Slum Dwellers International Statement on the Attacks on Kennedy Road Settlement, Durban, South Africa.

Slum Dwellers International Statement on the Attacks on Kennedy Road Settlement, Durban, South Africa.

SDI echoes the outrage that has been widely expressed in response to the violent attacks perpetrated against AbM in Kennedy Road over the weekend. These attacks come as no surprise. They mirror similar acts of violence that are regularly perpetrated against slum dwellers throughout the world. Only last month shack dwellers in Old Fadama, Accra, Ghana, also had to deal with an outward manifestation of ethnic violence, which was in fact an attack launched by vested political and property interests against organized communities of the urban poor. Almost two years ago SDI members were seriously affected by the violence against the urban poor that ripped through Kenya’s informal settlements. At this very moment SDI linked groups in Gauteng and Cape Town face similar threats. SDI groups in Zimbabwe had to deal with devastating evictions in 2005. The list goes on and on.

There is no doubt that the impetus behind these consistent acts of brutality against citizens living in slums is almost always the same – a cocktail of vested political and economic interests. The flip side of the coin is that every time the urban poor are able to express and insert themselves incisively they unmask the contradictions that underlie the urbanization of poverty – including the appalling violence of the police and vigilantes that is generally tolerated by the media, the state and the market.

The challenge for the urban poor is to come together at scale and to begin to “box clever”. The leaders of Kennedy Road have shown extraordinary courage – just like leaders of Old Fadama, Fort Harcourt and Phonm Penh. The human rights fraternity – both within South Africa and beyond – have rallied to their cause, notwithstanding the fact that they make strident legal and moral appeals against something that they are the first to recognize as being blatantly illegal and against individuals, institutions and social classes that they know only too well have no respect for the rule of law. It is obvious that the crude and glaring illegality from which shack dwellers suffer in most countries – including South Africa – has its roots in a socioeconomic contradiction that is not within the scope of existing laws – national or international – to change in any meaningful way. No future judicial law, no constitutional right, will be usable by the poor to get rid of this contradiction in the face of the more fundamental structural economic inequalities of our global society.

What the Slum Dwellers of Kennedy Road and Manenberg, Dharavi and Byculla, Kibera and Huruma are (only sometimes) daring to demand is the right to really live as citizens in the cities in which they reside, and in the final analysis this requires a lot more than the understandable and laudable but inadequate glorification of leaders and comrades and the naming and shaming of enemies. It requires using the very moral authority that comes from being victims of violence to move beyond this struggle for the redress of wrongs and the winning of an abstract moral high ground. It requires the creation of slum dweller agglomerations at the community level, the city level, the national level and the international level – and then it requires the building of alliances between these agglomerations and professionals who align with their struggles. These pro-poor platforms then need to identify, develop and implement tangible solutions that demonstrate sustainable alternatives to the short term violence and long term havoc that is generated by the kind of brutal responses displayed at Kennedy Road.

SDI notes Sbu Zikode’s call for solidarity and re-affirms its commitment to bottom-up practical action and to the development of a strong pro-poor platform in the country. SDI’s experience, in every single country where it has a presence, may have led it to dismiss the world view that regards the state and civil society as binary opposites. Indeed SDI explicitly acknowledges the complex and relational nature of the state and the need not only to contest it but also to engage it as a practical way in which to transform the focus of its interventions. A willingness to engage the State does not mean that SDI condones its acts of violence – overt or institutional. It implies, however, that responses to state violence may well incorporate, but need to move beyond condemnation, counter-villification and resistance.

SDI and AbM share the same point of departure. They both recognise that the power of those who control the world’s resources depends on the systematic disempowerment of the global poor. This shared point of departure should be the basis for a broad-based alliance. This is the root of a real solidarity. Differences in strategies – between resistance and negotiating deals – create a healthy diversity within such an alliance.