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Rights, democracy, social movements: Abahlali baseMjondolo – a living politics

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Rights, democracy, social movements: Abahlali baseMjondolo: a living politics

Matt Birkinshaw

This dissertation is submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights of the University of London



Abstract 1

Chapter One The “zim zims” 3

Chapter Two Rainbow Nation 19

Chapter Three Sekwanele! 27

Chapter Four University of Abahlali baseMjondolo 35

Conclusions 53

Directions for further study 55

Bibliography 56


This piece will investigate the situation, causes and ideologies of social movement politics in contemporary South Africa. It will argue that social movements present the best political form for the realisation of human rights and social justice. It will consider the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement in relation to trends in South African politics and social movement theory, and as a unique example of the emerging politics.

The theoretical background to this piece draws on a number of frameworks in political philosophy; Giorgio Agamben’s understanding of the role of rights in constituting and defending sovereign power, Hardt & Negri’s autonomist Marxism, and a post-structuralist anarchism. I will use these ideas to argue for a (broadly) anarchist politics that emerges from the political practice of its participants.

In order to provide support for the necessity of social movements, I will outline the economic and political situation of post-apartheid South Africa, and posit the contention that, due to the hegemonic status of neo-liberal macro-economic policies, the state, NGOs, and the traditional left have structural failings which render them unable to deliver rights to South Africa’s poorest citizens.

I will then offer an overview of the situation of social movements in contemporary South Africa, and outline some of the debates around the shifting sites of political struggle, movement strategy, and competing ideologies.

The last section will look more closely at Abahlali to gain a better understanding of their origins, organisation, and tactics. The suggestion is that Abahlali’s mode of politics presents a positive example of an organic democratic, egalitarian politics, that is a good example of the type of ethically consistent politics outlined in the first section.


Primary research for this work comprised a review of literature, films, and recorded interviews by and about the movement, and telephone interviews with available members. Secondary research reviewed books and journals on South African social movements, development, and politics. There are obvious limitations to conducting research on a social movement who uses the slogan ‘Talk to Us, Not for Us’, primarily through text and the telephone, and therefore the most glaring omission in this work is the absence of ‘field work’ and direct participation. Because Abahlali’s politics is about self-representation and intellectual autonomy I will use the words of participants in the movement wherever possible.

The “zim zims”

1.1 Preface

How to begin?

And most often the fight begins with these toilets, this land, this eviction, this fire, these taps, this armed party enforcer, this politician, this broken promise, this developer, this school, this creche, these police officers, this murder. (Pithouse 2006a:29)

Abahlali baseMjondolo is a militant grassroots social movement of shackdwellers based in the South African city of Durban. Abahlali has around 30,000 members in 40 affiliated settlements. Shackdweller communities occupy land illegally, constructing accommodation out of available materials. These sites are often referred to (pejoratively) as slums, or informal settlements.

The title of this section refers to the epithet applied by shackdwellers to ‘city-people’ – middle class activists and academics who descend on informal settlements talking about socialism, capitalism, neo-liberalism, nationalism, etc (Pithouse 2007b). One of the defining aspects of Abahlali is “to change the understanding of people who see shackdwellers as being ignorant, as not being people” (Zikode 2007a). This has led to the creation of “a homemade politics that everyone, every old gogo , can understand and find a home in” (Zikode, quoted in Pithouse 2006a:29).

Although this work will establish a theoretical framework in which to evaluate political action, it will also stress that political agents are necessarily situated, and that an attempt to re-present Abahlali’s struggle from outside, through the lense of political theories from the elite world of the academy is tainted with paternalism / colonialism.

we must – as we always do – start with a living politics, a politics of what’s close and real to the people. This has been the basis of the movement’s success.

we will always bring it back to the people and back to the living politics. In this way, it is OK to venture into this ‘enemy territory’ with our tactics, but we always return to the people and will not let the enemy’s approaches and language dominate. (Zikode, quoted in Ntseng 2007)

Although theory will be used to illuminate the situation and provide support for the necessity of ‘a living politics’, Abahlali’s struggle has a more immediate practical and ethical foundation.

Abahlali members frame their struggle in terms of positive and natural rights; to equality, dignity and participation, as well as housing, water, and electricity (Harris 2006:17). The context for the assertion of these rights is the shared feeling of the ANC government’s betrayal of its election promises of housing, land, water, electricity, jobs, education, development, and ‘a better life for all’ (Harris 2006:18, Ngiam 2006:33, Zungu 2006, Pillay 2007).

1.2 Empire and sovereign power

The Sovereign

Giorgio Agamben’s close reading of Schmitt and Benjamin’s ideas about the unstable relationship between law and (state) power, traces the paradox at the heart of modern sovereignty. The inscription of natural rights in law simultaneously limits the power of the sovereign state and extends its reach by drawing the subject into an ever closer relationship with it (Agamben 1995:127-8). The modern state’s sovereign power over life (biopolitics) is not only absolute but rigorously codified and continually re-defined, through rights (Agamben 1995:139-140). Agamben asserts that the modern sovereign, draws legitimacy and power from its citizens (“the people are sovereign”) by including them through rights. However, the new ‘sovereign subject’ can only be constituted by the extension of the state of exception (suspension of rights) and bare life to ‘every individual body’ (Agamben 1995:124). Thus ‘bare’ (biological) life ‘is no longer confined to a particular place or a definite category. It now dwells in the biological body of every living being’ (Agamben 1995:140). This reduces people to ‘human capital’ and the voters necessary to provide government legitimacy. Informal settlements in Durban following this pattern are often controlled by authoritarian ANC members who are maintained in control to ‘deliver the settlement as a vote package’ (Pithouse 2007).

They only remember us when they need us to vote for elections. And they promise whatever. I think our democracy is just to vote for them. And then we go back and sit in the mud. (Lindela Figlan quoted in Ngiam 2006:33)

Rights become constitutive of citizenship, leading to the contradiction identified by Arendt, that the stateless person, the refugee, despite being the person to whom ‘human’ rights should most apply, in practice is the least able to draw on them (Agamben 1995:126), and is frequent reduced to the merely biological – ‘bare-life’ (e.g. in IDP camps, detention centres). Agamben takes Arendt’s (who is essentially an apologist for representative democracy) argument further by understanding refugees and the camps of the Second World War (among others) as a model for modern political power. Camps are defined as the ‘the very paradigm of political space at the point at which politics becomes biopolitics and homo sacer [bare-life] is virtually confounded with the citizen’ (Agamben 1995:171). This allows for the increasing spread of camps, including refugee detention centres and ‘certain outskirts of our cities’ (Agamben 1995:175). This line of thought can be used to illuminate the situation of South Africa shack-dwellers, whose ‘sqautter camps’ are simultaneously within the boundaries of state power (defined by geography, birth, and control) and yet outside of its juridicial/constitutional order. That the state response to the shackdwellers’ situation is denial of civil rights and occasional provision of food and blankets demonstrates their reduction to bare-life. Shackdwellers are under no illusions about this.

When they say Africa belongs to all who live in it, it therefore also means that Clare Estate belongs to all who live in it, because they think if you live in Kennedy Road you are not South African, we are not a part of citizens of Clare Estate. (S’bu Zikode, in O’Sullivan 2005)

Yakoob Baig (the eThekwini Ward 25 councillor) used to come with some pots of breyani, to the side of the road. We said no, we are not dogs, we are not animals, that you have to dish food to and then forget about them, until you remember, oh, we have to go and give food to the shack dwellers again … No, we are not pets, we are human beings. We have to be treated like human beings. (M’du Hlongwa, quoted in Ngiam 2006:3)


While there is a great deal that is problematic in Hardt and Negri’s work, Empire (2000), it has been widely read and is frequently discussed by social movement commentators in South Africa (e.g. in Gibson (ed) 2006 – Gibson 2006:32-36, Neocosmos 2006:56, Bond 2006:123, Barchiesi 2006, Pithouse 2006:258-264). The Empire that Hardt and Negri assert is that of neo-liberal capitalism , and although they make some rather curious assertions (e.g. Empire has no boundaries , no centre , and is a single power ), and betray traces of a troubling Eurocentrism (see e.g. Dunn 2004:143, Laffey & Weldes 2004:121), their analysis of free-market globalisation raises some salient points. The changing nature of international relations and the rise of supranational institutions which may override or mitigate national sovereignty in the interest of capital or liberal ideology, while not a radical break with the past, does call for a reassessment of traditional forms of politics.

In the ten years after the end of the Cold War, neo-liberalism (read as pro-market social restructuring) has risen to become the hegemonic global political ideology. The neo-liberal focus (as manifested through financial institutions such as the World Bank, Internationl Monetary Fund, and aid / trade conditionalities) has moved from an anti-state approach to a model of states as essential for sound economic management. However, despite modifications to the methods of integration into global markets, the hegemonic status of free-market ideology has led to a depoliticisation of economic and social policy choices.

Taken uncritically for the time being, the notion of the imperial sovereignty of neo-liberal ideology sheds some light on the policy choices that the ANC found itself forced to make in order to gain power in South Africa during the late 80s and early 90s. The anti-apartheid strategy in the 1980s was to make the country ungovernable. This became bad for business, and the political situation in the country was therefore modified in the interests of greater stability. Business interests arranged a deal with ANC and political transition by 1994.

To promote a peaceful transition, the agreement negotiated between the racist white regime and the ANC allowed whites to keep the best land, the mines, manufacturing plants, and financial institutions. (Bond 2004)

1.3 Agonism, anarchism, democracy


Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict. (Alinsky 1972:21)

Agonists are sceptical about the possibility to overcome conflicts of interest in society, especially through grand political narratives such as liberalism, communitarianism, multiculturalism, Marxist-leninism, etc. Laclau and Mouffe’s (1985) post-Marxist agonist political theory draws on readings of Nietszche and Schmitt in understanding political space as essentially contested. They subvert Schmitt’s idea that liberalism relies on a utopian fiction, not to argue for a strong state/sovereign, but to emphasize that democracy is realised through conflict. This runs counter to dominant liberal thinking as found in Habermas’s theory of communicative action, which suggests that democratisation merely requires sufficient technocratic tweaks to the political process . Agonism stresses that positive potential of channelled political conflict. Abahlali’s democractic mass action can be seen as a response to the South African state’s failure to provide a democratic political arena.

We discovered that our municipality does not listen to us when we speak to them in Zulu. We tried English. Now we realise that they won’t understood Xhosa or Sotho either. The only language that they understand is when we put thousands of people on the street. We have seen the results of this and we have been encouraged. It works very well. It is the only tool that we have to emancipate our people. Why should we stop it? (Zikode 2005:2)


Agonism describes political space, but is only procedurally prescriptive. Democracy, from its inception, has been premised on inequality and exclusion. The full extension of the franchise under contemporary liberal democracies, is coincident with a consolidation of the economic and political framework (domestically and internationally) that substantially limits the electorate’s input (Ballard et al 2006:413-414). The emergence of new trends in participatory democracy, while promising, are also a further limited concession on behalf of the elite, as a means of maintaining and strengthening social control.

In order to rethink a democracy capable of equality and social justice a more substantive conception of politics is necessary. For this we will draw on contemporary understandings of anarchist (or libertarian) communism supported in the work of Deleuze & Guattari, Foucault, and Badiou. An ‘ideal type’ anarchism will be defined here as an egalitarian, anti-state, anti-capital, prefigurative politics (Franks 2006:12-13). It will be suspicious of overarching truth-claims and therefore tactical rather than strategic in its approach (May 1994:12). Anarchists are sceptical of the ability of the state or the market to achieve equality / social justice. An ideal type anarchism is also prefigurative; this is the belief that means must embody desired ends. In conjunction with a contemporary anarchism’s scepticism (not rejection) about (the function of power in) universal ethical claims, this leads to dialogically formed meta-(or ‘modest’) ethics (May 1994:138).

An example of the application of meta-ethics to political thought can be found in the work of Alain Badiou (2005). Here Badiou traces the outline of an egalitarian, anti-state politics which is necessarily unique to the situations in which it is articulated. For Badiou, political work involves solidarity among the oppressed, which operates through an unbinding rather than an essentialisation of identity relations. This project should take equality (and therefore democracy) as its founding axiom. The concern with equality will lead participants to challenge the power of the state (and therefore capital). While the outcome of this situation is uncertain it performs the function of bringing the state into the political area by measuring its power which is usually presented as absolute and transcendent. The ends produced are material gains as well as empowerment and the increased realisation of the possibility of alternatives (Badiou 2005:141-152).

Richard Pithouse, a Durban academic echoes these views of the prefigurative linkages between equality and democracy in a piece on his work with Abahlali:

A genuinely radical politics can only be built around an explicit thought out commitment to community constructed around a political and material commons. The fundamental principle must be that everybody matters. Pithouse (2006c:27)

Radical democracy

The democracy aimed at by the above positions is not representative or ‘participatory’, but radical. Peet and Hartwick, writing in the context of development theory, provide a definition which corresponds closely to anarchist conceptions of democracy:

direct popular control over all the resources and institutions used and inhabited by people, from field to forest, factory to family, university to neighbourhood, art gallery to website
(Peet and Hartwick 1999:206)

This means ‘control over all life institutions by all their members as direct and equal participants’. Adherence to decisions and responsibility are gained through participatory decision-making rather than through legal obligation (Peet and Hartwick 1999:207). A possible tendency to majoritarianism is balanced by the prior commitment to equality. A similar conception can be found in Mohan and Hickey’s critical modernist approach to development (2004:62-65).

We find a commitment to this kind of democracy in Abahlali’s methods and ideas. Deputy President Philani Zungu offers four conceptions of democracy in a recent article:

freeing everyone to do whatever they want, regardless of rules or controls…

the power of the state to decide things, acting in the interests of those who hold state power…

some people say democracy is about rights… The more [people] understood their rights, the freer they became. We never expected to be disappointed in turning these rights into reality. But we were.

Some people say democracy is for all of us – as society. They say it is a reason to improve and protect our lives. It is equality, whereby all should participation in building a better society and achieving a better life for all.

Zungu describes his experiences of growing up in the shacks, of poverty, state brutality, and police repression:

I’m expected to accept the unacceptable. That is the reality of democracy of the state and democracy of human rights in my experience. My only remaining hope for an acceptable future is hope in the democracy of society. (Zungu 2007)

1.4 Human Rights and social movements

Rights are a result of successive struggles for the realisation of ideas of equality and natural justice. From the Magna Carta, to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, to economic, social, environmental, and group rights in the later twentieth century, the codification of rights has been a political response to contestation of the dominant political order. While these gains may have been an elite-led or co-opted project, the history of rights is the history of social movements (Stammers 1999:986).

Social movements are essential for the creation, claim and contestation of ‘human rights’, all the more so given the history of human rights so far, which some have seen as a narrowly defined set of concession convenient to liberal capitalism (Evans 2002, Mertus 2004, Englund 2006, Neocosmos 2005:165). States grant rights in response in order to contain the disturbance. Human rights atomise struggle, and domesticate and mediate it. A primarily economic problem (power-inequality) becomes a political problem, which then becomes a legal problem to be adjusted by technocrats and experts (Neocosmos 2005:166-167, Kennedy 2002:109). This is fundamentally disempowering and undemocratic.

Social movements encourage, and rely upon participation. Where they operate on the premises of democracy and equality they are likely to be able to prevent a distortion of their aims by the leadership. According to Raj Patel who has worked with Abahlali, their leadership has ‘from the outset’ ‘been led by the base’, with important decisions (marching to demand promised land, marching against the Mayor despite its illegality, rejecting the R10bn out of town land deal) made by the mass constituents rather than elected officials (Patel 2006:14). This democratic style has clearly led to their uncompromising stance .

In discussion of post-Apartheid social movements, Patrick Bond, from the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu Natal, describes social movements as ‘both protest-oriented and utopian, in the sense of attempting to construct the community of a future society in the decay of the old’ (quoted in Ballard et al 2006:401). There are some clear parallels here with the challenging of oppression and the prefigurative models of politics described under agonism and anarchism.

1.5 Social movement theory

The history of social movement thinking traces a progression in the amount of faith that is placed in ordinary people’s rationality. In the first half of the twentieth century, “social movement” was used to refer to “mob behaviour”. Tilly’s early social movement theory in the 1960s attempted to confront and debunk the position that violence resulted in the breakdown of established moral solidarity. The 60s and 70s saw a rise in ‘new’ social movements (e.g. the women’s, environmental, and civil rights movements). These placed a greater emphasis on organisation (non-hierarchy, participation, and discussion), as well as identity and agency. Tilly’s later (2001) work with McAdam and Tarrow notes four bases for collective action and movement development: political opportunities, mobilising structures, collective action frames, and repertoires of contention.

Tarrow (1998:23), one of the more influential writers on social movements defines three main features of a social solution to rights claims:
? Mounting collective challenges
? Drawing on social networks, common purposes and cultural frameworks
? Building solidarity through connective structures and collective identities to sustain collective action

Social movements mobilise actors around social networks and collective framings of issues. For example, housing may be placed in a neo-liberal framework as an issue best-addressed by private-sector investment and non-eviction as an incentive factor in ‘cost-recovery’. Abahlali activists, as noted earlier tend to frame their grievances in resonant terms of natural rights and political betrayal.

The mainstay of the contentious political challenges of social movements is disruptive direct action against elites, authorities, or social norms. Although social movements may involved in lobbying and policy work, their frequent lack of resources such as money, organisation, and access to the state, mean that popular mobilisation is one of their strongest tactics for movements to galvanise support and assert their claims.

What distinguishes these community movements from political parties, pressure groups, NGOs, and the trade unions is mass mobilization as the prime source of social sanction. The rise of community movements has seen the emergence of the family as a fighting unit, unlike union membership, which is based on the individual worker… They act much like Hobshawns ‘city mob,’ which he describes as ‘the movement of all classes of the urban poor for the achievement of economic or political changes by direct action’ that is by riot of rebellion. (Desai 2003)

Objective and Subjective factors

There are two dominant trends in social movement theory. Resource Mobilisation theory stresses the material and political factors available to movements as a key to understanding. Later, New Social Movement theory, in part a reaction to the shifts of the late 60s and 70s (e.g. 2nd wave feminism, environmental movement) understands social movements as more ideologically-based and seeking to exercise influence over society and cultural attitudes rather than ‘hard politics’ (Canel 1997:216). The influence of new social movement theory can be seen in the assertion ‘by some scholars, (Mainly those associated with the New Social Movement theories)’, noted by Ballard et al, ‘that identity-based struggles now supersede distributional politics in post-industrial societies’ (2006:409). Unfortunately, the distinction, between identity and distribution ultimately breaks down. Identity may be a powerful mobilising tool, however, identity-based mobilisations still seek a redistribution, albeit perhaps of less material goods such as respect, representation, as well as more ‘traditional’ wealth distribution issues.

Movement construction around identity politics can pose a problem for an egalitarian project. In this regard, it should be noted that ethnic identity is often de facto the grounding of political projects in Africa (including the (post-)colonial state), and that the question is on the means of possible evolution from a narrow identity-based programme to a more universalisable politics (Mohan & Hickey 2004:68).

Nguyen (2004) has described new social movements in South Africa as mobilising around ‘therapuetic citizenship’. This is given as the mobilisation of identities (e.g. HIV / housing situation) in order to gain access to services, resources, and status. Movement group identity may also be created through shared culture (e.g. clothes, songs, community service provision – e.g. IT education, crèche, etc). Writing his work with Abahlali, Pithouse (2006c:26) says:

the will to risk open resistance against an authoritarian local state has no necessary connection to the degree of material deprivation or material threat from state power. It is always a cultural and intellectual rather than a biological phenomenon. It therefore requires cultural and intellectual work to be produced and sustained.

Rainbow Nation

2.1 Post-aparthied: Legacy and transition

South Africa serves as a textbook example of how globalisation plays itself out in the semi-industrialised world. (Ballard 2006:12)

Habib has drawn attention to the assumption of racial conflict underlying the metaphor of South Africa’s ‘rainbow nation’, and observes that these serve to obscure the class dimensions of social inequality in the country (Habib 1996). South Africa has historically been one of the most unequal countries in the world. Inequality has increased since the ANC took power; the Gini coefficient rose from 0.69 in 1996 to 0.77 in 2001 (Schwabe 2004:2, Ballard 2006:13).

The top 13% of the population (majority white) rank around 18th on the Human Development Index, similar to countries like New Zealand. At the same time 55% of the population (majority African) have a HDI rank of around 118, similar to Vietnam, Bolivia and Lesotho. In this group over a third of children suffer chronic malnutrition and only a quarter of households have running water (World Bank 1999:9). Indeed, 20% of all urban households have no electricity, 25% have no running water and 33% have no flush toilet (War on Want nd).

As noted earlier, negotiations over the transition to democracy meant that ANC rule came at the cost of pro-business, pro-market policies (Ballard 2006:13). Despite the initial Keynsian RDP period South Africa under the ANC became, in 1996, the first African country to self-impose the economic reforms forced onto other countries through international financial institution structural adjustment programmes. These reforms were implemented in 1996 with GEAR (growth, employment, and redistribution policy).

GEAR, was aimed at attracting investment (promoted as the route to development), however, in order to do this it was necessary to introduce:
• Government spending cuts (in order to reduce national deficit)
• Tax concessions for big business (in order to attract foreign investment)
• Reductions in tariff barriers (on clothing, textiles, leather, and cars)
• Privatisation of government assets (including public services)
• Reductions in welfare provision
• Labour flexibility

It was argued that these policies were necessary to achieve economic growth through FDI, which would also lead to an increase in employment and improved socio-economic equality.

However, the results have been negative:
• De-industrialisation and job losses (due to the reduction of tariffs on imports)
• Capital flight (due to relaxation of investment controls)
• Downsizing in the cost and size of the public sector
• Cuts in education, health and social welfare spending

Habib (2004:235) describes the effects of GEAR:

The net achievement of this programme [GEAR] has been the realisation of the state’s deficit targets, but at the cost of employment, poverty and inequality. Massive job losses have occurred in almost all sectors of the economy.

While 1.4 to 2 million jobs were created, overall unemployment also increased. As remuneration for skilled jobs rose, unskilled employment declined (du Toit 2006:5). Unemployment is high, between 26-37% depending on the definition (World Bank 2006).

Bond (2004) describes the resulting social effects of this well:

As a result, according to even the government’s statistics, average black African household income fell 19 percent from 1995–2000 (to $3,714 per year), while white household income rose 15 percent (to $22,600 per year). Not just relative but absolute poverty intensified, as the proportion of households earning less than $90 of real income increased from 20 percent of the population in 1995, to 28 percent in 2000. Across the racial divide, the poorest half of all South Africans earned just 9.7 percent of national income in 2000, down from 11.4 percent in 1995. The richest 20 percent earned 65 percent of all income. It is fair to assume that inequality continued to worsen after 2000.

Thus, consistent with the results of global patterns of economic change, there were benefits for the middle class and to some extent for the skilled working class from the new economic framework. However, despite economic growth, the poorest members of society in South Africa became poorer (Benjamin 2005:2, Desai 2002) and social inequality increased (Schwabe 2004:1, du Toit 2006:5). South Africa, as a willing participant in free-market globalisation provides an instructive glimpse of some of the effects of pro-market policy.

During the struggle prior to 1994 there were only two levels, two classes – the rich and the poor. Now after the election there are three classes – the poor, the middle class and the rich. The poor have been isolated from the middle class. We are becoming more poor and the rest are becoming more rich. We are on our own. (Zikode 2005:2)

2.2 The Tripartite Alliance and the institutionalisation of politics

During the anti-apartheid struggle, the ANC formed an alliance with other strong anti-apartheid organisations, COSATU (Coalition of South Africa Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party), however, during the transition these more left-leaning voices were marginalised leaving the ANC to pursue pro-capital agendas. The institutionalised left (SACP, COSATU, and also the UDF) were essentially out-manoeuvred into junior partnerships with the ANC. This has led to a situation where they are now working within the ANC framework as a legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle, and are unwilling to challenge it. Today, despite increasing labour militancy, their position is marginalised due to a reluctance to break with the ANC. The possibility of contesting the frameworks in which policy choices are offered has been exchanged for a limited (and frequently sidelined) input into policy discussions (see, e.g. van der Walt 2006:2, Naidoo et al 2005:34-39, Desai 2002).

The pro-poor policy changes that have been made are restricted to the formal economy (COSATU’s constituency), however increasing numbers fall outside this. 40% of South Africans have formal full-time jobs, for the African population, this figure falls to 33% (Barchiesi 2006:226). Due to de-industrialisation, de-unionisation, and an increasingly ‘flexible’ labour force, COSATU membership fell by 200,000 between 2000 and 2003 (Barchiesi 2006:226).

We can see in South Africa, a classic government response to the rise in power of the labour movement. Labour struggles are institutionalised and hierarchised; the leaders are domesticated through dialogue and some influence over policy relating to their constituency. At the same time, the labour market is adjusted to decrease the amount of formal labour (and the power of union leaders) (Ballard 2006:12, Gibson 2006:21). In this context, the rise of militant community-based movements, sceptical of the narrative of ‘national liberation’ that the ANC legitimates itself with, and active around services (consumption) rather than the workplace (production) poses a significant threat to ANC legitimacy.

Civil society

Barchiesi (2006:215) references the views of ‘a prominent ANC ideologue’ who discusses the separation (in the ANC’s view) between popular demands, advocacy, and association (where the civil society plays a ‘watchdog’ role), and the institutional representation and party organisation (which is the realm of ‘proper politics’).

In this view movements are re-codified within a template of “civil-society” that presupposes a fundamental decoupling between voicing social needs and desires, and the terrain where needs and desires question power relations. Formal political institutions and party representation remain therefore the only ambit where contestation over fundamental strategies and policy choice is allowed, which implies pressure for pragmatism and moderation to accommodate domestic and global economic constraints. (Barchiesi 2006:216)

In the South African context, the political validity of social movements, is pronounced not only due to their understanding of the shared social nature of political struggles, but the co-optation of the state, ‘old left’, and NGOs:

The existing literature of the non-profit sector is replete with suggestions that NGOs are institutions that service the interests of the poor and marginalised. But can one really argue this when NGOs have become so commercially-oriented and dependent on the resources of donors and the government? … Can one really assert that (they are) community-driven or answerable to marginalised sectors of South African society? (Habib and Taylor 1999:79)

The influence of international donors on civil society groups leads to a replication of hegemonic ideologies amongst those contesting the dominant domestic social order. Predictably, the influence of USAID involved the promotion of ‘moderate’, and (market) ‘friendly’ leaders and groups in order to forestall more damaging radical change.

US “democracy promotion,” as it actually functions, sets about not just to secure and stabilize elite-based polyarchic systems but to have the United States and local elites thoroughly penetrate civil society, and from therein assure control over popular mobilization and mass movements (Robinson 1996:69)

In South Africa, US programmes provided support to moderate pro-business black individuals, groups and elites (Robinson 1996:331), in order to ‘bring under control and maintain within limits the struggle against apartheid so as to prevent a popular outcome, substituting, in effect, white minority rule by inter-racial polyarchic minority rule’ (Robinson 1996:114).

In the contemporary South African context “civil society” is usually constituted by a combination of financial and (state) political sanction (Neocosmos 2005:163-4). This invariably leads to donor and government influence over the supposed third space of civil society.

In most instances neither NGOs nor academic research institutes should, strictly speaking, be considered as part of civil society. This is because they tend to be professionalised projects of states or corporate donors and civil society is most often defined as popular association independent of the market and the state. (Pithouse 2006a:25)

The definition given above by Pithouse can be seen as a reaction to the condition noted by Gibson. Gibson suggests that given this situation, “civil society (and the state as well) is made democratic by the existence of social movements attempting to extend the notion of “rights” to the socio-economic sphere” (Gibson 2006:5).

However, this assertion fails to go far enough. “Universal suffrage is the counter-revolution”, wrote Proudhon (quoted in Woodcock 2005:11), noting that voting alone is an insufficient condition for democracy. Similarly, if the extension of socio-economic rights remains unrealised, it is premature to regard civil society (or the state) as democratised, and this is before even beginning to assess the internal (and external) relations of social movements, civil society, and the state.

Ballard et al (2006:413-415) see social movements as essential for the existence of substantive uncertainty (‘the essence of democracy’) and accountability into the political system. Given the domesticated or marginalised position of civil society and the left in South Africa, social movements play a vital role in defending the rights of the country’s ‘poors’.


3.1 Post-apartheid social movements

The South African constitution, is highly progressive, however it has proved unable to address the country’s structural economic inequalities. The constitution is very generous, however at the implementation it breaks down, the ‘progressive realisation’ of economic and social rights leading to lengthy delays (Patel 2007).

The rise of militant community-based movements is a popular response to the social crisis caused by the ANC instituting a neo-liberal macro-economic policy, and the failure of South Africa’s institutional left.

Critics argue that despite partial steps in a progressive direction, the ANC government has been unable to convince the poorest of poor of its intentions to reform the economic framework of the country. Popular participation in the elections has shown a trend to constant decline, which means that in 2004 the ANC was voted into power by an actual minority of eligible voters… A remarkable coincidence is nonetheless observable between areas of electoral apathy on one hand, and low income, marginalised communities on the other. Barchiesi (2006:213)

The ‘new’ community-based movements in contemporary South Africa are often rooted in the township civics of the anti-apartheid era and collective resistance to the group-areas act, pass laws, and military harassment (Gibson 2006:4). Civics were often influenced by the ‘new social movements’ of the 1970s and organised through decentralisation, networks, mass meetings, a community base, and an explicitly political framing of issues. In the early 90s civics were using collective rent strikes to push for transition to democracy. However, the transitionary period saw civic demobilisation, professionalisation and co-option (partly through bodies such as SANCO, the ANC’s community wing).

Although there was a rise in social movement activity from late 90s (such as the Treatment Action Campaign, Anti Eviction Campaign, Anti Privatisation Forum, Concerned Citizens Forum) this was often due to the influence (and funding) of middle class activists and NGOs. These movements often demobilised and fractured after engagement with the state or lack of success (Gibson 2006:15). It is claimed that only in the early 00s, after the prolonged effects of GEAR have made themselves felt, that resurgence of a range of former civics as social movements has taken place. This recent wave of movements are often based in informal settlements, and are self-organised and independent of NGO and activist patronage (Gibson 2006:15).

3.2 Consumption

Harvey (2003:134) suggests that neo-liberalism is capital’s response to the problems of over-accumulation that emerged in the last three decades of the 20thC. The dominant logic of capital accumulation in the contemporary period is ‘accumulation by dispossession’ leading to struggles around privatisation and displacement (2003:67). This is the move to struggles at the site of consumption mentioned above.

Against the charge that struggles around consumption are a legacy of the anti-apartheid ‘culture of non-payment’, Desai suggests that what is motivating new social movements is more an ‘economics of non-payment’ (Desai 2003). However, these struggles around service provision, are often a concession that the labour exchange is a buyers market.

If consumption has become a new site of political struggle in South Africa, this is a negative development coincident with the failure of the institutionalised left to do achieve more than a strategic and self-protective retreat. That the commodification of services is a site of struggle is due to the fact that the basic facilities for life (water, housing, toilets, electricity) are now being threatened by market-systems. To be effective these struggles need to be better linked with resistance at the site of production (Ballard et al 2006:411). However, struggle at the site of consumption can also be seen as a re-engagement with the state, as well as a retreat from capital. As Desai elaborates:

many of those involved in community movements accept the conditions of the sweatshops and low wages without much of a fight. They attempt to top up their wages by not paying for services. They organize militantly around this issue, and the state is directly brought into the conflict. (2003)

Desai (2002:145) and Pithouse both express views that unions have lost potential as agents of counter-hegemonic struggle and that radical social movements in the arena of reproduction now hold the most promise for social change.

There are problems with Hardt and Negri’s conceptualisation of the multitude (see e.g. Aufheben 2006). Hardt and Negri generalise from the European experience, valorise new conditions of production and seemingly fail to engage with the uneven nature of globalisation (see Pithouse 2006d:264), as well as assuming that the multitude will necessarily share their communist politics (Pithouse 2006d:260). However, the concept does perform some useful work:

the idea of the multitude has freed many from both the fetish of the proletariat as the only viable agent of challenge to capital and the fetish of the nation as defender against capital. Given the reality that most resistances in contemporary South Africa are at the point of consumption (basic services, housing, healthcare, education, etc.) rather than production, and are largely community rather than union driven, as well as the complete immersion of the South African elite into the transnational elite, these are very welcome releases (Pithouse 2006d:259)

3.3 Strategy and tactics

Thinking resistance after liberation?

It is possible to demarcate social movement’s into those that pursue issue based-campaigns seeking a reform of legislation or policy, and counter-hegemonic opposition demanding a more radical social restructuring (e.g. Ballard et al 2006:400, Desai 2003). However, the distinction between these lines is unstable; social movement membership is not homogenous and there is likely to be a wide variety of ideological positions in a movement organised around a specific issue. Further, an organisation seeking a specific policy change may find during the course of their work that this leads to questioning of the overall political structure (e.g. Kennedy Road Development Committee, precursors to Abahlali). Similarly, an organisation seeking radical structural change will need a specific ‘hook’ issue to organise around (e.g. the socialist orientated Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee).

Similarly, the use of rights language to frame struggles, is also widely shared, and does not necessarily imply a political position.

Even the more militant movements that engage in technically illegal activities, such as reconnections and land occupations, use the language of rights to invest their activities with a sense that they are endorsed by a higher code of ‘good’. (Ballard et al 2006:402)

In this context, Desai (2002:146) offers an illuminating criterion of the seriousness of social movement commitment:

It was not content of the criticism of government policy that mattered. Anyone could say there were against racism and poverty or recite socialist principles without presenting the least bit of a challenge. Witness the SACP. Increasingly, it was the unassimilable form in which demands for change and desires for life were put across that was important in determining who was friend or foe.

However, Trevor Ngwame, of SECC & APF observes:
[There is a] danger of [autonomism] drowning in its own militancy because of its refusal to develop long-term political projects in favour of immediate and short-term and militant actions. The Marxist method of distinguishing between immediate, democratic and transitional demands can be used as an antidote to the disease of “pure” militancy…Without such a perspective there is a danger of co-option, once the enemy accedes to our demands, as they did with the SECC stopping disconnections, or once demoralization and tiredness set in when the enemy stands firm and people don’t see a solution despite their efforts. (Quoted in Bond 2006:123)

This can be seen in response to the wave of militancy (often from informal settlements) that arose around 2004 (Pithouse 2007). But Ngwane divides social movements into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. He says that ‘social movements … have to fight the state, destroy it and replace it with a workers’ state’ (quoted in Ballard et al 2006:401). This socialist ideology finds it hard to accept social movements without a revolutionary programme and dismisses those with alternative (e.g. autonomist) ideas as devoid of politics (Ngwane citied in Bond 2004). However, Desai (2003), too offers a note of caution:

…there is nothing inherent in social movements themselves which necessarily bears an emancipatory potential, let alone a project. In fact, when social movements are simply oppositional, simply against what exists, or clamour for state ‘delivery’ they can easily be demobilised and incorporated…

The challenge facing anti-systemic activists today is to open up new realms of possibility that will lead to broader change. This may be done through small-scale, local actions that still contest broader social power relations. The ideological debate is to some extent academic; social movements are pragmatic responses to poverty, exclusion, and hardship (Ballard et al 2006:402) – the challenge is to make them more effective, egalitarian and democratic.


Aware of the frequent trade off between state dialogue and inclusion on the one hand, and co-optation and demobilisation on the other, Nigel Gibson suggests that rather than state access and material gains, ‘recognition and mere survival in the face of a hostile state’ may in themselves constitute success (Gibson 2006:22).

Whatever the ultimate distant goals of these movements, their impact needs to be assessed in relation to their immediate systemic effects. And the most obvious tangible effect of social movements on the political landscape of this country is that they represent the interests of the poor and marginalised, and apply pressure on the government to pay greater attention to the welfare of these groups. (Ballard et al 2006:413)

We might consider in this respect the recent government shift to a more state interventionist and welfarist economic policy which has been concurrent with increased social movement activity (Ballard et al 2006:415). In addition to policy change, community-based movements have shaped broader state agenda and strategies by pursuing effective struggles through the courts, media, and the streets. In the process they are redefining political identity and solidarity (Barchiesi 2006:216).

University of Abahlali baseMjondolo

4.1 Context

“Everyday is an emergency”: shack conditions

Despite the rights to water, electricity, and housing defined in the post-apartheid South African constitution, the ANC has been slow to deliver these basic services to South Africa’s citizens who were often at the front line of the fight against the National Party government. In the new South Africa, the informal settlements formed by people fleeing the grinding poverty of the rural homelands in the last years of apartheid, have become the solution to the ‘warehousing problem’ of modern capitalism’s excess humanity (Boal 2006:13).

Under Apartheid geography was racialised with urban areas restricted for the “white”, and the relocation of Indians and “coloureds” to semi-urban townships, and Africans to rural “homelands”. This programme began to break down in late apartheid as the national party government weakened under internal and external pressure. At this time, excluded people seized the opportunity to move closer to urban centres, covertly at first but over time, the initial ‘informal settlements’ became more permanent. Now, post-apartheid, the logic of the market is leading to waves of new relocations, as the poor are removed to make way for ‘development’.

Kennedy Road
Government statistics for Durban show that 920,000 people, half the black population live in informal settlements (Beresford 2006:25). The Kennedy Road settlement next to Clare Estate, Durban, is home to around 7,000 people. Most residents are originally from rural KwaZulu-Natal and the Transkei. Kennedy Road, like many squatter communities in South Africa was started in the mid-80s as the apartheid state weakened and people from rural areas moved to the cities in search of a better livelihood, access to good schools, a desire for city life, escape from traditional authority, and to reunite families. The settlement is described as having a ‘vibrant collective life’ (Pithouse 2006b:21) including a creche, churches, a vegetable garden, shops, pubs and ‘all kinds of cultural, sporting, religious and mutual support projects’.

Many residents still have no viable livelihood. Main sources of employment are in the informal economy, such as informal trading, casual labour, and recycling materials for money (Beresford 2006:26). Other frequent sources of employment are day work in Durban’s industrial area, as cleaners or domestic help, or at the neighbouring Bissar Road dump.

Municipal Services
Amenities in the settlement are minimal. There are 6 toilets for 6,000 residents, and even these are the recent result of popular mobilisation. This is a threat to health and a risk for the safety of women and children, as well as imposing an additional level of unpleasantness for people living with HIV/AIDS. There is no electricity in the settlement and shack fires are a regular occurrence, there were 9 last year. State services, such as the fire brigade and ambulances are also likely to overlook the settlement, and rarely come when called. The local health clinic is uncooperative and has been know to send people with serious conditions away with a handful of painkillers.

The police are hostile, and often racist, and frequently harass shack-dwellers on the assumption that they are criminal, while simultaneously refusing to investigate crimes (such as theft and murder) that occur in the settlement. The community response has been to form Kennedy Road Safety and Security Committee which will take reports of crimes and respond to the matter. If they need to, they will then take it to the police. The police response was to frame them for the murder (despite at least 50 witnesses to the contrary) of a man who died (after a beating) in police custody (Abahlali 2007b).

Since the movement formed members have faced more than 200 arrests, frequent police assault as well as death threats and intimidation from political parties and landlords.

Shacks belonging to people scheduled for relocation to Durban’s periphery, and shacks not authorised by the municipality will be subject to demolition. Little warning is given. Shacks will be torn down even with people still inside (Giles and Khan 2006).

About half of the community is not supplied with houses but they still tear down the peoples houses because they say the application form wasn’t signed.

If you didn’t put your signature down to agree that you going to be moved out, then they throwing you anyway, they break your house and then you have to live in the bush or something. (Philani Zulungi, in Giles and Khan 2006)

The settlement is recognised as a political entity solely for votes at election time and political requests are otherwise responded to with food (breyani) or the police.

At this point in time, no government, of no country, will say that its people have been liberated but yet I mean they are living in such an unhygienic conditions, so I mean it is the reason why we are now standing up and saying let us help our government I mean we are prepared to ensure that the development is going faster than it has been planned. (Zikode, in O’Sullivan 2005)

4.2 Organisation

“Struggle is a school”

Abahlali began in 2005. In terms of people mobilised, Abahlali is the largest organisation of militant poor in post-apartheid South Africa. The movement formed after shackdwellers at Kennedy Road blocked a major road for four hours and held it against the police in protest at the sale of a piece of land that had long been promised to the community for housing. The movement now has tens of thousands of members in over 40 settlements.

Abahlali’s struggle is for services, housing, and inclusion by the local council, equal treatement by local police, and an end to intimidation and evictions by local landlords. Although the dynamics of international capital and the changing nature of state sovereignty are relevant, as Ashwin Desai has commented, ‘from the point of view of the poors, reforms in these arenas are not possible, nor are they particularly desirable’ (Desai 2002:143).

Despite tactics such as the symbolic burial of Councillor Baig, occupying council premises after being made homeless by eviction, and marching in defiance of the law, Abahlali do not articulate an anti-state, or even anti-government stance. Although many members feel betrayed by the government, the movement is described as a non-political tool aimed at ensuring services and security of tenure.

This movement is a kind of social tool by which the community hopes to get quicker results. This has nothing to do with politics or parties. Our members are part of every political organisation that you may think of. This is a non political movement. It will finish its job when land and housing, electricity and basic services have been won and poverty eliminated. It is enough for us to be united until our people have achieved what is wanted – which is basic. But until that is materialised we will never stop. (Zikode 2005:3)

Abahlali’s politics is non-ideological, and the movement describes itself as ‘non-political’. Politics is something associated with the government and is unattractive to people who live in the shacks (Patel 2007). Political debates are not articulated in theoretical terms, although there is lively contestation over the extent of state engagement, the strength of autonomy, and choice of tactics (Patel 2007).

The legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle is that people still have a strong attachment to the ideas that the ANC is associated with. Dissatisfaction is placed on corrupt and inefficient politicians but not the party as a whole. Part of the struggle for Abahlali is to ‘reclaim the soul of the ANC’ (Patel 2007).


Although the originary protest at Kennedy Road is frequently presented as ‘a sort of social flash of lightning’ (Badiou 2005:108), the self-organisation of the community has some roots perhaps in the previous work of NGOs, and the Kennedy Road Development Committee, affiliated to SANCO.

One of the first organisations operating in the settlement was the Urban Foundation, a South African pro-market NGO with some success in involving the private sector in the upgrading of informal settlements. At Kennedy Road they built a community hall which provided cultural, social, and political space. The Urban Foundation also provided 5 toilets (which no longer flush) and five taps (Cele 2006). The Church Land Programme continues to assist Abahlali in their struggle, and activists provide support at marches and meetings (Patel 2007).

It should be noted that the initial formation of Abahlali was aided by the contacts that Zikode and others (working as the Kennedy Road Development Committee) made while providing care services (in the absence of state-provision) to people with HIV/AIDS living in the settlements.

we take care of 575 HIV-positive people, orphans and vulnerable children…The creche looks after 35 children every day and we make sandwiches for the older children. Every month, we take food parcels to the 60 poorest families. (Zikode quoted in Ardé 2007)

The movement formation was also due to Kennedy Road having a ‘strong democratic culture’. Kennedy Road Development Committee was a loyal ANC structure, which worked within the system for over ten years, and got nothing. This led to a collective understanding that the system was not working. Because of the democratic culture, everyone knew what was happening, and the community was solid. When the community discovered the sale of the land at Elf Road that they had been discussing with the council for new housing, people blocked the streets and the settlement broke with the party (Pithouse 2007).


Abahlali is multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-national. It operates on the principle that everyone living in a settlement is from that settlement and has full rights to participate in the political life of that settlement irrespective of their origins. The movement is best known for having democratized the internal governance of many settlements. The first substantive item on Abahlali’s Constitution is to improve the lives of shackdwellers by ‘working to fully democratise the internal governance of all settlements’ (Abahlali 2006).

While there is always some form of governance structure in settlements, these take a variety of forms. In many instances settlements are controlled by elites – people with money, political connections, or people who got there first. Some times these structures are repressive, some times they are o.k. In Durban, in the city, settlements are controlled by ANC people, often in exchange for petty favours in exchange for the delivery of the population as voters (Pithouse 2007). Settlement committee are often not elected and do not allow political organising. Forman Road, the second settlement to join Abahlali was run by a woman who was last elected ten years before, and used armed men to enforce control. The settlement called a mass meeting, at personal risk, and in a show of democratic power the majority (thousands of people) decided to march with Abahlali. The old committee called in the councillor to meet with the settlement and twelve people came. After that the old committee’s power was broken and the settlement affiliated to Abahlali (Pithouse 2007).

However, there are still a number of settlements where people cannot support Abahlali openly. Lacey Road, is ruled by an ex ANC soldier, who is armed. Ash Rd in Pietermaritzburg is ruled by combination of political and economic elites (Pithouse 2007). Repression is not necessarily primarily from the state or business but internal to settlements, and this is the first obstacle for Abahlali’s struggle.

Once a settlement is democratised, democracy is taken very seriously in Abahlali’s work.

Our president is not the one who is taking decisions for us, everyone has the right to talk… we don’t just decide or the president decides – we vote. (Cele 2006)

[decisions are made by] discussing everything, everybody gets the chance to talk. (Lembede 2007)

System Cele also talks about the culture of respect in the movement. Members are expected to be tolerant and to phrase disagreements of opinion in a respectful manner, ‘we are brothers and sisters, we are family’, she says (2006). Pithouse (2006b:46) describes this as not only due to ‘deeply valued ethical commitments’, but ‘also due to necessity’:

There is no other way to build popular consent for a risky political project amongst a hugely diverse group of vulnerable people with profound experiences of marginalisation and exploitation in multiple spheres of life, including political projects waged in their name.


Each settlement has its own committee, often originally formed under SANCO. All Abahlali settlements have now broken with SANCO, which had an authoritarian style of management, for a more grassroots led approach. The movement and individual settlements meet weekly and are federated to form AbM. Meetings are the ‘life-blood’ of the movement (Patel 2007).

The movement is growing and now has branches in the town of Pietermaritzburg, 100km from Durban. However, the commitment to democracy is a constraint on the movement’s growth. Expansion makes it harder for members to attend meetings because of the distance and the travel costs (Patel 2007). Abahlali’s support has spread to the extent that shackdwellers in Cape Town have started organising and calling themselves Abahlali, despite having no links with movement and being too far away to form any (Patel 2007).

Abahlali meetings are usually attended by around 30-40 elected representatives from settlement development committees as well as local settlement residents. Decisions are made by consensus if possible, and by vote if not. Large decisions are referred back to local settlement committees for further discussion, and representative also report back on the meeting to their local community (Beresford 2006:40).

AbM selects office holders at branch, settlement and movement level through open elections at annual assemblies. Office holders are recallable, rotated, and mandated to act on specific issues at open weekly meetings. Office holders are not elected to make decisions but to ensure democratic process on matters relating to the issues.

The only really clever thinking from a leader given trust by the poor, maybe like myself, maybe like yourself, is that instead of talking more, the leader should provide a platform for the people to talk. So let us therefore allow other people to share their experience and ideas. Let us hear from everyone, especially those are not normally confident to speak in a place like this. (Zikode 2006b)

People who present the movement to the media and who travel to represent the movement elsewhere are similarly elected, mandated and rotated. Abahlali aims to fill 50 per cent of elected positions with women and this figure is never less than 30 per cent. At large assemblies male and female questioners and speakers are alternated (Abahlali 2007).

Equality must be asserted as a founding axiom not, as it is with vanguardist projects in the state or left NGOs, a goal that lies over some never reached horizon but which serves to legitimate the power to order the line of march now. (Pithouse 2006e:8)

The quote above again demonstrates the concordance of Pithouse’s political thinking with Alain Badiou’s (for similar statements see Badiou 2005 ) and is illustrative of the antipathy the Abahlali has towards collaboration with organisations (and, perhaps, individuals) believed to present the threat of co-optation. Abahlali are resolute in their refusal to allow themselves to be co-opted by the government and consultation meetings have seen members forcefully voice their demands.

Part of making a meeting democratic is declaring its resolute autonomy from the state, party and NGOs. Then and only then is it fully accountable to the people in whose name it is constituted. (Pithouse 2006a:28)

Pithouse describes Abahlali guarding their autonomy by finding ways of organising that eliminate reliance on external funding, as well as declaring an intellectual and political autonomy by thinking and doing their politics themselves (Pithouse 2007).

The SMI – Independence and Connections…

One of the controversies surrounding Abahlali has been events at the 2006 Social Movements Indaba (SMI) in Durban, a national social movements networking and strategy meeting. The concern with grass-roots democracy led to Abahlali protesting at the SMI meeting. Despite participating in the planning process, Abahlali felt that there was a lack of genuine democracy and participation due to NGO co-optation. When Abahlali pulled out of the planning process a month before the event, this was attributed by the organisers to the manipulation of the movement by academics involved who were in a dispute with their employers over their links with Abahlali. Abahlali (together with the Anti-Eviction Campaign – one of the founding members of the SMI) subsequently occupied the meeting to appeal to grassroots activists that community organisations should reclaim control of the SMI (Cassiem 2006).

originally we know what is SMI, communities are the SMI because they are the ones who are supposed to be in charge of SMI…SMI has never been effective in our communities…not even a single SMI rep comes to those communities…certain elements they want to use poor people so that they can stay rich at the end of the day.
Zikode, (in Vradis 2007, SMI footage Video 2, from 13.25 minutes)

It seems to us that, pretty much from the beginning, AbM have been a rather uncomfortable phenomenon for much of the established South African left. Unlike almost every other ‘social movement’ in the country, AbM emerged, grew, and exists, outside of the initiative and political direction of self-consciously ‘left’ NGO activists. As such, it has never been susceptible to the control that vanguardist activists exert; it has never quite fitted the fantasies of what a social movement ‘should’ be/act/talk/think like. The movement’s origins were within the actual experiences of poor people and that is where it orientated its praxis. (Anonymous 2006)

Despite the fierce protection of their independence, Abahlali does work with other organisations where it can avoid a patronage relationship (Patel 2007). Partly this wariness is due to the co-optation that is part of the political landscape in South Africa. There have been unpleasant experiences with the Centre for Civil Society in Durban, who used to request Abahlali’s presence at meetings with donors, often without informing them of what was being discussed, or providing a translation (Patel 2007).

Abahlali has formed links and campaigned with shack dwellers in Zimbabwe and Haiti . They have also working with the Legal Resources Centre in regard to recent illegal evictions in Foreman Road, Quarry Road, and Puntan’s Hill. The Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions provides support with research, and The Open Democracy and Advice Centre has assisted with Freedom of Information requests.

Abahlali are currently building a challenge to the harsh Elimination of Slums Bill, which they concede may be a response to their action. To do this AbM is using its connections with Cape town Movements and looking at broadening the coalition to draw in middle class and religious people who can be conscientised around these social justice issues.

4.3 Tactics

“Politics of the strong poor”

The movement has successfully fought against evictions and forced removals by mass mobilization, media work, and court action. Abahlali has also successfully used access to information law to force the city to reveal its plans for the forced removal of many shack settlements. They followed up this success by embarrassing government officials in two major radio debates and holding a noisy protest outside an government, business and donor meeting discussing housing for the poor. Their T-shirts read ‘Talk to Us, Not for Us’ . Abahlali also campaigns for the electrification of settlements (shack fires are a frequent cause of deaths), and provision of water and sanitation.

The movement now also works with street traders and has a further 3 branches of street traders, all of which are in the city of Pinetown. It also has members in two areas in Pinetown in which people live in poor quality houses rather than shacks and who joined because they became familiar with the movement as their communities are adjacent to Abahlali shack settlements.

The movement has organized numerous large marches and occupations of local councillors offices, as well as the local police station, municipal offices, newspaper offices, City Hall / the mayor and the provincial Minister of Housing. For example, residents from Lusaka made homeless after an eviction, moved with all their possessions to the front lawn of Councillor Bachu’s office.

We have learnt from our experience that when you want to achieve what you want, when you want to achieve what is legitimate by peaceful negotiations, by humbleness, by respecting those in authority your plea becomes criminal. You will be deceived for more than ten years, you will be fooled and undermined. This is why we have resorted to the streets. When we stand there in our thousands we are taken seriously. (Zikode 2005:3)

In a 2005 march to Councillor Baig’s office, Abahlali carried a coffin and a ‘soft fuzzy toy’ bear to represent the burial of their need for a councillor. The dramatisation was complete with a priest and wailing mother:

Who would lie as he had lied? Who would show the contempt that he had shown? Who would leave them to shit in plastic bags? Who would switch off his phone when they pleaded with him to intercede with the fire brigade when their homes were burning? Who would stand, gingerly, at the edge of the settlements dishing out breyani when they wanted an honest and open conversation? (Nonhlanhla Mzobe quoted in Pithouse 2006b:37)

Local councillors are a concrete symbol of the corruption and injustice of post-apartheid South Africa and present an attractive target for resident’s grievances. The marches have caused Councillors considerable discomfort and embarrassment, but they remain in power. This is despite the successful boycott of the March 2006 local government elections under the slogan ‘No Land, No House, No Vote’.

Although marches have resulted in consultation with officials and offers such as the cleaning of the toilets (now discontinued) at Kennedy Road or the offer (not available in writing) of the installation of two toilet blocks at Forman Road (‘charged at 10 and 20 cents a time’), (Pitehouse 2006b:35) local officials seem slow to respond to their constituents issues (Patel 2007). Rehousing is offered (indeed mandatory) at sites on the periphery of the city, with no community, poor schools, and no jobs. Most long-term settlement residents are reluctant to move (Cele 2006).

The marches have achieved some results. Service delivery protests might get small gains for water and sanitation (a tap or toilets for specific settlements (Pithouse 2007). Settlement residents (who are frequently overcrowded) are now able to build new shacks, which before would have been demolished because they were not regularised. Now the council will register them and give them a number. This qualifies them for ‘service-delivery’ but also allows the municipality to monitor settlements for social control.

The main issue of opposing forced relocation has reached a stalemate. Since Abhalali has formed the number of evictions in affiliated settlements has been reduced. The municipality no longer tries to evict big Abahlali settlements (because they know they can’t), but they refuse to acknowledge the shackdwellers’ right to live in the city (Pithouse 2007).

Since marching on the police station and its notoriously racist commander, Nayager, police harassment of shack-dwellers has been lessened. Abahlali is currently sueing Nayager for the wrongful arrest and assault of S’bu and Philani and shooting of Nondomiso Mke on 12/9/06 with Shanta Reddy and X-Y (a Dutch NGO) and Amnesty International (in London) in support.

Perhaps, the most important result of mobilisation is the increase in dignity and empowerment for shack dwellers.

For us the most important struggle is to be recognised as human beings. (Zikode 2005:2)

The state, media, and NGOs, now accept the agency and autonomy of shackdwellers. The movement has led to a shift in thinking that shackdwellers are able to think for themselves and have the right to participate in discussion (Pithouse 2007). Before the mobilisations in 2004 and the birth of the movement shackdwellers didn’t appear (or weren’t represented) in public space as thinking people. Now when issues are debated in the media Abhalali representatives are invited to discuss their situation on equal terms with government officials. This has shifted the situation of shack dwellers from being objects to subjects (Pithouse 2007).

Abahlali are also making more use of the law and the courts than they could initially, as their increased media profile has enabled them to develop a network of lawyers who will work pro bono (Pithouse 2007).

At the beginning of the movement, Abahlali acted through mass mobilisations and displays of power, but this year there have been less of these spectacular sort of actions. While a mass march is planned for 28 September, Abahlali is now doing more work in settlements dealing with particular day-to-day issues: transport, housing, services, democracy, evictions. They are ‘building solid cadre of people in each settlement, digging in for the long haul… (Pithouse 2007)


Thirteen years after the end of apartheid, the legacy is still apparent. South Africa demonstrates the problems with a model of social change that allows disconnected leadership and vanguards to gain power. The assimilation of the anti-apartheid struggle by the ANC, and post-apartheid ANC economic policy have led to increasing poverty and marginalisation for many of the countries citizens. The weakness of the state, NGOs, and the traditional left to resolve the situation is apparent. This has resulted in a situation where people are forced to do things ‘on their own’, not out of ideological commitment, but out of necessity.

The grassroots community structures of the anti-apartheid struggle have provided South Africans with a living memory of participatory militant politics. This combined with the betrayal of their belief in the ANC has engendered widespread popular dissent among the poor. Abahlali, perhaps because of the Kennedy Road Development Committee’s good democratic structures and patient work inside the state system has become the first formation of this dissent into a mass movement.

While a commitment to democracy may slow down the process of the movement, it is also likely to allow for genuine growth and for participants to continue their association over time. Ethically, it is part of the prefigurative politics that allow a hermeneutic circle between means and ends. This is the reason for ideological fluidity. As the situation changes over time, ideas, goals and tactics will need to be re-evaluated in order to remain relevant and effective.

The shift from production to consumption / re-production as a site of struggle is not necessarily a backwards step. While people have less structural power in their communities than in their workplaces, they are also more cohesive. Abahlali’s work shows the strength and solidarity that is possible when a community organises around a shared commitment to equality, democracy, and independence. An inclusive, relevant, and powerful politics is possible when it begins with the real needs of the people who articulate it. Only in this way will our resistance be able to constitute itself as a significant force for real change.

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