful who use the growing possibilities and technologies of connection, communication and movement to spread their power. They can set up businesses anywhere but the poor cannot cross the borders. We are locked in to places like France (or Park Gate for the Durban people or Delft for the Cape Town people) because we can’t afford transport costs. And we are locked into our countries because we can’t cross borders while the rich roam the world freely to exploit us.

1. 5. It is clear that in principle, these possibilities (i.e., the possibilities and technologies of connection, communication and movement) could be good for people s struggles against injustice. These technologies could help the poor to unite around the world. But in our experience, what actually happens most often is that another elite, presenting itself as an ally of our struggles and calling itself civil society , appropriates these possibilities for their own interests, prestige and power – and at the expense of actual movements waging actual struggles in actual communities. What we notice in this role of civil society and the NGOs, is that it seems very easy to lie when you are using some of these opportunities of our globalised world but you are not accountable to movements at the grassroots – you can just put stories and claims about your research and your connectedness with grassroots people and their struggles onto websites and in films and in emails to ‘international audiences’ (we notice that these audiences are usually the same sort of class of researchers and activists with access to computers, telephone lines, internet and the rest, and who seem to meet each other quite regularly in conferences and hotels around the world talking about poor peoples struggles. Most of them come from the rich countries). The grassroots people and their structures don t really have a way of knowing about what is said about them there, let alone challenging the claims and lies, and there is often no accountability. And very often what is being discussed through this technology is not the politics of the poor. It is a politics conducted in the name of the poor but that is a different thing. Our politics has to confront problems like what to do when the local councillor refuses to sign grant applications, how to connect when there is no airtime, how to arrange meetings when there is no public transport and so on. But the NGO politics is often about getting a mandate for NGO people to fly around the world and to network with other NGOs and academics – something we can’t do very easily. Sometimes when we have challenged NGOs for their behaviour they have responded just like the government – by telling terrible lie about us (even in the media) and trying to divide us by attacking our elected leaders and giving other people money and presenting them as representatives of our organisations. It is clear that for some NGO activists, just like some people in government, their power to speak for us is the most important thing and they will defend it ruthlessly against grassroots struggle democracy. We all know this story.

1. 6. As far as we can tell, the bad patterns and circumstances of globalisation definitely have some world-wide driving forces – for example, the powerful groups in rich countries like the United States, and those in western Europe, and Asia (including China), and in the world-wide organisations that they effectively control and use to try and force the world to follow their rules that suit their interests for profit and power (like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organisation(WTO)). But is also clear from our experiences that the bad features of our current world do not somehow fall from the heavens where these international forces are concentrated and then have effects that mess up the lives of poor people living and working in particular places around the world. How the bad things of globalisation really and locally affect poor people also comes from the roles that are played by all sorts of people and organisations pursuing power and profit even down to the very local level. The kind of globalisation that works for the rich and powerful would not succeed without these links connecting the systems of oppression and exploitation to the places and people where suffering is actually experienced. Local elites exploit us for their own profit motivated by their own cruelty and desire for wealth. And some people say that globalisation started in 1989 when the Soviet Union fell. But our problems go back a lot further than that. Shack dwellers had to fight evictions in Durban in the 1920s and again in the 1950s. Some people in our movement remember being evicted from Umkhubane in the 1950s when they were children. The rich have always wanted the city for themselves – under colonialism, under apartheid and under neo-liberalism.

2. NGOs and Grassroots Struggle

2.1 Some NGOs are prepared to talk to movements and not for them. They want to offer support. But others want to talk for movements and think that they have a natural right to lead. This can be because of class prejudice, or race prejudice, or because of a political orientation that is vanguardist and not democratic. Abahlali has had some very good experiences with some NGOs and some very bad experiences too. We have also noticed that sometimes (actually, it is what they usually do) civil society experts and activists tell the grassroots people that it is mistaken to take up struggles that focus on a local enemy or a local problem because the real enemy is globalisation, or global capitalism or the World Bank or something else. In our experience, firstly this is just wrong, and secondly, this approach hurts or undermines people s ability to wage effective struggles. This is because it means that the struggles where we live and work, where we are oppressed and where we can fight back, are then presented as not important. The struggles that are presented as important are international meetings that we can’t attend! Effective and popular struggle actually is how we must fight against the bad parts of globalisation (and at the same time it is how we actually start to build a better global world for everyone). Using disempowering language and analysis of the globalised parts of the system to make local militants feel stupid or inadequate therefore does not make a better world come any closer – but it does help build the power of the NGOs and outsider activists who make grassroots people depend on them for the correct (i.e., mistaken) line! In the same way this habit of some NGOs of never coming to our meetings but always expecting us to come to their meetings (which are in English, which are held during working hours, and in which the NGOs set the whole agenda before we arrive) indicates clearly that they are looking to use us, not to have a partnership with us. Also this thing of NGOs pretending that individuals are organisations or that 3 people are a movement continues. This is dishonest and undermines real unity. They are doing it because those individuals and 3 people movements are taking their money and will never challenge them. But that is a false politic. It is not a living politic. A living politic comes from free thought in democratic organisations.

From the experiences of Abahali baseMjondolo, this problem is one of the reasons we have learnt how important it is to be faithful to a living politics – as S’bu Zikode put it in his article about the Third Force: “It is the thinking of the masses of the people that matters”.

2.2 To sustain a commitment to a living politics during the Globalization school, it will be good to perhaps feel confident to consistently ask:

• do I/we understand what is being said? (and if not, this must be challenged until the speaker speaks to be understood or the point is translated into a language you speak), and
• is what is being said useful for building our movement and fighting our struggle? (and of not, it must be challenged as being irrelevant – or badly explained).
• Is the NGO here to work with us to build our struggle or are they wanting to use us to build their project?

2.3 A key thing will be to feel as confident as they are. You do not have to measure up to some silly idea that the hosts may have of capacitated comrades engaging the debates. It is always good to discuss with other people. We all have important things to learn from each other. But we are the Professors of your own suffering. We are the Professors of our own struggles. We have as much to teach the NGO people as they have to teach us. It is good for them to share their learning from books and meetings with us and for us to share our learning from suffering and struggling every day with them. But it is not ok if they are always the teachers and we are always the learners. We want partnership, not domination.

2.4 Given the history of AbM’s challenge to exploitative, dishonest and undemocratic behaviour by NGOs (which includes the AbM protest at the SMI national meeting in late 2006, and people in and linked to the notorious Durban NGO publicly lying about AbM in the media and privately lying about AbM to other NGOs and activists and even, although they have never attended AbM meetings trying to overrule AbM decisions about who should represent AbM to the media and in international meetings!), there may be pressure on the comrades at this meeting. Ilrig has invited people to present at this school who are amongst the worst of those that told terrible lies about AbM when we asked for partnership not domination from the NGOs. This might make things difficult. Confidence in a living politics is correct because the living politics is a democratic politics in the hands of the people that it speaks for – but sometimes the pressure really can be very intimidating and silence or retreat is also ok (it usually is not complete silence because there will be important conversations and connections with other people who are connected with real struggles from elsewhere around even if these connections and conversations happen outside of the official programme).

2.5 As delegates from movements, the people going to the School do not have any mandate to negotiate (let alone agree to) the participation or endorsement by their structures of plans that are put to them during the time of the school. (For example, there may be people, using good comradely language, trying to pressure a commitment to unity of social movements and other plans. But we know from bitter experience that when some NGO people say unity what they really mean is that we must give up our living struggle to them and to their project of conference specialism so that they can look good. We are 100% for the unity of struggles but we are for a democratic unity between real struggles) All you have a mandate to do is to report back to the next Abahlali meeting and to discuss any proposals there. If you come under any pressure just explain that your mandate is only to report back for further discussion.