Land is a Political Question

Click here to read this speech in German.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Presentation by S’bu Zikode to the Development Action Group National Conference entitled ‘Re-imagining the City: A New Urban Order’

Land is a Political Question

It is very nice to re-imagine the city. We can all start to imagine cities with good housing for everyone and then we can imagine affordable public transport and safe streets with beautiful trees, cool shady parks and welcoming schools, clinics, libraries and sports clubs. We can imagine and imagine cities where everyone’s humanity is respected and where everyone counts. It is very nice to imagine a city where no one has to live like a pig in the mud, where everyone is safe from fires, abuse, police raids, disconnections, evictions and political attacks.

But land and housing are the most urgent problems in our cities and there is a serious difficulty in resolving the issue of land and housing in our country. Land comes before housing and this difficulty comes when we all continue to pretend that the issue of land is not political. Until we accept that the issue of land is political this difficulty will continue to add more and more confusion.

The question remains very complicated when our country is administered by politicians who talk about the struggle and about being for the people while also pretending that the matter of land is not political. They have the power to use their political muscles to take the land back to the dispossessed but they prefer to pretend that the issue of land is not political. We know very well that we are the dispossessed and that we need justice. But the politicians and their NGOs continue to pretend that we are the ignorant ones who need to learn patience and to accept that fire safety workshops and forced removal to transit camps in human dumping grounds is really development.

Those who are in power today have the power to distribute our land fairly and freely to those who do not have land. Why have they betrayed us today? The answer is simple. If they do so they will be giving away the very power that makes them powerful.

Taking the land back will never be easy.

Taking the land back will require us to become and to remain the strong poor. A year ago we learnt a hard lesson. We learnt that South Africa is not a real democracy. The middle classes and even the working classes are free to debate and to discuss the future of the country. But we, as the poor, have been evicted from democracy. We were attacked and driven from our homes with the support of the police and the politicians looked. Cosatu was silent and the Human Rights Commission was silent. We have learnt that there are many people who do not think that democracy is for the poor.

We need to make this democracy real for the poor. Therefore we need allies amongst those groups who are allowed to think and to speak for themselves in South Africa. They need to use their freedom and safety to stand with us and to defend us as we struggle for our own freedom. Our organisations and movements need to forge a living solidarity with progressive faith based organization, trade unions, professionals in all specialised fields, individuals and active citizens in general. We need to form a powerful national alliance for urban reform that will always be willing to defend the right of the poor to think, speak and organise for themselves. That alliance has to be political and willing to force the state and the rich to obey the people. It has to be clear that the social value of land must come before its commercial value. It has to be willing to take real action to achieve this. Therefore it has to be independent from the state. In our analysis Slum Dwellers International is a top down attempt by the state and the rich to control the poor by persuading us to accept our oppression.

Some of us have already joined this journey to a new urban order not only by sitting in cool offices but by sweating in communities where we are busy organizing, conscientising and being conscientised as we organise and are organised by popular self education, meetings, camps and protests. Some of us have already lost our homes in the land of our birth as our punishment for struggling to access the well-located lands. It has been very evident to us that well-located land will never be brought before us by aircraft, but by sweat, beatings, arrests, and lies, water cannons, firing of live ammunition or even death. This is the price which those who are serious about the prize of A New Urban Order must be prepared to pay.

One cannot begin any meaningful discussion of the urban crisis while the poor continue to be excluded from the conversations that are meant to build the very new urban order that is for all. This discussion can only begin once the dispossessed, those who do not count, count. We decided long ago not to accept the situation where some people talk about the poor and even for the poor without ever speaking to the poor. We have also paid a price for this decision but we will always stick to it.

There is no doubt that the work of the intellectuals, town planners, engineers, architects and other professionals is critical. We do need their skills. But for as long as they remain on their own their knowledge is very fragile. We need to plan our cities together. I remain convinced that if all the work of the urban experts is done in isolation from the poor, those who are meant to benefit from it, then it will not solve the problem. The first problem is that despite all their education the experts are often really ignorant of the real needs of the people. The second problem is that expert ideas, even good ideas that fit with the needs of the people, have no power on their own. An idea can only move into the world and start to reshape the world when it has a living force behind it. An idea that is worked out between the organised poor and the urban experts will have a living force behind it when the organised poor accept it as their own.

The issue of land and planning is too political, much more political than is recognised by many of us. It is too political and yet in most cases the state and the insensitive consultants pretend that it is only geo-technical feasibility that determines what is to be built, where and when. This has been very evident in many communities in Abahlali baseMjondolo settlements. People have identified well-located land and occupied that land themselves. But again and again we find that what may be well-located land to the poor is not so to the state and consultants and what they consider to be well-located land is not so to the poor. In the Kennedy Road settlement the municipality have always used technical reports to justify eviction. Their reports have always said that the land is not good for human habitation while our middle class neighbours across the road enjoy their stay. Everyone knows that in fact the land is very well-located. All that is required is land tenure, the provision of infrastructure and then an upgrade. In Protea South and Thembalihle in Johannesburg the land that the poor have identified and occupied for themselves is thought to be too good for them. But this is not said. Dolomite is the only frightening beast that can be used to scare and to justify eviction.

In his State of the Nation Address Msholozi himself committed his government to acquire more than 6 000 ha of well-located land for the poor. This promise came as a response to the struggles of the poor in the cities and towns across the country. Obviously if the state fails to acquire and redistribute this land there is nothing that will stop the people from identifying and occupying such well-located land on their own. We will give this our full support as a movement. If the alliances that we want to make with the churches, trade unions, the intellectuals and the urban experts will support us in this then we’ll know that they are really on our side. For as long as human beings are living and dying in the mud and the fires any politics of patience is just another name for oppression.

But the issue of Msholozi’s promise is not just a question of whether or not the 6 000 ha is acquired and redistributed. There is also the question of who decides what is and what is not well located land. Land should not only be seen to be well located because it is identified by the state. The poor have a right to identify land that is well located for them. If our cities are to become just cities then we as the poor will have to strengthen ourselves by further organisation and mobilisation. We will all need the courage that was shown in the Symphony Way and Macassar Village occupations here in Cape Town. Our cities require a strong leadership from the poor with a real consciousness as to how the issue of land remains a fragile question. Organisation, mobilization, active citizen participation and a clear political consciousness will enable a popular democratic rebellion that can put the will of the people against the will of the few to build our new cities. The transfer of land to the poor and even to the working class requires radical action. It requires an action with minimal transactions. All these formalities and protocols are not just technical matters. They are not neutral. These formalities and protocols are biased to the rich and against the poor and have therefore bred many informalities resulting in the creation of informal settlements.

Our new urban order can only be realised when the land that has already been occupied by the poor is transferred to them with the full assurance of land tenure. If more land is not made available for those who don’t already live in well located occupations then the poor can find the new land themselves. The state has a duty to invest in our communities and to support our occupations through building infrastructure and maintaining it, far before considering building subsidized housing projects. Land tenure must come first, then the provision of services and infrastructure and then housing projects.

The trend of sprawling growth in our cities shows that we may not have enough land in the nearby future. In that case it may be worth considering high-density development projects and decentralizing access to all socio economic amenities so that a new planning may begin. But without fair debates and open spaces for such conversations by all and at all levels this may not be achieved or, if it is achieved, it many not be achieved in a way that is just.

Our struggle and every real struggle is to put the human being at the centre of our society, starting with the most dispossessed who are the homeless. Washing away political discourse and narrowing the fragile political question of land into a complicated technical question will not help any of us at all. The organizing of the poor that takes place in our disgruntled spaces is very important for any change. And in those discussions by the poor who are marginalized because they do not count in our society lie some of the significant answers that most of us fail to recognize. Instead the blame for the evil produced by poverty is easily shifted to the poor. The victims of an evil system find that they are presented as evil people. The state, like those who continue to live in luxury life at the expense of the poor, continues to see the demands expressed by the poor as illegitimate and unreasonable. In fact of all the people in society our demands are the most legitimate and the most reasonable because we are living in the worst conditions. The demands of those with the most money and power are the least legitimate. Logic as well as justice is on the side of our struggle to put the will of the many against the will of the few which is the only way to turn our imaginings of a new urban order into reality.

I thank you all.