Collectivism vs. Individualism

19 April 2012.
Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement Press Statement

Collectivism vs. Individualism

When our movement was started none of us knew that Abahlali would continue to grow and to become strong enough to be able to tackle issues of national interest. Abahlali like most social movements continues to face state repression, NGO repression, and repression from left academics who still believe that it is their duty to think, represent, and take decisions for the poor. We continue to resist all this pressure to accept that our place is in the shacks and nowhere else. We continue to voice our anger and our frustrations from the dark and confined corners of our universe. We also continue to take our place in our society. We occupy land and we occupy spaces in the media and in public discussions. Sometimes it is not easy. Sometimes it is dangerous. But when it is possible it is possible because we work together. If you are poor your strength can only come from your togetherness. That is all that you have. Without it you are isolated and vulnerable to all kinds of attack. This is why the philosophy of ubuhlali is a philosophy of collectivity and why we work so hard to prevent our movement from collapsing into individualism.

A movement of the poor faces many challenges. There is state repression. There are attempts at co-option by political parties. There are ratepayers and property owners’ associations that want to evict us from the spaces that they think are only for them. There are also those forces that try to bring movements into civil society and its logic. There is also the regressive left with its 'rule it or ruin it' approach to poor people's movements. There are shack lords, landlords, traditional leaders and criminals. There is the politics of ethnicity. There are men that don’t respect women’s leadership. We have to resist all these forms of repression, regression and co-option. We have to stay close to the everyday lives and struggles of our members. At the same time we have to engage the state, some NGOs and the courts to win real victories for our members while keeping our autonomy, and holding on to our vision of a just and equal society, a vision that is much bigger than 'service delivery'.

But our movements do not only face challenges and forces that must be confronted from the outside. Some of these forces also appear within our movements. A number of movements have faced serious crises recently including movements that we have worked with closely. The AEC, LPM and APF have all faced serious problems. There are many causes for this crisis. Comrades get worn down. The stresses of repression often cause comrades to panic and to fight amongst themselves. Comrades can get co-opted by NGOs or political parties. Sometimes very brave comrades who have done amazing things start to think that because of their years of commitment they have a right to be in charge. Sometimes they come under serious pressure from their families because after years of struggling they have nothing for their own families. Sometimes the way in which the media and some donors and NGOs individualize movements has contributed to some of these problems. Sometimes the politics of ethnicity or individual ambition enter movements.

Our movement has often been asked to mediate or advise when other movements have fallen into crisis. We believe that where possible it is always better to work towards unity and that no one should be judged without having a right to present their own side of the story. We believe that it is important to be careful to stick to the proven facts and to avoid gossip. We believe that we all make mistakes and that there must be space to acknowledge mistakes, to learn from them and to move forward. We believe that when comrades with a real record of commitment have made mistakes we must work to bring them back to the true spirit of their movements. We believe that the movements of the poor should not be judged by what people from outside say. We note that NGOs and academics that are angry because movements don't follow their orders have a long history of trying to undermine these movements by gossip, lies and even supporting the state against us and writing academic articles that are just not true. They feel that they have a right to say, in public, whatever they like about people that are poor and black without any evidence. This is not our politic.

All movements will face serious problems at times. We do not believe that movements should be judged because problems arise. We believe that movements should be judged on how they deal with these problems.

Many people have been asking Abahlali in KwaZulu-Natal why it is so different from Abahlali in the Western Cape. To set the record straight, sometime after Abahlali started in KZN in 2005, there was a call from some people in the Western Cape to have a similar kind of struggle under the leadership of Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement S.A. In KwaZulu-Natal it had been difficult to keep the movement together between Durban and places like Pietermaritzburg and Howick. The way that we organise and keep our togetherness is by being together, discussing together and deciding together and distance makes this difficult. Cape Town is even further away. It is a 25 hour bus trip away. Also politics are different in each province. For instance KZN is an ANC led province like 8 other provinces in South Africa but the Western Cape is a DA led province.

We therefore agreed that each province will be independent from each other and have its own autonomy but that each province would work under the same constitution. This meant that the Western Cape would elect its own leadership, decided on its own campaigns and strategies. It also means that each province would manage its own resources independently. Therefore AbM in the Western Cape would be a separate but allied structure that could avoid control of any sort by AbM-KZN. The leadership in KZN is only elected by the members in KZN and the leadership in the Western Cape is only elected by the members in the Western Cape.

We facilitated the launch of Abahlali Western Cape and even sent a delegation to make sure that transparency and democracy prevailed. We were satisfied with the kind of leadership that emerged at that time. We wish to thank the entire comrades who were brave to lead the struggle forward from then. We have no doubt that all the gains won by Abahlali Western Cape were the result of their commitment to equality, justice and democracy. There were many campaigns that were undertaken with courage and strong support from the members. The Right to the City campaign was very popular.

However recently some of the members in Cape Town have approached AbM in KZN to express concern at some developments in the movement in Cape Town. We elected a delegation of some of our best activists to make the 25 hour trip to Cape Town and spoke to many of our members there. We do not want to judge any individuals without them having a chance to explain their side of the story. And we do not wish to take over the organisation in Cape Town. It must continue to elect its own leaders. However after visiting Cape Town we do feel that we have not done enough to advocate and strengthen the philosophy of Abahlalism due to distance between two provinces. Our own struggle to survive repression in Durban has taken a lot of our time and energies.

Abahlalism has taught us to be more humane, to be honest, to care for others and to work with others without creating a dependence syndrome. The living politic stress that we don’t struggle for communities but with communities. It stresses that there will be nothing for communities without communities. It stresses that all leaders must be elected and that they can be recalled at any time (following due process) if there is concern about their leadership style. The living politics rejects any individualism against collectivism.

After visiting Cape Town we wish to acknowledge that in some instances this philosophy of Abahlalism has been somehow been lost in the way. We note that many good things have been done there and that there are many members who still believe in the movement. However it is clear that there has to be a healing in the movement in Cape Town.

There has been a clear demand from a large number of members in Cape Town that AbM in KZN must support the movement in Cape Town in this healing. We have agreed to do this and have put a process in place. This process will give everyone a chance to express their views, will make no judgments without evidence and will be aimed at strengthening Abahlalism and Abahlali in Cape Town.

We wish to assure all the comrades’ and friends of Abahlali that the movement is working on strengthening the philosophy of Abahlalism in both provinces and everywhere that Abahlali exists.

Abahlali of the WC will elect an interim structure to take this process forward at 10:00 am on Saturday on the 21 April at QQ section in Khayelitsha. Abahlali in KZN will be sending two delegates to support this process.


Mnikelo Ndabankulu: 081 309 5485

Bandile Mdlalose: 071 424 2815

Mr. TJ Ngongoma: 084 613 9772