Abahlali baseMjondolo is a movement of shackdwellers and other impoverished people, such as street traders, that began in Clare Estate in Durban in 2005. It now has branches in five provinces, and is growing rapidly in the eastern part of the rural Eastern Cape.
The movement was formed in the wake of a road blockade organised from the Kennedy Road shack settlement. S’bu Zikode, and his partner Sindi Mkhize, were among the group of people, most of them young, who founded and built the movement.
Zikode’s prominence in the growing movement for land and dignity has meant that, for more than ten years, the couple have had to live with repression. Zikode was subject to serious assault at the hands of the police in 2006, for which he successfully sued the minister of police.
In 2009 the couple’s home in the Kennedy Road settlement was, along with the homes of other leading members of the movement, destroyed by a group of armed men identifying as ANC supporters. According to academic research they were acting with the support of the police and senior politicians.
Since 2013, a number of the movement’s leaders have been assassinated. In July this year Zikode went underground following public threats by a senior person in the eThekwini Municipality, and warnings from various sources that an assassination attempt was imminent. The movement has reported that there were two attempts on his life before he went underground.
New Frame visited Mkhize at her home to get a sense of what it has been like to live under this kind of repression. Before we start the conversation the children are asked to go to their bedroom, and the television is turned on. She explains that she has had to take charge of security for the family, and is often unable to communicate with her husband. “It’s like a nightmare”, she says.
Mkhize has often been close to the repression visited on her husband. In 2006 she ran barefoot from her home where she had been cooking, to the Sydenham Police Station when she heard that her husband had been arrested. She was waiting outside the police station while her husband was being assaulted inside.
In 2009 Zikode was visiting his mother in Estcourt, and she was at home in Durban, when the couple’s home was destroyed. She was woken up one night by an Abahlali member who warned her of what was to unfold.
Mkhize says the man knocked and said “Ma’Zikode – there are people outside calling your husband’s name and they say they want to kill him.” It was only her and the four children at home.
A group of armed men were moving through the settlement, declaring their support for the ANC and chanting threats like “We want to kill Zikode! We don’t want Zikode in the community! We don’t want Abahlali!”. Mkhize was able to escape into the night with her children.
One of the children, who was only four years old at the time, still recalls every detail about that night. They sought refuge in a nearby shack. “We did not know where to go – it was midnight", she says. She had to keep the terrified children quiet.
In hiding she received a call from a neighbour saying “Listen, they are in your house now, and they are destroying everything”. She remembers hearing the noise of the mob and the destruction over the phone. “I heard the noise of things being destroyed. I started getting shivers and I found myself frozen. I was at [a] loss for words because I was shocked.” She recalls this with a calm voice but says that it has not always been easy to talk about what happened, but that she needed to learn to be strong for the children.
In the rush and the panic she wasn’t able to escape with much. All she could take were some clothes, the children’s school uniforms and what she was going to wear at work the following day. Everything else that they had built over the years, from their fridge, to their microwave and cupboards were destroyed.
She adds that the family would still be living in Kennedy Road if the attack had not happened. “In 2009, we were forced to move … because of ANC members inside the community.” Since the attack in the Kennedy Road settlement the family has been moving around. The moving from one place to another brought emotional tension and financial constraints for the family as they had to pay rent and spend more money for their children to travel to school, and for her to go to work.
She begins explaining that “it was difficult…. the salary that you are getting is not enough for you to live. And I find myself ….”. She can’t complete the sentence as she takes a moment with herself to gather her strength.
Almost ten years later the family still live in constant fear. Mkhize explains that she always has to be on guard.“At night when the dog barks I have to walk around and see what is going on …. because we also don’t know what is going to happen and when. That's the life we live.”
Sitting at her dining table she recounts recent intimidation and death threats directed to her husband. In her view the threats that forced Zikode to go underground again came about after his testimony at the Moerane Commission of Inquiry. The commission was established to probe political murders in KwaZulu-Natal.
Mkhize says that Zikode gave evidence on the corruption in the municipality, and that the killings of Abahlali members is linked to people with positions in the municipality and the ruling party. As a result, she says, “Kwelikhaya lakwaZikode siphila ubomi bentshontsho" [in the Zikode household we live in danger].
She adds that, after the commission, and seeing the ongoing assassination of Abahlali leaders, and with the “police not prepared to investigate what is happening with the Abahlali movement”, the movement hired a private investigator. In an urgent meeting with the private investigator Zikode was told “You have to leave your house…. your life is in danger. There is a man by the name of Vilakazi from Isipingo hired as a hitman”. The movement has stated that claims of an imminent hit were confirmed by credible sources within the ANC and the police.
“Before I go to bed I have to make sure every corner is cleared... I fear everything… you don’t know when that person comes and attacks you "uzokwenzani" (what will happen) ….”
During the conversation with New Frame someone appears at the gate. There is sudden silence as Mkhize quickly takes careful steps to determine who is at the gate. Then, with a laugh of relief, she says “that’s my son coming back from soccer practice”. She settles back into her seat as her son enters the home and laughs again, saying, “the soccer star is coming back from training”. One of the walls in the home is decorated with his football medals.
Living under repression has affected the children. After the attack in 2009 there were nightmares. Today it is difficult to explain the situation to the younger children when they ask where their father is. Mkhize says “I try to hide the truth to protect them.” She worries about how everything that the family has been through will affect the children at school.
She admits that the difficulties have also taken a toll on herself. She notes that “At some point I wanted to resign. There was a stage when I could not handle the stress and the trauma …. I wanted to stay at home and manage my stress levels.” But she remains part of the movement and its women’s league.
“The life we living is not nice. Even with that we try and continue living for the Abahlali struggle as we committed that we will work for the people until their demands are met”, she said.
As the conversation with New Frame winds down she goes to the kitchen and starts dishing food. The children come into the lounge to eat and watch TV.