When the Poor Become Powerful Outside of State Control

When the poor become powerful outside of state control
S’bu Zikode
2010-11-11, Issue 504

It gives me great pleasure to be invited into the United States of America to speak, not only my mind but a collective mind of many Abahlali members. I only get these invitations because of the movement I am part of, so I thank Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement SA. I also thank the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative and I thank all friends of Abahlali based in the US.

The power of the poor starts when we as the poor recognise our own humanity – when we recognise that in fact we are created in the image of God and are therefore equal to all other human beings. But the recognition of our humanity without action to defend our humanity is meaningless. It is very important that we as the poor begin to define ourselves before someone else from somewhere else begins to define us. It is very important for the poor to say, this is who we are, this is where we are and this is what we want. In our movement, as in many movements around the world, we say that we are the poor, those who do not count. We say that we are the excluded and the disrespected. We say that we want our full humanity, that we want justice, that we want dignity and full participation in the planning of our communities.

The more of us that stand together the more our humanity is fulfilled. The power of the poor becomes evident when the poor are able to organise ourselves for ourselves. When we begin to achieve this it is always a moment of great promise and great danger. Frederick Douglass, the great hero of one of the greatest American struggles, the struggle against slavery, said: ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand.’ This is why a collective demand, a demand backed by organisation, determination and courage is a moment of great promise. But it is also a moment of great danger because the power of the rich and the politicians always takes the legitimate demands of the oppressed to be criminal and illegitimate. This is one reason why we need to stand together across the sea. We can only redeem the promise of our struggle if we can survive its dangers and none of us can do that on our own. I have been sent here by Abahlali baseMjondolo to build a living solidarity with the movements in America. We want to look for ways in which we can support each other to realise the promise of our struggles.

There is also a real danger for the organised poor if we do not define ourselves. If we allow others to define us and to define our struggle we risk being defined as people who are not able to struggle for ourselves – as people who need leaders and not comrades, as people who must be spoken for and not to. But when we succeed in defining ourselves, and in escaping the danger of not defining ourselves, we have to face a new danger. There is another kind of danger for the organised poor when we do define ourselves. Our movement is going through a tough time after successfully defining itself. We are under attack from the state, the rich and even a few individual leftists who are all divided in their economics but united in their politics – in their belief that it is their duty, the duty of elites, to speak for and to represent the poor.

As Abahlali we have successfully represented our struggle both nationally and internationally. This has been a crisis for some of those who have employed themselves to speak, write and decide for the poor. The refusal of our movement has been met with a huge campaign to discredit and rubbish our movement’s effort to build a just society where everyone matters. We have learnt that there is a very big difference between those forces in civil society and the left that are looking for followers and those that are looking for comrades. We have learnt that there is a very big difference between those forces in civil society and the left who think that they are the only ones that can liberate the poor and those that are willing to work with the poor as we liberate ourselves. We remain committed to a bottom up politic, a living politic, an every day politic of the political empowerment of ordinary women and men.

The state has many strategies to silence the poor. Leaders are offered money and jobs. There is quiet diplomacy through which the movement is given some acknowledgment. There are meetings that lead into all kinds of technical debates and away from the simple politic of our demand for land and housing. There is intimidation. But when all these efforts by the state to silence the poor fail they send in the police. The police do not come, as we have asked, to protect the poor but to beat us, arrest us and even shoot us. We have braved all that and survived brutal attacks. Our popular activism in action has made our movement grow rapidly despite repression.

Our movement has faced many challenges. When we started to become a powerful force in society and began to win many victories. We stopped evictions, forced interim services in some of the settlements and won some kind of recognition. The state then went to try its legal means of attacking the shack dwellers and the poor. The state came out with a new legislation called KwaZulu-Natal Elimination, Eradication and Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Act of 2007. The new legislation was created to legitimise these attacks. To be poor and homeless meant to be criminal and you could be imprisoned for up to 25 years for resisting an eviction. Abahlali mobilised all kinds of resourced people including lawyers to challenge the constitutionality of this legislation. The poor South Africans were represented by Abahlali who were represented by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Wits University.

When our case was heard in the Constitutional Court it was clear that the state couldn’t answer our case. The state was humiliated by the inevitability of a serious defeat by shack dwellers. There was a long moment of silence. We continued to feed our orphans, to look after our sick. We continued to build crèches and vegetable gardens as projects of self help. We continued to discuss our living politic at our University of Abahlali baseMjondolo. All these good efforts of trying to build an equal society became a major threat to authority. Some state institutions have good people who we kept engaging while being very careful to always keep our autonomy. We carefully managed different negotiations without being co-opted into the system so that we could claim victories from the state while continuing to build our power outside of the state.

But as we kept building a strong movement the state was busy preparing itself to destroy our movement. On the 26 and 27 September 2009 a group of about 40 armed men violently attacked our head quarters in the Kennedy Road settlement. The police failed to protect us. As people tried to defend themselves there was fighting and two people were left dead and others injured. The homes of our leaders, their families and friends and the general membership of Abahlali were destroyed and we were driven out of the settlement and forced out to hiding. The attack was openly endorsed by the provincial leadership of the ruling party and the provincial government. Up until today our attackers were never made to answer to their crimes committed on the day of the attack. Abahlali called for the Independent Commission of Inquiry into the attack, but this call fell on deaf ears. A short time after the attack we won a historic victory against the constitutionality of the Slums Act.

This attack is the sort of heavy price that a movement of the poor may have to pay for the prize of a human world, a world of equality and dignity, a world where the land and wealth are shared. This sort of attack happens when a movement continues to organise, to think and to grow outside state control. A living politic is not built in one day. It is built in prayer, humility, sacrifice and courage. Our struggle is a class struggle. It is the struggle of the poor – those who are living in shacks, selling on the streets, doing domestic and security work. To build a fair world where everyone matters we need allies amongst those in a similar class and amongst those with better resources and opportunities.

The time will come when the poor, the uneducated but human, will be required to play a humane role in society. A time will come when the humanity of every human being is recognised in society. This time may or may not be the judgement day. When this time comes will depend on our commitment and courage. It will also depend on how well we can support each other’s struggles. History will judge us all.


* November 2010. This was a presentation to the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative delivered to various part of the United States of America.
* S’bu Zikode is the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo.
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