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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.

The Criminalization of the Poor

The Dark Continent: The Criminalization of the Poor

Abahlali baseMjondolo or the Shack Dwellers movement began almost six years ago in Durban, South Africa. Abahlali has become (according to their website) the “largest organization of the poor” in post-apartheid South Africa. The organization was solidified through their first protest. This protest was a “road blockade organized from the Kennedy Road settlement” to speak out against the sale of an area that was promised by local government to the shack dwellers for housing. Through Abahlali, which is the largest representation of the poor in South Africa, we can explore in more depth how the poor are treated in society. I will use S’bu Zikode’s article on The Third Force to detail the conditions and struggle that poor people experience in on a regular basis. With this article we can examine and determine exactly how the poor are criminalized.

S’Bu begins his article by explaining what his definition of the “Third Force” is and then highlights the social experience of poor people in South Africa. This article is in response to government officials, politicians, and intellectuals that have tried to dismiss the protests of Abahlali and label them as the “Third Force.” S’bu alludes to the class differences that prohibit these various people from understanding the reality of the poor people’s experience in South Africa.

S’bu writes, “They are too high to really feel what we feel. They always want to talk for us and about us but they must allow us to talk about our lives and our struggles.” His words emphasize the class divide. This is a divide that is no longer based on race, but is now centered around an economic context. These same groups of privilege are now directly trying to criminalize the poor, by categorizing them as the Third Force. Traditionally the concept of the Third Force has a very negative representation in South African history. The ANC used this term in the apartheid era to refer to the surge of violence against mostly poor black people who were struggling for freedom. In a Truth and Reconciliation document put out in 2003, they refer to the “Third Force” as a group of people whose actions are fomenting violence which results in gross human rights violations, including random and target killings. It is both unfortunate and ironic that black politicians were trying to associate Abahlali, a group that is fighting for equality, with the concept of the Third Force. However, S’bu very intelligently flips the idea of the Third Force and uses the inverse to highlight the conditions of the poor.

S’bu proclaims that he is the Third Force and then says that the Third Force is “all the pain and the suffering that the poor are subjected to every second in our lives.” S’bu speaks for the shack dwellers movement as he goes onto highlight the social conditions of the poor and explain how “the life that we [the shack dwellers] are living makes our communities the third force.” These communities that S’bu speaks of do not have proper housing, water, electricity, or toilets. These conditions breed disease and make it impossible for people to sleep in their houses when it rains. S’bu goes into even more detail as he explains that the evening should be a time for people to relax, but how in these communities the people cannot relax because people stay awake worrying about their lives and the “rats that run across small babies in the night.” These are conditions that mold the desperation of poor people to struggle to build their own political space.

The municipality of the area promised to give them land for housing. But the local officials [specifically the director of housing and the ward councilor near Kennedy road] “lied to” the poor people in the neighborhood and started to bulldoze the shacks that they lived in. The shacks were being bulldozed to create a brick factory for white business men.

Abahlali’s response to these lies, is to protest. S’bu argues that the municipality does not “listen” to them when they speak in Zulu or English. He explains that government officials and decision makers only understand one language and that is the language of protest. S’bu goes onto to say that these groups who are in power begin to understand and results only come when “we put thousands of people on the street. It is the only tool that we have to emancipate our people.” However, there is another aspect to this protest. The backlash to this protest is the direct criminalization of the poor. S’bu contends that the shack dwellers have gotten wiser from their past experience and they now understand that the people in power are going to criminalize their actions to keep them quiet. He contends that “when you want to achieve what is legitimate by peaceful negotiations, by humbleness, by respecting those in authority your plea becomes criminal.” This criminalization is not just a theory in S’bu’s article, but we see this process acted out amongst the poor who speak out. The criminalization of the poor in South Africa occurred when the very same ward councilor told the police to “arrest these people, they are criminals.” These were the people who were trying to keep their houses, the people who struggle to stay dry when it rains, and the very same people who were lied to by the municipals of the area. Now when those people do not allow their houses to be bulldozed the police were sent to beat them, their dogs were sent to bite them, and more than a dozen people were arrested. Here we see the blatant criminalization of poor people.

I do not agree with violent protest, but I do know that protest here in South Africa is very powerful. Like nothing I have experienced in the states. There is a freshness to the power people feel when gathering together. A freshness that has unfortunately gotten stale in the States. Amandla. Ngawethu.

Who Are You? “We Are The Poor”

This is for the mother in Langa that walked three blocks to boil water over an open fire, not in her house, but near her house to cook for her children. This is for the child on the south side of Chicago that takes a bus and two trains twice a day to get an education that only half guarantees him to get into a college that he will be properly prepared to attend. This is for the teacher in DC and the teacher in Khayelitsha, who are underpaid, overworked, and not appreciated. This is for the Guguletu Seven, who were murdered in the name of protest. This is for Fred Hampton, who was murdered in the name of protest. This if for the torn down bathrooms built in South African townships that had no walls, of respectability. This is for the burnt tires and the lit mattresses that become symbols of the lack of water, and healthcare, and education that is received by those who are marginalized in communities that have been forgotten in the minds politicians between election periods.

Who shot first? The Uprising of Hangberg

Click here for more information on this film.

Who shot first? The uprising of Hangberg
October 27, 2010

“Who shot first?” That’s the pivotal question in Dylan Valley and Aryan Kaganof’s The uprising of Hangberg , screened last night at Labia on Orange.

The documentary presents overwhelming evidence that metro police used unwarranted force when they arrived in Hangberg on Tuesday, 21 September, to demolish informal houses built on a fire break.

The film uses a series of interviews to argue that the police violated standard procedure by aiming at people’s heads. A number of bystanders lost an eye as a result of rubber bullets. One of them describes to the camera how they aimed at his face at close range.

The impression I got from the media a month ago was quite different. I knew that clashes between the police and Hangberg residents took place but it seemed to me that the law was sorting out a group of troublemakers. To get an impression of how the same event can be portrayed in different accounts, compare this article with this one.

It’s an issue of objectivity and it’s hard deciding from whose side to see it. Valley and Kaganof portray the police as the aggressors while most of the news articles I read portrayed the protestors as the guilty party. This series of photographs on news24 is more sympathetic to the police. Notice for instance how the caption for image 11 states that “the policed fire[d] rubber bullets in retaliation”. The Uprising of Hangberg shows that residents retaliated with rocks after being shot at.

At one stage in the documentary, they slow down footage taken moments before the police started firing. We see people walking down the hill to meet the police. They do not appear hostile and they are not throwing rocks. The footage cuts then, for some reason, to seconds later. The police are firing rubber bullets and residents are running in different directions. It’s not clear whether the editor removed the in-between footage because it weakened the “police shot first” argument, or whether it was lost because the camera wasn’t recording.

What does seem clear though is that the police arrived with a hostile attitude. The documentary shows a series of witnesses that say the police used abusive language. A pregnant girl is shown crying because a police officer slapped her. A 14 year old boy alleges that police assaulted, detained and threatened him with a firearm aimed at his balls.

The documentary asserts that Helen Zille should be held responsible for the human rights violations that took place in Hangberg. It ends with a call for her to step down as premier of the Western Cape. If more people see “The uprising of Hangberg” it could be a serious blow to her reputation. It could be her Fahrenheit 9/11, though that didn’t stop Bush from getting reelected.

I’ve been a Helen Zille supporter for the last few years, but it’s hard for me to reconcile the events of Hangberg with her image as a champion of justice. An interview shows that she’s taken quite a dismissive stance to the issue. She argues that it’s actually a small group of Rastas causing trouble and preventing peaceful negotiation. When she said this, it reminded me of an angle the apartheid government used to take. They used to say that township protests are caused by a small group of communist agitators that do not reflect the will of the people. We now know that that was propaganda, but it’s an argument that can be quite appealing.

It’s easier for us to dismiss the brutality if we say that they’re just a bunch of Rastas, drug dealers or “zimbabwean style land grabbers”. But the documentary gives reason to believe that it’s not just criminals, but a whole community that is upset. In one scene, the filmmaker proves that residents who lost their eye were falsely labeled as rock-throwing protestors. He shows a newspaper article that erroneously identifies people with eye injuries as rock-throwers in another photograph. The director seeks out the rock-thrower and injured man to show that they are completely different people.

I’m worried, however, about ethnic mobilization in the film. Some of the residents argue that they have a right to live there because they are Khoisan and the land belongs to their forefathers. In the same way that the Afrikaners created the mythology of the Great Trek to claim ownership of the land, one resident says he has a right to live on Hangberg because the mountain resembles the face of his ancestor. I realize that this sort of thinking can inspire people, but I don’t think it’s right way to go.

When residents assert ownership based on an ethnic identity and proudly say that they’ll only leave to the graveyard, it gets dodgy. That type of thinking leads to the type of conflict seen with Israel/Palestine. Hangberg should be an issue of human rights not ethnic rights. The events that took place on 21 September may be investigated and declared a violation of human rights, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Update: For more on the “Khoisan nation” idea, as well as its flaws, read this piece by Patric Tariq Mellet

The Revolutionary Potential of Social Scum

The Revolutionary Potential of Social Scum

by Phil Dickens

Media pundits, politicians, and the outraged chattering classes often go on about the “underclass.”

Faced with levels of crime, poverty, and social anger that they are neither willing nor able to understand, the term is one of blame and accusation. It’s a useful catch-all for the long-term unemployed, welfare recipients, the homeless, petty criminals, drug addicts, and those who operate on the black economy. These are the people dragging us down, keeping us from success and prosperity with their listless criminal ways.

These attitudes have become particularly prevalent in the past few weeks, over the actions of Raoul Moat and the cult following he had gained on the internet.

Commenting on this, I cited Phil from A Very Public Sociologist, on the press’ snobbery towards “a barely coherent sense of dislocation, frustration, and despair that impotently kicks against ‘official’ society” which served as “an unwelcome reminder of the social refuse British capitalism produces generation after generation.”

The question that arises from this is what, if anything, we can do to alter this situation. Capitalism has borne an entire strata of people who live at the bottom of the pile, seemingly without hope or prospects, and that needs to be addressed. Not in some future, classless utopia where the problem is already solved, but in the present day with real people.

The traditional Marxist reaction to these people, in their terms the lumpenproletariat, has been one of fear and scorn.

Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, in the preamble of The Communist Manifesto, refer to them as the “dangerous class, the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society.” To them, “its conditions of life … prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.”

Leon Trotsky, in Fascism: What it is and how to fight it, saw “all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy” as “the bands of [the] declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat” who serve the interests of the fascists.

There is some truth in this analysis. Certainly, as I wrote in Anti-fascism in the 21st century, “a popular and growing fascist movement quite clearly contains a significant number of quite ordinary working class people who have for one reason or another thrown their lot in with the far-right.” However, whereas I stated that “unless we want to bow to snobbery, we cannot simply write this off as proof that the “lower classes” are all simply vile racists,” Trotsky simply lumped them in with the petty bourgeois as an army of spies and collaborators for fascism.

Marx, likewise, saw them as the group who would never achieve class consciousness. Not only useless in revolutionary struggle, they provided a power base for the ruling class, a point he argued in relation to Louis Bonaparte and the defeat of the 1848 revolution in Naples.

Such attitudes persevere today, with the domination of the antifascist movement by the middle class and the apparent laziness of the working class or their unwillingness to take certain jobs being the main argument against the right-wing stance on immigration. In other words, “all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy” have been written off.

This is entirely consistent with the Marxist attitude towards class struggle.

Mikhail Bakunin argued in On the International Workingmen’s Association and Karl Marx that “the upper layer, the aristocracy of labor, those who are the most cultured, who earn more and live more comfortably than all the other workers” are “unfortunately only too deeply saturated with all the political and social prejudices and all the narrow aspirations and pretensions of the bourgeoisie.” Thus, they are “the least social and the most individualist.”

Yet, “precisely this semi-bourgeois layer of workers would, if the Marxists had their way, constitute their fourth governing class.” He saw this as an inevitability “if the great mass of the proletariat does not guard against it.” Indeed, I have previously made the point that history proved him right.

In contrast to the Marxist view, Bakunin places the greatest potential in “that great mass, those millions of the uncultivated, the disinherited, the miserable, the illiterates, whom Messrs. Engels and Marx would subject to their paternal rule by a strong government – naturally for the people’s own salvation!”

It is “that eternal “meat” (on which governments thrive), that great rabble of the people (underdogs, “dregs of society”) ordinarily designated by Marx and Engels in the picturesque and contemptuous phrase Lumpenproletariat” who are “almost unpolluted by bourgeois civilization” and so carry “all the seeds of the socialism of the future.”

This is not merely conjecture. Concrete examples abound wherein the “dregs of society” have organised themselves to resist the injustices of capitalism, and they offer a concrete example to others in similar situations.

In South Africa, the end of Apartheid and emergence of a social democratic government did not bring about an end to economic inequality. As of 2010, there remains an enormous proportion of the population consigned to shacks and shanty towns, a fact highlighted when many were evicted in the run-up to the world cup. This in the context of increasing state violence against the homeless and the urban poor.

It is within this climate that the shack-dwellers have defied low Marxist expectations, organising not one but three influential grassroots organisations;

Over the last couple of years, Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), an organisation of shack-dwellers from Durban, claimed some remarkable victories for participatory democracy. In 2006, using the Promotion for the Access to Information Act, AbM compelled their municipality to disclose plans for the city’s informal settlements and its housing budget. In February 2009, after tough negotiations with eThekwini, they reached agreement that the ‘clearance’ of the ‘slums’ they live in, would follow principles of in situ upgrading rather than relocation outside city limits. In October 2009, the Constitutional Court upheld AbM’s application that the Kwazulu-Natal Slums Act invited arbitrary evictions and thus declared it unconstitutional.

Yet, the movement’s latest victory was announced in the hour of its greatest affliction. On 26 September, AbM’s strongest base, the Kennedy Road settlement, was attacked by armed militia, apparently acting with the support of local ANC structures. In the aftermath, houses of AbM supporters have been destroyed, 13 members imprisoned and death threats forced its leaders into hiding (see article ‘The attacks on Kennedy Road’). Amnesty international has expressed concern over “the apparent unwillingness of the relevant authorities in investigating these crimes” and official comments, which “could have the effect of inappropriately criminalising a whole organization and making its members vulnerable to threats of violence”.

How comes that a social movement, which has merely used the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution, has attracted so much hatred? Why is it not protected by the State, which is supposed to defend the same freedoms?

Popular social movements like AbM, the Landless People’s Movement in Johannesburg and the Anti-eviction Campaign in Cape Town pose a serious challenge to the ruling party because of their refusal to vote. Since they adopted the slogan ‘No Land! No House! No Vote!’ they have been subjected to all kinds of state repression, ranging from the ban of marches to illegal police assault and detention.

AbM’s radical position did not emerge overnight. For years Kennedy Road had sent representatives to meetings with government. Confrontation started in March 2005 when shack dwellers found out that land they had been promised by their ward councillor and senior officials was developed for a brick-making factory. People embarked on road blocks and mass demonstrations, which soon gained support from other settlements across the city. ANC and government officials reacted angrily. Some suspected opposition parties to incite the poor; some blamed academics at the University of Kwazulu-Natal (UKZN); others spoke of a ‘Third Force’.

In November 2005, S’bu Zikode, the elected chairperson of Abahlali baseMjondolo, responded to these accusations in a newspaper article, which drew enormous attention as it was re-published by mass market magazines and quoted on South African television as well as by the New York Times, the Economist and Al Jazeera:

“The Third Force is all the pain and the suffering that the poor are subjected to every second in our lives. … Those in power are blind to our suffering. … My appeal is that leaders … must come and stay at least one week in the jondolos. They must feel the mud. They must share 6 toilets with 6 000 people. They must dispose of their own refuse while living next to the dump. … They must chase away the rats and keep the children from knocking the candles. They must care for the sick when there are long queues for the tap. … They must be there when we bury our children who have passed on in the fires, from diarrhoea or AIDS.”

Over the years, many intellectuals assisted the shack dwellers movement but it is a misconception that they have formed it. One of the first who went to Kennedy Road and got involved was political scientist Richard Pithouse: “The key factor (for the movement’s success) is that Kennedy Road had developed a profoundly democratic political culture and organization, years before they blockaded the road.” Until 2005, many who later joined AbM were organised in ANC structures. Initial protests were not intended to trigger a break from the ruling party. Pithouse is sure: “The radical opposition was forced on the activists because the party responded with police force instead of engaging with their demands.”

Impressed by the integrity of Sbu Zikode and other shack dwellers and the ideas they expressed, people like Pithouse helped them get in contact with human rights lawyers who would defend those arrested during the protests, and the Freedom of Expression Institute, which asserted their right to march.

The main demand of the movement was always land or housing close to working opportunities, schools and clinics. Assisted by the Cape Town-based NGO Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC), AbM used the law to get access to the official plans for their areas. Plans confirmed that the municipality basically aimed at the demolition of shacks and people’s relocation to the periphery. The threat of eviction mobilised even more people to support the movement.

Since their ward councillor wouldn’t resign, shack dwellers effectively started to govern themselves and gradually gained recognition by government departments. The Kennedy Road Development Committee started to issue letters confirming residence, which are needed to access social grants. AbM managed to marginalise politicians and negotiate directly with state officials about the installation of public toilets, issues of policing and disaster relief after shack fires. Clearly, this was made possible by the pressure created through mass mobilisation and skilful media work.

Repeated arrests and police violence against the movement’s leaders, evictions and fire disasters in several shack settlements did not break its momentum. Throughout 2006 and 2007, AbM organised marches against the Ethekwini municipality, which privileged middle class housing, office and entertainment parks. Faced with shack dwellers’ determination and growing embarrassment over the fatalities caused by shack fires, the Metro started to negotiate.

Project Preparation Trust (PPT), a service provider facilitating housing projects on behalf of government, was mandated to find a consensus. AbM seized the opportunity but did not compromise its commitment to grassroots democracy. When PPT requested the nomination of two negotiators, this was rejected. Abahlali insisted that each of the 14 affiliated settlements could send 2 representatives. Representatives had no mandate to make decisions during negotiations. Hence, each proposal had to be brought back and discussed in the respective community. AbM even sent ‘less prominent’ people in order to broaden the knowledge about the process. For political scientist Pithouse this is fascinating stuff: “AbM deliberately works with a delay through participation. They embark on ‘slow politics’ to ensure that all members of the community are part of decisions.”

These movements in South Africa are not the only examples of lumpen organisation. New York’s Movement for Justice in El Barrio, Take Back the Land in Miami, and the Brazilian Homeless Workers’ Movement are just a few of the better known examples.

The groups have varying degrees of success, as well as varying degrees to which they fit the ideal of self-organisation built from below. But what is clear is that all of them defy Marx’s stereotype of a “passively rotting mass.” They are refuse, in the sense that they have been tossed away by the economic system of capitalism and their own societies, but rather than being complacent about this they are organised to fight it.

In Britain, such people are in “the social reservoir from which the BNP and EDL fish, that gave us Kerry Katona and Jade Goody,” to use the Sociologist’s words. But they are so not by nature, but because they have nowhere else to turn.

The growth of the English Defence League is a case in point on this. It is a reactionary organisation, which offers no viable solution to the problems of the working class and the long-term unemployed. But it purports to offer a solution to something, which is more than anybody else is giving them. The fact that a social group which has all but detached itself from the electoral and political process goes to the polls or to the streets for the far-right should instantly dispel the common stereotype of those at the bottom of the social pyramid as apathetic or apolitical.

But it be equally fallacious to infer from this any inherent reactionary tendency. As I said before, it is the fact that the fascists are the alternative that gives them their appeal, rather than what they stand for. The successes of the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) and the London Coalition Against Poverty (LCAP), amongst others, show the potential of groups which do not simply tap into the discontent of the “underclass,” but act upon it and fight for improvement.

The point is that, if we condemn all those at the bottom of the pile as racists, reactionaries, and listless scum, then with no other outlet the realities of their social condition will make them just that. We can keep them as our entertainment on the Jeremy Kyle show, the objects of our moral opprobrium in the Sun and the Daily Mail, and the villains of the piece in the BNP and the EDL.

But if we abandon one of the groups hit hardest by capitalism in this manner, all we succeed in doing is displaying our irrelevance to the reality of class struggle. Capitalism is consigning people to the scrap heap every day, and if we want to challenge that we need to be involved in organising those people, not pouring scorn upon them.

Tokyo Sexwale among the shack dwellers

Tokyo Sexwale among the shack dwellers

by Pumla Dineo Gqola

The business mogul, ex-guerilla, ex Premier of Gauteng Province, Tokyo Sexwale spent a night in an informal settlement recently as the South African media has been telling us ad nauseam over the last few days. Sexwale is now the Minister of Human Settlements. This blog-post is not about what a terrible title that is, even though, it never fails to conjure up beings from elsewhere in the universe looking at planet earth and engineering/studying settlement patterns, much like old fashioned anthropologists, I imagine. Very unfortunate choice of name.

Anyway, the Minister’s overnight adventure is quite an oddity as far as I am concerned. I will declare in advance, that sorting out housing must be one of the hardest portfolios of the new democracy for various reasons. First, there are ever growing numbers of people in urban areas, so no matter how many houses you build, more people will arrive maintaining the high demand for houses and other accommodation to be built. Then there is the complicated business of who is in the queue, who should be on the waiting list, who is renting out his RDP house, and so on. That’s before we think other infrastructural challenges like water, electricity and so forth, and that’s before we even really talk about the issues of ownership and displacement of people in rural and peri-urban areas.

I have considerable sympathies for the civil servants in the Housing and Human Settlement departments and units all over the country. Or most of them. But I have bigger sympathies for the people who don’t have homes that allow them to take safety, water, electricity and access to roads for granted.

Sexwale has a tough ministry. But his latest little publicity stunt is nothing short of odd. What exactly does it achieve? Does he have a better understanding of what people have to deal with when they live in informal housing? What is he – the expert now – after spending the night in a mkhukhu? Does that matter to anyone except him? What can he know in one night that he has failed to recognise even as it is common knowledge?

I am not convinced that this is anything more than a publicity stunt because something more sinister has to be going on for me to believe that the Sexwale does not know what a dire situation confronts people who live in shacks, given the consistent coverage that this issue gets in the SA (flawed) media. Has he not been able to listen to the news lately, or read any of the newspapers partly owned by his Mvelaphanda? Ever heard of Abahlali baseMjondolo (aka the Landless People’s Movement) and their very vocal campaigns, including the “no house, no land, no vote” one before the campain? I wonder what would happen if the Minister was “listening” before his overnighter in “a squatter camp” so that he would not need a “listening campaign” to know what everybody who has ever switched on their television set in winter knows about people being burnt alive trying to keep warm with paraffin stoves and heaters/or because candles fell over while someone was asleep or not looking. This is a problem throughout the country as we all know.

Then there is the yearly flooding in the Western Cape winter that is flighted every year, the dumping and scavenging cases in the Eastern Cape next to places where people have erected houses. I hope the Minister’s “listening campaign” will go beyond the showy business of spending the night in an informal settlement to acting on what we all know already.

All this latest stunt does is raise more questions, and suggest that he might be a nice person. Well, for “Tokyo” to be a nice person, which he probably is, is all swell. But elected officials don’t have to be nice people. They just have to be people who act in ways that are consistent with what they say they value.

Here’s to hoping that Minister Sexwale’s ears and eyes are wide open now and that we’ll see many results.