Once Again the Name of Our Movement is Being Abused by the NGOs

Friday, 14 May 2010
Abahlali baseMjondolo Press Statement

Once Again the Name of Our Movement is Being Abused by the NGOs

On Tuesday this week we were shocked to read an article in The Sowetan by Patrick Magebhula in which Magebhula claimed that Abahlali baseMjondolo is part of the Informal Settlement Network (ISN) which falls under the control of the global NGO Shack Dwellers International (SDI). Benjamin Bradlow from SDI later sent the article to the press. 

Last year, after our movement was attacked, we were invited to a meeting, in Durban, of all shack dwellers’ organisations. We discussed the invitation and decided to elect two representatives from our movement to attend that meeting. At that meeting solidarity was expressed with us and a promise was made, by Mzwanele Zulu of the Joe Slovo Task Team (which has now joined SDI), to organise marches in support of us in Johannesburg and Cape Town. We accepted this offer of solidarity. In a time when a shack dwellers organisation is suffering violent state backed attacks it makes good sense for different organisations, with different politics, to unite around a shared opposition to these attacks and a shared commitment to the right of shack dwellers to organise themselves as they choose to. However at that meeting we never agreed to join the ISN. After the meeting we heard nothing further about the promises of solidarity that were made to us.

Our movement is organised on a completely different basis to the Federation of the Urban Poor (FedUp), which falls under SDI, and we have developed a completely different politics to SDI. Our movement falls under no one other than its members. We do not believe that progress will come by friendship and loyalty to an oppressive government. It is clear to us that the government gives so many millions to SDI because they believe that SDI will help them to control the poor. We believe that we have a duty to resist oppression. We believe that it is essential for the poor to organise and to build our own power against the rich, against the politicians and against that part of civil society that think that it has a natural right to represent the poor.

However we are a democratic organisation and we respect the right of everyone to choose their own politics. We work with shack dwellers’ organisations that have chosen to affiliate themselves to SDI when they have good intentions and when we have areas of common concern. For example we are always happy to work with “General” Alfred Moyo in Makause in Johannesburg. The people in Makause have had to confront evictions and violence from the state as well as xenophobia. They understand very well the challenges that any shack dweller’s organisation must face in South Africa.

But the fact is that we did not join the ISN, we have never joined the ISN and we are not even aware of their programmes and projects. It is simply untrue for Patrick Magebhula to claim that we, along with the Federation of the Urban Poor (FedUP) and the South African National Civics Organisation (SANCO) fall under the ISN. And it is simply untrue for Benjamin Bradlow to imply that, because we are claimed to fall under the ISN, we therefore fall under SDI.

We have seen no living solidarity from SDI or their ISN while we have been under attack. SDI did issue one statement after the attack but after that all we have seen is statements from SDI praising the government – the same government that evicts us, disconnects us, arrests us, beats us and supports a violent attack against us. All we see is that the notorious Lindiwe Sisulu, who abandoned Breaking New Ground and the Constitution to try and ‘eradicate’ us from the cities, is chair of the board of SDI. In our view it is a disgrace that an organisation that claims to be working in the interests of shack dwellers can have someone like Sisulu as the chair of its board.

We have paid a very high price to keep our autonomy from NGOs. We will never give up that autonomy. We will always be directed by no one other than our members and the discussions that we organise in our meetings. We are willing to work on areas of common concern with organisations that respect our autonomy but the fact is that there are very, very few NGOs that are willing to respect the autonomy of a poor people’s movement. We, along with other movements, have had long experience of NGOs claiming that they represent us when they do not, claiming to be working with us when they are not, offering money and expensive presents to individuals to try and buy our support and so on. The NGOs on the left and on the right often behave in exactly the same way. We have also had long and bitter experience with NGOs that respond to us in exactly the same way as the state when we reject their money and their authority. Some NGOs have the same ‘rule it or ruin it’ strategy as the state.

Our advice to Patrick Magebhula is to be honest with himself, with his organisations, with the media and with us. You cannot claim to represent an other organisation just because you once attended a meeting together. You cannot claim to represent people that you never consult with. We would like to caution him to always remember that what ever nice things that SDI says about the government and what ever nice things that the government says about SDI people are still living and dying in the shacks. People are still being burnt and evicted and beaten and arrested. We continue to recommend that a politics that is of the poor, by the poor and for the poor must start from this reality and not from the nice things that the government and a government funded NGO are saying about each other.

We are not part of the ISN and we have never been part of the ISN. But we are part of an alliance and that alliance is the Poor People’s Alliance (PPA). The PPA consists of Abahlali baseMjondolo (in Durban and in Cape Town), the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign (in Cape Town), the Rural Network (in KwaZulu-Natal) and the Landless People’s Movement (in Johannesburg). We started that alliance when we rejected the authority of the left NGOs and, without one cent of donor money, started an alliance by the poor, for the poor and under the complete control of the organisations of the poor. Our alliance was carefully discussed and endorsed in all our movements. It unites poor people in shacks, flats, township houses and on farms. It is based on a refusal of party politics and a commitment to people’s politics. In this alliance we always aim to build a living solidarity between our organisations as we resist oppression and work to build the power of the poor. No one makes any decisions for the alliance except a meeting of representatives from all the organisations that make up our alliance. Sometimes this makes it hard for us to make decisions or to issue statements quickly. But when we say something it carries the real weight of all of our movements. This is our politics.

We do hope that both Patrick Magebhula and Benjamin Bradlow will issue a formal apology for misrepresenting our movement in this way. We have sent a letter to The Sowetan and asked them to publish a correction.

For more information or comment please contact the Abahlali baseMjondolo Office on 031 304 6420.