Bishop Rubin Phillip’s UnFreedom Day Speech




For many years the courage and dignity of our people under oppression was a light to the world.

There was a time when our country was a light to the world. But that light has grown so dim that there is a real danger of it being extinguished altogether.

Today millions of our people live in shacks in life threatening conditions, constantly at risk of fire and disease because they have no electricity or sanitation, while we build stadiums, casinos and theme parks.

Today we are, once again, forcing the poor out of our cities to rural townships where there are no jobs or schools or prospects for hope.

Today our brothers and sisters are being beaten and tortured by the criminal state in Zimbabwe and, when they have fled to our country for sanctuary, beaten and burnt out of their homes by ordinary South Africans and deported by our government.

Today women are still not safe in our country.

Today schools are still not safe in our country.

Today some see political office as a route to mastery over the people instead of a vocation of service to the people.

Jesus took his message to the poor, not the Rabbis – the experts of his day. Today when we do remember the suffering of ordinary people we tend to go to experts and to seek answers from their laptops rather than to the people themselves. The poor are even excluded from the discussions about their fate.

But in this darkness the courage, dignity and gentle determination of Abahlali baseMjodolo has been a light that has shone ever more brightly over the last three years. You have faced fires, sickness, evictions, arrest, beatings, slander, and still you stand bravely for what is true. Your principle that everyone matters, that every life is precious, is very simple but it is also utterly profound.

Many of us who hold dear the most noble traditions of our country take hope from your courage and your dignity just as we take hope from the recent actions of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union and the courage of so many ordinary people of Zimbabwe. A clear and compelling call to conscience has been issued and we will listen and we will act.

I know that this is a difficult time for your movement. I know that last weekend a candle was knocked over in the Jadu Place settlement and two hours later 1 600 people had lost their homes and all their possessions. I know that this year there have already been terrible fires in the Foreman Road settlement and right here in Kennedy Road. It is unacceptable that the poorest people in our cities must live with this plague of fire. Today I am making a strong and clear call to our Municipality, and to the Municipalities of all our cities across the country, for immediate action to stop these fires. The settlements must be electrified, fire hydrants provided and access roads for fire engines built.

I know that people in your movement continue to face unlawful evictions. It is a matter of deep concern that the poorest people in our city living the most precarious lives should also have to face this plague. Our Christian faith requires that we honour our neighbours. There is no honour in illegal evictions that expel the poor from the city. I know that when you have been able you have gone to court to stop unlawful evictions and that the judges have always found in your favour. Today I am making a strong and clear call to our Municipality, and the Municipalities of all our cities across the country, to declare every part of our country an evictions free zone. Today I promise to call a meeting between yourselves and other organizations to see how we can build an alliance between churches, lawyers, shack dwellers and others against unlawful evictions and for the clear and public assertion of the right to the city for all.

I know that your movement has suffered terrible abuse at the hands of the police when you have tried to exercise your basic democratic rights. In September last year I was very pleased to be part of a group of 12 church leaders that condemned a violent police attack on a peaceful and legal protest by your movement. Even some clergy were beaten that day. Today I affirm that you have every right to express your views in this country. Today I promise that next time you march I and others from the church will march with you again.

I know that your movement organises crèches, support for abused women, legal support for people facing eviction, support for families whose children are being forced out of schools because they cannot pay fees, support for people who have lost their homes in fires and much, much more without donor support. Today I promise to mobilise the churches to offer practical support to your movement and to the work that you are doing.

Jesus Christ was a poor man. His disciples were poor men. He ministered to poor women and men. When our society and our world rejects the humanity of the poor it rejects the core of the message of Christ. What ever is done to the least of our sisters and brothers is done also to God. For too long our city and our country and our world have put the poor last on the list of concerns. It is time for the last to be first.

Bishop Rubin Phillip
27th April 2008