Category Archives: The Mutatation

The Mutatation: Abahlali baseMjondolo

Aug 4th, 2010

Abahlali baseMjondolo

We commonly hear about the suffering that goes on in the third world. Death tolls from natural disasters or the numbers killed from preventable diseases. Images of starving children, abused women, the homeless, as charities seek to make visible the marginalised groups in society. We read about the lack of employment opportunities or education, the lack of health care and infrastructure, about the awful working conditions in factories and the communities that suffer from industrial pollution. And of course we hear about the violence and crime that is necessarily associated with these conditions of hardship.

We also hear about the good work done to help these communities. The many schools, houses and football pitches built by responsible government departments and NGOs. The elections taking place in countries once oppressed by tyrants and riven by war. The development of business and industry in areas where there had only been subsistence living. People suffer and die everyday but efforts are being done to see that this suffering and death are alleviated, that the problems of the past are resolved.

We rarely see anything of the third world other than these two sets of opposing images. On one side the vulnerable, the poor, the hungry, the helpless. On the other the success stories, the ones who have been helped out of that condition, who have become educated and well-fed. Implicit in this juxtaposition is a before and an after- before knowledge there is ignorance, before food there is hunger, before peace there is violence. This is clear. What is not so clear is how the relation between these images creates a certain understanding about the people and their function.

The images are related through a positive claim that the helpless can become the helped if and when they allow themselves to be helped. A positive claim that admits that there have been problems in the past but this time or next time or with more time these problems will be resolved. With patience we’ll ensure there are more success stories. It will take time but we’ll get there in the end. In the future these side effects of our history, the economy, corruption, poor leadership, inadequate safety standards, will be resolved. What we need is more support for the road ahead, for the road that has led countless others from here to there.

But as time goes on these supposed side effects are not resolved. People are not being helped. Inequality extends. People suffer more and more in their daily lives. This is a reality that is obscured by the positive relationship between the two sets of images. The people complain but they are told to be patient, to wait for more funding, to apply for more training, to participate in more constructive dialogue with their councillors and representatives. Those that wait must believe that their time will one day arrive from somewhere else. How could they believe otherwise? Unless they think the worst and believe that this is in fact their lot.

At each moment they are told that the house, the school, the water, is just around the bend; the people are forced to wait. Walking the long road is tiring but the NGOs, the elected representatives, the media, the police are so convincing. The images are so convincing: people have succeeded, people have come out of their poverty, been cured of their diseases, seen their children go to school. They walked the path from before to after.

What happens when people refuse to walk any further down that path with no end in sight, when they refuse to wait any more for what is rightfully theirs? They break the link between the images. They break the link between the images by leaving the path. They are walking elsewhere in a direction that is not marked, that has no signs, no directions and no guides. They walk alone, breaking open the path as they walk. By breaking away from the path they have also broken the two images. Now they are not helpless, vulnerable or weak, nor are they developed, educated and productive. They are angry and unrecognisable. As they walk the path appears but no one can recognise it or the people who walk on it.

Now that the people are neither helpless nor helped, now that they refuse the path way-marked for them, how are we to imagine them? We need another image. Those loyal to the path lament the lack of patience in the people. By leaving the path they are only wasting time walking in the wrong direction, making more work for themselves when they return. There is also the question of how the helpless could have refused the path given to them, how they could have organised themselves to start off in a different direction. Either they set off like animals in a frenzy, an irrational change in mind, like a herd of cattle scared by a changing wind, or they were led astray by some other agency, by a malevolent herder intent on furthering his own interests. The people following their own path are presented as irrational or misled. They are translated into a third image, the image of noise, the image of a rioting, corrupted, seditious mob that has turned its back on the right path, on the genuine suffering of the people and the only realistic hope of salvation.

Of course there is another image, one that is created by the people themselves. This requires a radical break with the three sets of images we are offered, the images of the helpless, the helped and the noise. It requires listening to what the people are saying as reasonable and articulate translators of their own experience, of understanding that there can be other ways of moving from the before to the after.

The following quote is taken from an article ( published in November, 2005 in a number of South African newspapers and journals:

“We have begun to realise that we are not supposed to be living under these conditions. There has been a dawn of democracy for the poor. No one else would have told us – neither our elected leaders nor any officials would have told us what we are entitled to. Even the Freedom Charter is only good in theory. It has nothing to do with the ordinary lives of poor. It doesn’t help us. It is the thinking of the masses of the people that matters.”

It was written in response to accusations that the popular Shack-Dwellers Movement, known as Abahlali baseMjondolo, was being orchestrated by anti-government agitators and intellectuals. To find out more about Abahlali baseMjondolo and the struggles which the people in those communities are faced with look at their great website or if you want an insight into some of the issues here is a short film by an Irish filmmaker on the same: