The Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research recently published an in-depth interview with S’bu Zikode from Abahlali baseMjondolo. This is an edited excerpt.
Tricontinental: Could you tell us how Abahlali started and how it has developed?
Zikode: Our movement was born in a shack settlement in Durban in 2005. The people from the Kennedy Road settlement in Clare Estate had been promised a piece of land for public housing. This land was sold to a private businessman for profit. The people took to the streets. We blockaded a major road in February 2005. When the elected representative responded by describing us as criminals and calling the police to attack us, we realised with shock that we were on our own. After this shock, a series of serious discussions were held in settlements across Clare Estate that resulted in the formation of the movement eight months later, in October 2005. When Abahlali was formed — this is a point that I always want to emphasise — there weren’t any clever individuals that sat around the table and thought of building this movement. We built our movement out of anger, hunger and frustration. It was built out of need.
Most popular protests in South Africa use road blockades as a tactic. What is significant is that although there were so many protests around the country, we were able to sustain that protest and turn it into a movement. We did not only organise our locality. Neighbouring
communities also got involved. They said, “We identify your demands with our demands. We can amplify our voices if we all unite”. So, this unity was organic. This movement grew from anger to the table, not from the table to anger.
The movement started because of landlessness and because people were homeless. The question of land became central in our movement. When poor people come to cities, first of all they do not have jobs. If they do it is in domestic work, which doesn’t pay much. As a result, people cannot afford to rent flats. What they tend to do is occupy a piece of land and build themselves shacks.
Now, why did we have to resort to land occupations? The state was not prepared to provide state-assisted housing. South Africa has a programme to build housing for free for the impoverished. But that scheme is often monopolised by politicians. You’ve got to pay bribes to get those homes. You’ve got to be very close to the local politicians to be put on to a list of people for those houses. At times, women have to undergo sexual harassment in exchange for getting on to the housing list. There is a lot of corruption in housing allocation. There was no clear plan or policy on the side of the cities as to who gets the housing and how. If there were to be policy, it would not be followed. They have lied to us. So, we feel that it is better for us to find ourselves a piece of land and occupy that piece of land.
Occupation as a political act to address the question of homelessness has always stemmed from a genuine need of people to occupy land to build houses for themselves. Obviously, there is a scarcity of housing. However, people do not want to remain homeless when there is plenty of land, irrespective of whether or not the government is prepared to give it to them legally. In South Africa, we come from a history of land dispossession through colonialism and apartheid. Land was dispossessed from the majority of black people. If you want to correct the imbalances of the past, you can’t forget that there is this history that land was stolen from the black majority in South Africa. As a way to redress that, occupation becomes key. Because how do you buy something that belongs to you? That’s the political intervention: we were dispossessed of our land. Now it is time to slowly, slowly get our land back.
TI: Could you tell us about the repression that your movement has faced?
Z: We are facing serious repression in South Africa, especially in Durban. A number of our comrades have been assassinated, and others have been murdered during protests and evictions. Everyone who joins our struggle accepts this risk. And we tell comrades from the onset that when they sign up to join Abahlali, they could die. We have buried comrades. We continue to bury comrades. Comrades continue to take the risk because they do not want what is otherwise their fate — to die slowly, but surely, to die without dignity.
Our comrades are killed by the police during the protests and by the politicians and their hitmen, their gangsters. They are also killed by Anti-Land Invasion Units, which our cities developed to essentially become military formations against the poor. They have become extremely well-armed when dealing with their citizens. Politics has become a way to get rich and people are willing to kill or do anything to become rich and stay rich. We move from funeral to funeral.
We bury our comrades with the dignity that they were denied in life. Many of our comrades cannot sleep in their own homes or cannot leave their homes after dark in the so-called democratic post-apartheid South Africa. Repression comes in waves. There is violence and there is co-option. If they cannot kill us, they try to co-opt us into political parties and into non-governmental organisations.
TI: You mentioned that the shack dwellers movement came out of a spontaneous moment. How have you been able to sustain that and turn it into a movement? What structures has Abahlali developed that have helped sustain your movement?
Z: If you want to join Abahlali, we encourage you to speak to your family and your neighbourhood. It becomes your responsibility from the onset to organise a core group that we can come and present to. You invite us, even with a few people, and then we come and present what Abahlali is. We discourage people from joining Abahlali as individuals. It doesn’t help us, and it doesn’t help them either. So, you will invite us to your community and you organise your community before you become a part of Abahlali. And then, once we make our presentation, we leave the community to engage among itself and decide whether or not they want to join Abahlali as a block. One person signing up to Abahlali membership is not going to make a difference when people are facing evictions.
There must be a minimum of 50 members signing up to Abahlali. We do not rush to sign members up. It takes months or even years to join our movement. Democracy can be very slow and often very boring, and we have been very patient to live up to that. When the 50 members are reached, we come back again for what we call political education.
We do research prior to going to each place. We want to learn about the troubles faced by that community. We want to find out whether they face evictions and police brutality. We want to learn about the poverty and joblessness. We want our political education to be focused to their needs. We don’t generalise. We must focus on why they wanted to join Abahlali in the first place.
TI: You have talked about the “psychological aspect” of Abahlali. Could you tell us what you mean by this?
Z: What I have learned from the areas in which I grew up is that poor people tend to not trust other poor people. For them to trust you, you must be well dressed, you must be driving a big car. Then they believe that you are a role model, you can be trusted. However, what we have learned from the very same smart people who drive big cars is that they are actually not role models. They lie to poor people. In fact, what makes them rich is the fact that they lie to people, they undermine people, they hide information, they are corrupt to maintain power.
From the psychological point of thinking, what Abahlali has been engaged in is to undo that form of thought. To say, look, the people that we were trusting the most because of how they dress, because of the cars they drive, they are actually not good people. Let’s trust our own people who have nothing. But, of course, our people will have to demonstrate if they deserve our trust. That is part of what we have done.
I always make a point that our humanity should not be judged by our socioeconomic status, because that’s misleading. If I drive a good car, if you are going to trust me, and you think I’m a better human being because I have a big house, you will miss the point. Judging people based on their socioeconomic status is always misleading. So that’s what we teach the poor. To trust one another.
The forces that are fighting against us are man-made. They are not God-made. The reasons why people are kicked out of our cities is because of the policymakers and the authorities that we elect to power. These are people whose political views produce policies that prevent the people from getting access to homes. They are political by nature and therefore require political intervention. Because the forces are political, we need to get our political tools right.
Politics starts with the everyday lives of people. So, we must undertake political education that understands this. You cannot start with lots of political jargon. If you start with a debate over capitalism versus communism or socialism, then you confuse people on the ground. What does capitalism have to do with ordinary men and women who are homeless? That question needs to be explained from homelessness outwards. You have to start with homelessness, with the lack of water and the lack of electricity. Then you can explain the system, how the system of private property degrades the lives of the millions to benefit the few. You have to start with what people understand and then build the theory.
You can have brilliant ideas, but they will fail to become part of the masses if they are detached from people. These brilliant ideas will then have no impact on the world, will make no difference to people. Our popular education must be humble.
It must be geared to people of different backgrounds, including the educated. But the educated, including teachers, have to know that their knowledge should not give them permission to hijack the movement. The people have to move together. Our popular education has to build on that lesson.
For us, dignity is at the centre. Dignity is the ethical core. The dignity of human beings is universal and non-negotiable. It is the point from which resistance is built. Humans are dignified, and they demand to live in a dignified way.
Our struggle for dignity and for a dignified world is long and it is hard. It will not be achieved overnight. It may take years for us to win the question of land and to win on our other challenges. People will be beaten and even jailed. Lives will be lost. For this long struggle, we have to build the confidence, courage and determination of the masses. Popular education is key here.
Despite everything, our movement has not just survived, it has grown. And it continues to grow. We continue to occupy land, to build homes and to appropriate water and electricity. While the government, the political parties and some NGOs are debating how to achieve land reform from above, we are achieving land reform from below.
We have no choice but to live like dignified human beings.
The Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research published a transcript of this interview as its 11th dossier. The full interview is on the Tricontinental website.