After three months in hiding, S’bu Zikode, a leader in the South African shack-dweller movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, finally re-emerged on 14 October. In July, Zikode was forced underground when threats were made on his life.
Four weeks ago, Zikode sat down at a rickety plastic table with his old friend Willie Baptist in Winneba, Ghana.
The scene, played out against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean and under a bright overhead light, disguised that Zikode and Baptist had led some of the most important struggles for land and housing over the past three decades.
Baptist, a grizzled Chicago native and former union organiser, was radicalised during the 1965 Watts uprisings in Los Angeles, when soldiers were deployed to suppress mass community uprisings against police racism. He spent decades organising homeless unions across major cities in the United States. Members of the movement, which numbered between 25 000 and 30 000 at its height, actively occupied vacant and foreclosed homes.
Meanwhile, back in South Africa, Abahlali’s membership has ballooned to more than 50 000, making it the country’s largest social movement. Soft-spoken and gentle, Zikode has played a prominent role in the movement’s spread from Durban’s shacklands in the mid-2000s.
It was around then that Zikode met Baptist while on a trip to the US. “I found him [Willie] very inspiring,” said Zikode of the meeting. “His analysis, I mean, his experience in the early days of the poor people’s struggle.”
While Abahlali has occupied vacant land as a strategy in South Africa, there are notable differences between the South African and American housing struggles. While there’s an acute housing deficit in South Africa, there are more vacant homes than homeless people in the US due to a housing surplus that has been on the rise in that country since the 2008 financial crash.
But the similarities in their experiences, and in their respective struggles for dignified homes, dominated the conversation in Winneba between Baptist and Zikode. Both agreed that housing is the biggest challenge facing impoverished people.
The dignity of a home
Zikode, exhausted from almost three sleep-deprived months in hiding, which he described as “organising under the shadow of death”, said that his activism was honed when he was first forced underground: “We lived in Kennedy Road [the Durban shack settlement where Abahlali began] for 17 years before we were attacked by the ANC in 2009. But when we were attacked, to at least have that shelter was something special for me. Because at least it was something I could call home for my children.
“You know, after I was displaced, really homeless, going to different safe homes, it was a turning point in my life. I said: ‘You know, I am an activist, and I am committed to continue.’ But in order for me to continue with my activism, in order for me to have peace of mind, I need to have a place to call home, at least for my children. Then I know they are safe; they have what they call home.’ I actually became more angry to discover how naked I was without a home. Now this is not about me; it’s about my family and the community where I live.”
Baptist, whose organising began while he was sleeping on the streets of Philadelphia, muttered agreement in a gruff Chicago drawl as his friend spoke: “Yeah, Yeah! Yeah, exactly!”
Sitting upright and speaking slowly, Zikode continued: “It is not just shelter. It talks to the question of security. The question of family. The question of the very same kind of society that we want to build … It is the foundation of humanity for me. A home makes you human – that is what it is.
“You are dehumanised without a home. Obviously, you cannot divorce housing and a home from the land on which this home must be built. You know, we talk much more about housing because people need shelter but, ultimately, we know housing cannot be built in space. There has to be land.”
Leaning forward on his elbows, his baseball cap casting a shadow over his thick spectacles, Baptist said being homeless has shaped his own understanding of activism: “I felt a deep sense of shame because that [being forced on to the street] also accompanied the breakup of my family. And so, I felt like I was a failure.
“In addition to feeling insecure and not having a home, in US culture, housing is part of the American Dream. To be somebody you have to have a home. It’s so deep in our education system, in our cultural development and so on. So, not having a home is a condemnation that you are a failure. And I didn’t realise I had that inculcated in me, that it was part of me, until I experienced being homeless.
“When you are put in a homeless situation, you feel it, the internalised oppression. And the way I got out was through organisation, through building family with other homeless families. Us living together, working together, and organising and protesting together – those things helped me personally.
“When they take your home, it raises something much deeper than just the house. It’s dignity, you know. My family, my dignity, who I am, what I am. Especially in the face of this gentrification. It’s like gentrification requires that they isolate the poor and homeless, and dehumanise them. And so any move on them – police brutality or whatever – they don’t give a damn, because they’ve already isolated them and dehumanised them. It’s a horrible feeling, man.”
The Walking Dead
Baptist said that the isolation and dehumanisation of poor people by the US economy, something he describes as all “about making money and not making human beings and families”, has “zombified” sections of the population. He said The Walking Dead – a popular US television series based on a Robert Kirkman comic book series about a zombie apocalypse – is an example of portraying poor people as villains. “You have among the population what they call ‘the walking dead’.
“I remember someone had me look at the movie The Walking Dead, and I said: ‘That’s homeless folks!’ This is how they isolate homeless folks so they can attack them.’ So I looked at the first episode and one of them looked like one of my brothers!”
Baptist and Zikode paused to share an ironic chuckle before Baptist continued: “They were just killing the homeless. There was nothing, no value of human life. And like you said, S’bu,” said Baptist, turning and talking directly to his friend, who smiled quietly in agreement, “You’re absolutely right, it’s more than having a home – it’s dignity. It’s about dignity, man, that’s a very strong source of initiative, and creativity and getting things done.”
When speaking about how to resist homelessness, and the kind of society they want to be a part of, Zikode and Baptist both emphasised the importance of friendship. “I think because we are human beings, you connect because of your humanity and your experience and those are depths that you share,” said Zikode thoughtfully. “Of course, struggle goes beyond – its about the kind of society you want to create.
“You want to do away with gated communities. You want to really create a community and that’s why it’s easy to become friends and comrades, and share your experiences and even tears if it means that because this is deeper. We’ve been through a lot and, of course, we need to get our narrative very correct if we don’t want our kids or any other person to suffer the way that we have suffered.”
Drawing his breath, tired but resolute as midnight approached, Baptist said: “Much of the propaganda serves to isolate and separate, and make you feel like you are by yourself,” he said. “Loneliness is all about the struggle for community because you can’t do anything by yourself.”