Black Looks Blog: Abahlali baseMjondolo

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Abahlali baseMjondolo
on March 23, 2007
Category: South Africa, Social Movements

Whilst in Durban I met with the newly formed Women’s League of the Abahlali baseMjondolo (Shack Dwellers’) Movement which, although it has members across the province of KwaZulu-Natal, has its strongest base firmly concentrated in Durban.

Members of the newly formed Women’s League of the The Abahlali baseMjondolo (Shack Dwellers) Movement based in Durban spoke about their lives and their struggle against eviction, corruption and the right to housing, water and other basic amenities. I found a group of strong women who despite living with domestic violence, unemployment, rape and HIV were determined to stand their ground and in the daily fight against Durban municipalities, councillors and local businessmen for the right to live with dignity. Their biggest problem was unemployment and all desperately wanted to find ways to create their own incomes as paid labour was even more difficult to get than self-employment. Many of the women collected materials for recycling but they wanted to set up their own recycling business such as making glasses out of bottles and consumer products from tins and cans but to do this they need money to buy the special equipment and of course training. They had access to small pieces of land that they could use for vegetable gardens but even though they had been allocated some equipment by the local government they had not received it and did not expect to receive it so the only alternative was to use their hands to work the garden. Some of the women had set up a feeding scheme for the very poor members of their community which worked by those who could afford to give something contributing pap and other food stuffs when they could and sharing the preparation and cooking.

Motala Heights.

The Shack dwellers in Motala Heights settlement (in the nearby industrial town of Pine Town) are 100% Abahlali and were very organised. There is also a very poor Indian community adjacent to the settlement and this group are themselves becoming organised and are working with Abahlali in Motala Heights in one big Abahlali branch the includes the shack settlement and the tiny houses. The situation here is that the shacks were supposed to be upgraded but a local business man, Ricky Govender wants to build housing for middle class Indians. He is now trying to evict the present shack dwellers and people in tin houses (Africans and Indians) so that he can go ahead with his plans to “upgrade the area” and remove the criminals i.e. the poor. It is against the law to evict shack dwellers but with corruption rife, businessman are able to circumvent the law and evictions do take place unless the residents are prepared to stand their ground and fight back. Although it is illegal to evict residents, it is also illegal to build new shacks.


Forced Evictions

The government is building box houses on the rural periphery of the city to re house the shack dwellers and presenting this as a form of progressive action. The reality is that it is a form of apartheid the only difference being that single women are also allocated housing. People are being forced to move into these small box houses which are being built way out of town far from transport with no schools, clinics or other infrastructure. There is no employment hope in these places so how are people supposed to live? Another issue is that many shacks are shared by more than one family – why so? Because the allocations go to one “family” to one new house. But since shacks house more than one family the one that remains or is not part of the “rehousing scheme” is then made homeless and has to then seek another family to share with and so the cycle continues. Sometimes whole generations of one or two or even three families are sharing the space – it is inhumane and undignified for all. A further issue is that in some cases families are having to pay bribes to get on the rehousing list and then they find even then they are still not allocated housing which adds to the bitterness and hostility towards the local government officials.

Sibu Zikode is the President of The Abahlali and he is a living expression of the movement. Calm determined, focused and committed. The basis of the success of Abahlali are all these things. Yes they are angry at the betrayal of the post apartheid government, at the dehumanizing of their lives and the trickery of business and local councillors but it is not a wild anger. It is a focused liberating anger.

Sibu lives in the Kennedy Road Settlement which has been in existence for 30 years but still the government insists on calling it a temporary settlement which is a way of denying the people basic services. For example in 2002 the present ANC government stopped electrifying the settlements. There are only 5 toilets and 5 standpipes for a population of some 7000. Denying the community these basic needs is a way of marginalising them as well as attempting to remove them from their homes. They are not moving. The movement to mobilize the whole settlement community started following a series of Marches by the Kennedy Road people and was joined by other surrounding settlements that at the time all had local based organising committees. But it was following the denial of their promised land that led to the formation of The Abahlali starting with 14 settlements and now there are 34 altogether associated with the movement.

The success of the movement is due to the committed collective leadership, the bravery of everyone to defend their rights and the fact that there is a sense of unity and ownership of their community – there are no NGOs, academics or any other group that speaks for the Abahlali – they speak for themselves – elect themselves and struggle for themselves.

The people of Kennedy Road do not want to move to a new location outside the city. There is land next door to them that was promised to them and then sold to a local business man. They want their land to be redeveloped so they have access to schools, health and employment.

The ANC has betrayed the masses of people, the poor, the vulnerable and most needy sections of South African society both in the urban and in the rural areas. HIV and AIDS are lived experiences for everyone in these areas. As someone said to me – we in the townships, the informal settlements, the rural areas all live with HIV – no one has friends, relatives and family who are either positive or who have died of AIDS – it is everywhere sometimes openly sometimes secretly amongst us but it is there and it speaks loudly.

The people of the informal settlements feel betrayed, angry and frustrated by the present leadership after the struggle for liberation but this has made them stronger and more determined. They intend to use the very same tactics and strategies of the anti-apartheid movement to continue and win their own struggle for dignity. Ironically it was the Apartheid government that build the one concrete structure in the Kennedy Road settlement and the concrete steps in the nearby Foreman Road settlement.

The Abahlali baseMjondolo movement is living proof that when the the organized poor start speaking for themselves it creates a serious crisis. No one not the NGOs, the Government or various middle class left sects want the poor to speak for themselves. NGOs overtly and or covertly try by all means to undermine movements of the poor and co-opt the struggle for their own selfish purposes to the point where you find that there is little difference between them and the State itself.

I would like to thank all the activists from the The Abahlali baseMjondolo movement who spoke with me, invited me into their community and shared with me their trust and their struggle and dreams for the future.

Shackdwellers + Durban