The Autonomous Exemplars of South Africa

Abahlali baseMjondolo || The Autonomous Exemplars of South Africa

The story of many autonomous communities are born out of a state abandoning its people. Others are born simply out of a people’s inspiration and solidarity. The Abahlali baseMjondolo (pronounced ah – bish – la – lee ba -zen djem – dolo), or “the people that stay in shacks”, were fostered by both. Beginning in the rugged and tropical climate surrounding Durban, South Africa, a small shack settlement named Kennedy Road discreetly grew in the bush hidden from public view as early as 1970.

There the community grew and as generations begat generations the settlement became undisguised. Quickly the government and wealthy landowners collaborated to have them removed, but their various attempts were prevented without notable conflict. By the late 1980’s, Durban officials accepted the community. In the following years, a philanthropic organization, the Urban Foundation, moved in to help construct homes, install electricity, sanitation, and build a community hall.

Fast forward fifteen years of relative peaceful cohabitation; apartheid ends, and a year later the state revoked the lives of hundreds of peaceful hard-working families to exist there any longer. Many suggest that the transfer towards democracy placed wealthy business owners in power to maintain a successful transition. With their newfound power and ensuring their profit-driven aspirations, they lost sight of the lower class. Bull-dozing and vitriolic harassment commenced as any class war would between those who have and those who have not.

In the government’s defense, the state began building settlements for the Kennedy Road community far from the urban centers they found work in. But the daily commute proved more expensive than the small wages they could acquire. For the few families that did emigrate to these desolate government-funded shelters, they were no longer capable of affording education for their children among other basic survivalist requirements.

Those that stayed soon found themselves in an inevitable physical confrontation with the Durban Metro police and the South African police service. The Kennedy Road community with a force of 700 activists formed a blockade on Umgeni Road shutting down all traffic in protest to the living conditions the state was imposing on them. Riots ensued throughout the day, several were arrested, and the state temporarily backed off to regroup and evaluate their increasing opposition. In just seven months, the Kennedy Road settlement aligned with 11 other settlements and announced a city wide movement of shack dwellers known in isiZulu as Abahlali baseMjondolo.

Having been violently neglected by their government, the Abahlali have fostered many autonomous features. The movement as a whole has never used the word ‘anarchism’ to represent themselves, but many of their communities’ practices are based around some of the most progressive anarchist ideas. As a result, the community has been capable of withstanding, with unbelievable strength ,the onslaught of abuse from the South African state.

The majority of the Abahlali have refused to participate in party politics, and have not voted in any state election since 2005. The nonsalaried president of the movement, S’bu Zikode summarized this convention by stating, “the government and academics speak about the poor all the time, but so few want to speak to the poor..It becomes clear that our job is just to vote and then watch the rich speak about us as we get poor”. The practice of nonvoting has encouraged peaceful separatist campaigns in the past. By not taking part in party politics, an individual accomplishes three important tasks. First, they do not take part in the government that afflicts them. Often times, the vote is between two evils, and the voter is required to choose the lesser evil rather than a positive solution. Lindela Figlan reiterates, “They only remember you when they need us to vote for elections. And they promise whatever. I think our democracy is just to vote for them. And then we go back and sit in the mud.” Second, it disempowers all the competing parties from obtaining an otherwise important count. This hopefully encourages politicians to make decisions for them and pay attention to their needs. Third and possibly the most powerful, it loudly professes the anarchist ideal of self-reliability and autonomy. The Abahlali’s avoidance of voting manifests an encompassing solidarity among their community. Discontinuing to support a state’s salvation, they draw their attention inwards.

So inwards, their process of organization consists of consensus decision-making. Emphasis is placed more on explaining ideas rather than simply voting on them. All decisions strive for everyone’s approval, and if they can’t, they settle on the majority’s decision. Leaders are elected into unsalaried positions. Their purpose, unlike most representative democracies, is not for making decisions, but rather facilitating them. The tribe strives to have half of their elected positions held by women, and their president, Zikode, claims the number of elected women has never fallen below 30%.

Strength in numbers and cooperative organization allows the Abahlali to push the envelope and demand the expropriation of private land for public housing. Just as Benjamin Tucker had suggested, “Anarchism undertakes to protect no titles except such as are based upon actual occupancy and use.” This powerful affirmation goes against the whims of capitalist justified ownership. If one wants to trump environmental ills whether they be social, economical, or ecological, they are forced to see the environment as a whole, and not partitioned to their particular national boundaries or contracted borders. That being so, all land except that which is being actively used is demanded to be shared. In the Abahlali’s case, the location of the settlements is strategically close to many urban jobs and schools that generations of families have learned to thrive from.

The Abahlali also partially maintain an alternative economic system based on mutual aid and voluntary cooperation. Together they have facilitated creches, kitchens, vegetable gardens, and cultural, sporting, and religious projects. The creches themselves facilitate child care, classes, a meeting hall, and in some communities, the only housed toilets. After years of waiting on the government’s help, the people have intuitively crafted all the amenities they never received. A blessing in disguise as the community learns how to produce and maintain all the things a government is expected to provide. If the Abahlali’s future proves successful, they will rightfully prove to themselves the unnecessary habit of supporting a state in exchange for supporting themselves directly.

But at the same time they are no anarchists. While the Abahlali forwardly progress towards autonomy, they equally seek the aid of the South African government in form of housing and sanitation. Unable to satiate the needs for the themselves entirely, the people reach out to whatever resources are available to them. They appear willing to concede to the government’s approval and support it if they meet a desire for a variety of subsidies namely land rights summarized best by a local, Ndabankulu, “Even now I’m still an ANC member. But I’m also Abahlali baseMjondolo. Now we are fighting, let me put it like this, we are not fighting, we are reminding our government what our government promised us. If I put it as if I’m fighting it would mean I am against, whereas I am not against. I am just reminding our government to fulfill their promises. What we have been fighting for before, let the government not forget.”

Desperate times caused by rampant shack fires claiming a life every other day, as well as horrid sanitation conditions, and poor garbage disposal affect every Shack Dweller. The constant pressure have them intensely pitted against their environment. Their only request is survival. It appears that in order to successfully divorce their parent government with resolute success, they would require a progressive education in strategic eco-sustainable construction, and waste removal as well as access to adequate supplies. Easier said than done, and part and parcel of my reason for choosing this community to write about was to encourage anyone interested in donating to their cause whatever information, supplies, manual labor, or monetary donation you can. By supporting the Abahlali, you not only support an impoverished people, but also support a living example of social autonomy for the whole world to witness.