Building Hope & Defending Dignity in the Rural Areas

Colloquium on Rural Development in KwaZulu-Natal
13-14 June 2013

Building Hope & Defending Dignity in the Rural Areas

S'bu Zikode, Abahlali baseMjondolo

Some politicians have spoken about migration from rural areas to cities as if it is a criminal matter. Others have said that people from the Eastern Cape are undermining development by coming to Durban and Cape Town. It has even been said that migration to the cities is a matter that must be investigated by the intelligence services as if it is part of some big conspiracy.

The position of our movement is that South Africa belongs to all who live in it and so we all have the same right to move to any part of the country. If a young person from Babanango or Flagstaff wants to move to Durban because she wants to live in the city that is her right and it is a right that we will defend.

However it is true that many people would prefer to stay in rural areas but decide to move to cities because they have no other choice. If there is no economic opportunity, no education and no political freedom many people will feel that they have no choice but to leave rural areas. But if rural areas and cities can both be developed in a democratic manner, putting people before profit, then we will start to have real choice about where and how we want to live.

Our movement has its base in the cities and towns. We are struggling for the right to the cities – to live in the cities, for land and housing in the cities, and to be able to shape the cities from below. But many of our members come from rural areas and we work closely with the Rural Network in KwaZulu-Natal.

This is a colloquium on rural development. We have learnt to be very suspicious of this word ‘development’. For us it means land, housing, water, electricity and schools. For some other people it means that we must be evicted from the cities, left homeless or taken to the human dumping grounds outside the cities so that shopping malls or factories can be built where our shacks were. We have learnt that if development is defined without us it will not be for us.

It is clear to us that there are three very important issues when it comes to rural development. They are land, democracy and opportunity. Secure access to land comes before questions of production. There is a real difficulty that comes when we all continue to pretend that the issue of land is not political. Until we accept that the issue of land is political we will continue to add more and more confusion. We need serious land reform that will put land in the hands of the people. We do not want to replace big white commercial farmers with big black commercial farmers. We don’t want to see good agricultural land going to rich people and politicians to be used as weekend homes. We want to see big land holdings broken up and shared between the landless poor. We do not believe that land should be a treated as a commodity. The social value of land must come before its commercial value in the cities and in the rural areas.
It is clear that there is not enough agricultural land in South Africa for everyone to make a living from the land. But it is also clear that the agricultural land that we do have is not fairly distributed. The trend of sprawling growth in our rural areas shows that we will have even less agricultural land in the near future. It may be worth considering systematic rural development planning, development projects and decentralizing access to all socioeconomic amenities so that a new planning for a new and more just era may begin. But without fair debates and open spaces for such conversations by all, and at all levels, this may not be achieved or, if it is achieved, it may not be achieved in a way that is just.

Many rural people are still waiting for democracy. Some are living on white farms where the farmers don’t even recognise them as human beings. When you are not even recognised as a human being you can’t be a citizen. Some are living under traditional leaders that are oppressive. We need a serious campaign to democratise the rural areas. Traditional leadership must be respected but it needs to be democratised. It needs to be transparent. In some areas the relationship between traditional leader and councillors is a cause for concern. This is very clear in eMangangeni, KwaNdengezi, where the councillor acts like a gangster and disrespects the Inkosi who is respected and trusted by his people. In every rural area all men and women should be able to participate freely in decision making and no councillor or traditional leader should be able to intimidate or oppress the people. Democratizing rural areas will enable democracy for everyone, a democracy from below that will make it possible for people to fully participate in defining and taking forward development without fear or favour.

Most young people do not see opportunities for themselves in rural areas. Cities are seen as places of hope and rural areas as places of waiting and waiting for nothing while life slips through your fingers. As bad as the shacks in the cities are they are seen by many people as places of hope compared to rural areas. This is because economic and educational opportunities are much better in cities. This is one reason why people are fighting so hard to occupy and hold land in the cities. We need a serious programme to bring life and energy to rural towns. People must be able to study and to access economic opportunities in these places. We need to see serious reform of our budgeting to direct more money to rural towns. Small rural towns should become economic harbors for rural communities.

Many people agree that what went very wrong in our society was when business profit was put ahead of human value. Some will accept that this means that the social value of land, urban and rural, must come before its commercial value. But the other big mistake that we made in our society was when we decided that development was only the job of the few clever technical people who are meant to think about development for the majority. We do not accept this. Development must be democratised. Grassroots organisations such as Abahlali baseMjondolo are strongly opposed to this top-down approach to development that sees people as nothing else than helpless individuals who cannot think for themselves. In this view the work of the poor is to vote when we are told and then to be passive receivers of services the rest of the time.

One cannot begin any meaningful discussion of the rural crisis while the poor continue to be excluded from the conversations that are meant to build a new rural order that is for all. This discussion can only begin once the dispossessed, those who do not count, start to count. We decided long ago not to accept the situation where some people talk about the poor and even for the poor without ever speaking to the poor. We have paid a serious price for this decision but we will always stick to it.

There is no doubt that the work of the intellectuals, rural and town planners, engineers, architects and other professionals is critical. We do need their skills. But for as long as they remain on their own their knowledge is very fragile. We need to plan our rural future together. I remain convinced that if all the work of the rural experts is done in isolation from the poor, those who are meant to benefit from it, then it will not solve the problem. The first problem is that despite all their education the experts are often really ignorant of the real needs of the people. The second problem is that expert ideas, even good ideas that fit with the needs of the people, have no power on their own. An idea can only move into the world and start to reshape the world when it has a living force behind it. An idea that is worked out between the organised poor and rural experts will have a living force behind it when the organised poor accept it as their own.

Some of us have already lost our homes in the land of our birth as our punishment for struggling to access the well-located urban lands. It has been very evident to us that well-located urban land will never be brought before us by aircraft, but by sweat, beatings, arrests, lies, water cannons, firing of live ammunition and even death. This is also the price which those who are serious about the prize of A New Rural Order must be prepared to pay.

Of all the people in society the demands of the poor are the most legitimate and the most reasonable because we are living in the worst conditions. The demands of those with the most money and power are the least legitimate. Logic as well as justice is on the side of our struggle to put the will of the many against the will of the few which is the only way to turn our imaginings of a new rural and urban order into reality.
What will really help us is when the state, experts and civil society learn to speak to us and not for us, when they learn to think with us and not for us, when they learn to work with and not for communities. We understand very well that this learning by the state, experts and civil society will not happen for as long as the poor remain weak. For this reason we continue to see the organistion of the poor, for the poor and by the poor as the only road to a future where the dignity of all people is respected.