We need to defend living politics, because of what living politics defend

We need to defend living politics, because of what living politics defend
Marie Huchzermeyer

Defend Freedom – Democracy under Attack
Briefing and discussion hosted by Church Land Programme. Pietermaritzburg, 6 November

Mine is a perspective from a distance. Nevertheless, I must acknowledge that I feel quite deeply influenced by the ‘University of Abahlali’. And because of what Abahlali has gone through, the learning has intensified for many of us who had the privilege of not being affected in any personal and material way.

I haven’t done much of the actual feeling and tasting (to use Sbu’s words) that Abahlali invites us to do, but I’ve learnt a tremendous amount, and that in itself is worth reflecting on and I’ll get back to that.

Why defend a living politics? From what I’ve learnt over the past few weeks, we need to defend the living politics in the first instance because of what the living politics is defending for us. But what I’m also learning is that this is not where it ends. Nikelo said something very profound yesterday. ‘Abahlali never planned to be a political party. But government has treated us like this. This means we’re heading in the right direction’. Abahlali is occupying a political space, and is conscious of this.

Abahlali were discussing on Wednesday whether anything substantially new had happened with the attacks on Kennedy Road. For a long time, I thought Abahlali’s website and email news was giving us a window on how all poor people, all people in informal settlements are being treated.

Especially criminalisation came to my attention in this way, and I began to realise that independent leaders in Gauteng’s informal settlements were also being arrested illegally for standing up for the rights of their communities (this has been hugely underreported/undocumented).

But it seems that once Abahlali began developing its living politics and defending democracy, the repression intensified to the extent that Richard Pithouse was saying on Wednesday ‘nothing has happened on this scale since the 1980s’. Perhaps what alarmed everyone most was that the ANC resorted to hiring thugs. This is a measure that is common for instance in places like Nairobi, where there is no democracy to speak of.

Its important to reflect on all this also from the perspective of the Slums Act. I’ve been trying to draw attention to the fact that the Slums Act encompasses a wrong way of doing away with slums.

Its not only a silly way, because all it does is chip away at the tip of the iceberg, it is also repressive, it resorts to apartheid-era measures such as criminalising those that are desperately poor and who have no option but to invade land.

The measures include forceful eviction, security/fencing/policing – in effect control, all to the end of eradicating, stamping out any possibility for informal settlements. Judge Moseneke, in the Constitutional Court hearing, referred to ‘smashing the poor’ (in my perception, the Constutional Court Judges were finding more faults with the Slums Act than the excellent legal team had dared bring before them – I understand there were carefully considered legal reasons for this).

I’ve also tried to draw attention to the fact that this negative, direct approach is not only present in the Slums Act (which is a provincial initiative), but also in the then National Department of Housing’s attempts to amend the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act (PIE) – 2006, 2008.

It is also present in local government practice. Municipalities have land invasion units ‘smashing the poor’. Pretoria (City of Tshwane) thought nothing wrong with going one step further and outsourcing the so-called ‘management of informal settlements’ to ‘security companies’. All of this is deeply anti-democratic.

It is all anti-democratic, but it is above board. What I’m just starting to realise is that the Slums Act and these national and local measures are themselves just the tip of an iceberg. There is far more below the surface.

Abahlali have challenged the slums act successfully, but in so-doing have unleashed more of the slums act ethics – what was previously hovering below the surface has now moved up into visibility, without shame, with seeming legitimacy.

Abahlali, immersed in their living politics, expected this. I did not. I naively thought that a victory in the Constitutional Court would seal the deal: upgrading would finally unfold as per Chapter 13 of the Housing Code.

Abahlali were told that their challenge of the slums act had embarrassed high levels in the gov/ANC. We need to realise that those same people have for a long time been embarrassed by informal settlements. We do need to try and understand why.

My sense is that its not just because they want a ‘world class city’ that will attract investment and impress the visitors at 2010. Its becoming more and more evident that its the uncontrolled nature of informal settlements that is the concern to government and the ANC. The kind of town planning that has shaped most parts of our cities was a project of control. This is the kind of city our elites are now long accustomed to and have been perpetuating.

Once a living politics emerges within an informal settlement, and people from within begin to demand democratic development, that is to challenge the control that the state and the party exercise when spending resources that are earmarked for development, then control is meted out in its rawest form.

What Abahlali has done is demanded the right way of doing away with slums. This is an indirect way, a democratic way that accommodates an autonomous living politics. It is development that is shaped by a living politics.

But the big question is how does one win over the political space for this?

The only place that I know where this has been successfully ‘won’, through very hard and ongoing contestation, is in different cities of Brazil. Its the only place that I know where the kind of ethic or living politics that Abahlali ascribe to, and the cross-class solidarity that is emerging around Abahlali have developed at scale into a political movement that has won the space for autonomous practice.

In its early political campaigning, the now ruling Workers’ Party or PT in Brazil used the slogan ‘Without Fear of Being Happy’. For many years the PT was ‘explicitly more concerned about conscientisation and supporting popular movements than about coming into power in the short term’ (Mainwaring, 1984:115).

Brazil the only example I know where ‘policy academics’ (which is what the programme refers to me as) have learnt from a living politics. Universities in Brazil became important sites for the PT.

Its a pity that all the effort and all Abahlali’s momentum has to go into defending – lobbying for an independent enquiry.

S’bu, Mnikelo and Zodwa don’t want our pity. They are warning us: Mnikelo said ‘This doesn’t look like South Africa’. Zodwa spoke about the need for Abahlali to watch the watch-dogs. The Constitutional Court, the Human Rights Commission – these are now spaces that are used in Abahlali’s defence, but there might be a time when these very institutions need to be defended.

There is tremendous hope in the fact that as the democracy of the state is shrinking, a living democracy is born from the grassroots.

Challenging the eradication of informal settlements is not about endorsing poor people having to resort to make shift cities. Its about making sure state resources are used in a democratic way, decisions made outside of state control. This is what Abahlali has done.

Lebogang from CPS asked ‘where are the real sites of reform?’ I believe this is where they are. And as S’bu was saying, the voices (for reform) need to be louder. When there is more time, its relevant to discuss the Brazilian experience of Urban Reform, which was linked to the autonomy project of the PT.

Thank you.

Meaning of autonomy

‘deprived of the dimension of autonomy, urban development can only be, at best, a kind of modernisation accompanied by poverty reduction and some degree of environmental protection, overseen by more or less ‘enlightened’ and ‘democratic’ ruling elites’ (Souza, 2003:197).