Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Durban Shack Dwellers’ Movement


Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Durban Shack Dwellers’ Movement

Akhila Kolisetty

A loved one, deeply passionate about social movements, has recently opened my eyes to a truly incredible one: Abahali baseMjondolo, the South African shack dwellers’ movement.

We need more such movements in the world. Compared to the revolutions shaking the Middle East and North Africa today, it may seem like the scale is smaller, but it is no less powerful. It is a movement of the landless and poor, standing up for their rights, showing agency, speaking to the world about what justice is needed for them and their loved ones. South African shack dwellers face problems ranging from lack of clean water and electricity to poor health care and educational opportunities. On top of this, they have frequently faced evictions as the government seeks to eradicate all slums by 2014. This has resulted in beatings, arrests, and the forced removals of the poor from their homes and settlements. In opposition to such extreme measures, the shack dwellers movement has arisen. Composed of thousands of people from shack settlements around Durban, the movement has protested for better social services, improved legal rights, has campaigned against evictions, and organized to improve the skills of women and youth.

There is nothing I can say about their movement that hasn’t already been said more eloquently, so I will quote from a beautiful article I found by Xin Wei Ngiam, “Taking Poverty Seriously: What the poor are saying and why it matters” (emphasis mine).

It has become somewhat of a trope in both NGO and governmental circles to speak of “participatory democracy” and the “voices of (insert name of oppressed social group)”. Much of the work of development, we say, has to do with making these voices— and the grievances they express— public. Yet the glossy development reports and posh conference halls necessarily regulate the content and expression of such voices even as they promote them. And when the oppressed decide, independently, to force open public spaces to express their anger and frustration, they are often met with the police, bullets, and teargas.


Listening to the poor is not only a moral (and democratic) responsibility. Seeing it simply as our “duty” toward the “less privileged” amongst us risks turning this responsibility into the same patronizing paternalism we seek to leave behind. We have seen that the poor can point out important things about our society that we did not previously see. But most of all, it is the only way to “do development”. “Empowerment” is the new buzz word: But empowering people to do what we think is best for them, in the end, is no empowerment at all.

The idea is really quite simple. People who have not lived in the jondolos should not purport to know more about what the shack dwellers need and want to make a better life, than the shack dwellers themselves. Hlongwa laughs when he says this, but he is only half jesting:

“I’m not that educated, but I always say …that you may take Mlaba, you may take him, and let him sit with me. And then you sit next to us and listen, and you may find that I know more of politics than him. But he is in politics! He is practicing it day and night. But you might find that I know more than him.”

Figlan likewise argues that the shack dwellers’ are able to decide what is best for themselves:

“God gave us a mind, in order for us to think about ourselves… You see, if you are (assembling) a certain type of car… Once you put an engine inside, it means you want that car to move. God gave us a mind for us to think… So if you say, do it like this, and if you do it this other way, we cannot help you; then stay aside with your help. We know how to do it.”

Zikode goes further to paint this in the language of respect and democratic ethics.

“With my understanding, consultation is one of the principles of democracy. And (again) to me it is a culture of respect. Even at home, as a child, you don’t just do things without informing your parents. As a parent… You have a responsibility to report to your children, my kiddies, I will be out for a week. You can’t just go. In its simplest form it is a symbol of respect for another. It’s something that you need not go to school for… You must consult (us) so when you go (and do something for us), you are able to bring the report back to us.”

Since communities, however poor, are perfectly capable of thinking for themselves, then treating them as unthinking and incompetent only undermines national policy, no matter how well-intentioned. And it provides a platform for those in power to claim credit for “working for the poor”. Hlongwa describes the disjunct between rhetoric and reality, and why working “for” the poor without consulting them leads only to personal publicity and shallow policies.

“They may say, at the top, they may call a press conference and say we are working for Kennedy Road, we are building maybe 1000 houses on Kennedy Road. Only to find they haven’t come to the people to ask, how many houses are needed in that area of Kennedy Road? How many families are here? They may say, we built 1000 houses for Kennedy, only to find that maybe 4000 houses are needed for Kennedy. So where is that 3000 going to? Only if they come and ask the people and talk to the people, then they have the exact number of houses needed. That’s what we want from the government. Come and ask the people. Don’t say we built a tuckshop in Kennedy. What if people don’t need a tuckshop?”

The message is clear. There is more to development than numbers and laundry lists of accomplishments: things built, people housed, children put in school. Those are important to do, but only if the poor need them done, and only if they are done in consultation with the poor. Otherwise no-one profits from them except the public figures who claim credit for the pleasant-sounding numbers and figures.

Hlongwa sums it all up:

“Abahlali is working with the people. We’re saying to the government, you have to work with the people. Don’t say I am working for Kennedy Road. Say I am working with Kennedy Road.”

Listening to the poor is a dangerous undertaking. It requires the most well-meaning among us to put aside their own ideas of what is right and good for others, and reconfigure their perceptions of the moral world. And it holds the least well-meaning to a task that they are ill-placed to perform. But I hope I have shown at least that, despite these hazards, listening to the poor constitutes not only a democratic responsibility, but also a moral one. And, perhaps most importantly, taking the poor seriously is the only way we can finally take poverty seriously, and accord it the attention it deserves.