The oppressed must organise or starve

The social catastrophe in which the country finds itself after months of lockdown has left impoverished people with the imperative to build their power against an increasingly hostile state.

The Freedom Charter, adopted at the Congress of the People at Kliptown in Johannesburg towards the end of June 1955, declared:


All people shall have the right to live where they choose, to be decently housed, and to bring up their families in comfort and security;
Unused housing space shall be made available to the people.

By the 1980s, the Freedom Charter was a key document for militants in the trade union movement and in community-based struggles, setting out a minimum programme for a liberated South Africa. A good deal of its power came from the contrast between the aspirations for the future laid out in the Charter and the bleak realities, including mass impoverishment, confronted by black people.

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In 1985, photographer and activist Omar Badsha published a book titled Imijondolo. It was a photographic essay on the Amaoti shack settlement in Durban. In a blurb recommending the book, Desmond Tutu wrote that it was a “harrowing chronicle of what does happen to God’s children who are victims of a vicious policy … I hope this book will sear our consciences so that we will work to put an end to policies that can produce such human tragedy.” Tutu clearly assumed that a democratic South Africa would put an end to the situation in which people were forced to live in the conditions Badsha had photographed in Amaoti.

The following year, evictions in the Crossroads settlement in Cape Town became an international scandal, placing severe pressure on the apartheid regime. In the international movement against apartheid, it was widely assumed that the contestation for the cities, growing shack settlements and violent state evictions were all consequent to apartheid and would be resolved when democracy was achieved.

There were similar views within the popular struggles against apartheid. During the mass mobilisations of the 1980s, on the shop floor and in communities, questions around the distribution of urban land and the provision of public housing became central to both popular contestation with the state and the generation of an emancipatory horizon.

It was widely assumed that the end of apartheid would mean the end of the township as a racist form of urban planning producing a type of housing constructed specifically for black people. It was also assumed that the end of apartheid would mean the end of the shack settlement – not by destruction, which would leave people homeless, but by an end to apartheid spatial planning and the construction of dignified public housing.

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By the time the ANC was unbanned in 1990, the Congress of South African Trade Unions had issued a poster that read “Occupy the cities!”. The same slogan appeared on a huge banner in the foyer of the ANC’s new offices in Johannesburg.

The posters issued by the ANC as part of its 1994 election campaign promised “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” and made equally clear promises about housing for all.

Once in office, the ANC largely engaged in what can be called neo-apartheid spatial planning. People living in shacks, sometimes in well-located areas, were removed, often forcibly, to new townships far from city centres. These townships were usually far further from the cities than the townships built during apartheid; the houses were also much smaller and built to a far worse standard.

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It didn’t take long for the ANC to start speaking of shack settlements as a problem to be eradicated rather than as communities to be supported. The first date given for this eradication to be achieved was 2010. It was later shifted to 2014. The result was a return to violent state attacks on shack settlements. Once again, the ANC had descended into practices that are well described as neo-apartheid.

At the time, a line from a poem in Lesego Rampolokeng’s 1999 collection, The Bavino Sermons, seemed apposite: “What stank in the past is the present’s perfume.”

The shack settlement was not eradicated. On the contrary, the number of settlements grew at a rapid pace despite increasing state violence. Today, more people live in shacks than at any other point in South African history. At the same time, the state acts towards the residents of these settlements with routine and astonishing brutality. Evictions are usually carried out in a militarised manner that is, in many respects, profoundly colonial. Moreover, the wholesale looting of housing budgets has become a key mechanism for the ruling party to create a new super-rich class indebted to the party for its wealth.

Black boers

Across the country, grassroots urban planning, which often includes the occupation of unused land, has been seen in criminal terms. Instead of democratic deliberation and negotiation, the residents of shack settlements confront the state as a violent actor whose frontline functionaries often act with an explicit sadism.

To a significant extent, the most impoverished and vulnerable people in society have come to relate to the ANC elite – often described in grassroots struggles as amabhunu amnyama, or black boers – as oppressors. They have, in significant respects, taken the place of the old oppressors, rather than working towards popular emancipation and the undoing of oppression.

One small advance that has been achieved under the ANC is the system of grants. With systemic and rapidly growing unemployment, millions of people will rely on social grants for their basic survival in the foreseeable future. Grants do not enable anything like a secure and dignified life, but they do blunt some of the pain and everyday stress and suffering of impoverished people.

Today, New Frame has published a story on new research that shows the Covid-19 lockdown has pushed more than three million people into poverty and cost 2.8 million jobs. Two million of the people who lost their jobs were women. The research shows that more than 50% of people are unemployed, with the figure for young people at around 70%. Women bear the brunt of the crisis. During the Great Depression in the United States, unemployment hit its highest level at 24.9% in 1933.

Read it here:

The situation in South Africa at present is one of social catastrophe. It is difficult to think of a modern regime that has survived this level of social exclusion and suffering. Deprivation on this scale usually leads to an uprising of some sort. The one intervention keeping millions of people from starvation is the system of grants.

The statistics noted in the article published today show that unemployment is far worse in rural areas than in cities, at 52% compared with 35%. The obvious consequence of this disparity is that more people will move to the cities in a desperate search for income. This will inevitably mean more people living in existing shacks, the expansion of settlements and further land occupations. It will also mean an escalation in state violence.

But moving to a shack settlement is no guarantee of a better life. Half the residents of shack settlements are going hungry and far fewer of them are receiving the new grants established during the Covid-19 lockdown than township residents. Contrary to all the expectations and promises of the past, the shack settlement remains a site of radical exclusion and profound suffering for millions of people. With women making up the majority of people living in shacks, there is a clearly gendered dimension to this situation.

The only way out of this crisis is organisation. Not unlike the factory floor or the university campus, the shack settlement is a space in which people are thrown together and, to a large extent, share a common destiny. This makes them spaces in which organisation is relatively easy. That the social catastrophe is particularly severe in shack settlements makes it vital that all progressive forces – including those trade unions that remain democratic and committed to a more just future – support progressive organisation in these spaces with ongoing and meaningful solidarity.

We are in a situation where the choice for millions of people is, literally, to organise or starve.

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