SA: Statement by Abahlali baseMjondolo, shack dwellers' movement, on the power of organising the urban poor to advance tenure security (29/05/2013)

29th May 2013

Presentation by S'bu Zikode at the Regional Consultation on Security of
Tenure called by UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik, in

It is always a pleasure to write and speak on the organising strategies
and tactics of Abahlali baseMjondolo. I wish to take this opportunity to thank
SERI and the Ford Foundation for including our movement in this special
consultation. More importantly I wish to thank the UN Special Rapporteur
on adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik, for calling this meeting. We had a very
good relationship with the previous Rapporteur, Miloon Kothari, who we hosted
in the Kennedy Road shack settlement in Durban in 2007. We are happy to
welcome Raquel Rolnik to South Africa. When we formed our movement in 2005 we
made it very clear that talking about us was not the same as talking to us and
that we were determined to take our place in all discussions about our lives and futures. We are a democratic membership based organisation and we can
take our place in a discussion like this in confidence that we represent our
members rather than donors, projects or narrow political agendas.

The most serious problem when it comes to dealing with the poor from
above – from government, NGOs, universities etc - is the perception that we cannot
think for ourselves. This problem has even led some individuals and other
sectors of our society to think that it is their own job, a job that they
must be paid for, to think, represent, speak and decide for the poor. When we
ask to represent ourselves or explain that we will think and decide for
ourselves we are often treated as children, as criminals or as people who are being
used by the Third Force. And these days in Durban, when councillors, and other
people trying to get rich from public housing, are often gangsters there
is always a risk of violence – including torture and murder.

We are not supposed to want anything more than to just be passive
receivers of services. When we want to discuss our own future it is said that we are
being political and it is made clear that this is unacceptable. It is not
surprising that the poor are being violently pushed out of the cities in the name of

It is always said that our Constitution is the best in the world and that
we have good policies on housing. But the reality is that these laws and
policies are just ignored by the government when it comes to the poor. And there
in no difference between the ANC and the DA. They both break the law and
subject us to violent intimidation with impunity. The rights that we enjoy on paper
are not enjoyed in reality. We would like to ask everyone here to please base
this discussion, and any action that comes from it, on the reality of our
lives and not on rights that are only enjoyed on paper.

We have won some important victories in court that have made made a real
difference to people's lives. But we have also seen that victories in
court don't always translate to victories in reality. For example in Durban we
won a Court Order that forced the City to provide housing to people forcibly
removed to a transit camp in Richmond Farm. The City just ignored that court

Even when the law is in our favour and a court recognises this there is no
guarantee that the government will do what the law and the courts say
that it must do. And there are also examples where we have lost in court but won
victories politically. For example we lost in court on the matter of
evictions in Shallcross but, so far, we have won this struggle in reality as those
people are still living in their houses. In fact when we started our
movement in 2005 all the settlements in Sydenham, Clare Estate, Sherwood and
Reservoir Hills were supposed to be evicted but they are still there. People are
still working and children are still attending schools. In fact these
settlements are growing. This is due to years of organisation and mobilisation.

For these reasons I have decided to insist on basing my contribution on
the dignity of the poor and the need for this to be expressed politically
ahead of technical arguments. We want to win victories in reality and not just on
paper and that requires us to remain organised and mobilised.

The politic of dignity is vital. We must all learn to see poor people as
ordinary human beings who are also productive and who count the same as
all other people in our society. The dignity of the poor is the starting
point of our politic and it must also be the starting point of any living
solidarity with our struggles. Any action that says that it is in solidarity with us
but that does not start from a clear recognition of our dignity can only add
to the oppression that we are already facing even if it says that it is about
human rights or socialism. When we are talking about the urban poor we are
talking about human beings who can think. No intervention that is said to
be for us should be without us. Talk with and not for us. Think with and not
for us. Plan with us and not for us.

A serious problem is that many poor people have lost hope in the state.
It is clear to our movement that the state is no longer representing the
interests of the poor. When the state owns a piece of land it no different to when a
piece of land belongs to a corporate. There is no accountability to the
people. This is dangerous in a democratic country. The state should own
whatever it owns for the people or on behalf of the people. But the state
has become a monster. It is untouchable. It represses the poor with
intimidation and violence and it offers those who are willing to sell their souls an
opportunity to gather wealth and power by collaborating with our exclusion
from both the cities and the political life of the country. There is no
democracy for us in the state. The only democracy for us is that democracy
that we build for ourselves.

We have always recognised the fact that none of us has all the solutions
to the problems facing the urban poor. We welcome people and organisations
that can share their expertise within our struggle. But we have always warned
that any idea that is not grounded in our everyday lives and supported by
popular mobilization is likely to fail. We have always advocated that the
problems of landlessness, evictions and security of tenure can only be overcome when
we have built the power of the poor from below. For us it is clear that the
problems that we face are not primarily technical. They are primarily
caused by our lack of power. Therefore our primary strategy is always to build
the power of the poor and to reduce the power of the government and NGOs to
dominate us.

Organizing and mobilising ourselves requires us to stand together and to
demand an equal place in our society even when this is very difficult. It
means that we must survive repression. This can mean arrest, torture,
eviction, loss of jobs and even, for some comrades, death. It also
requires us to refuse co-option. This can mean that people have to have the strength
to refuse co-option from the parties, the government and NGOs even when
their own families have nothing. It also means that we must continue to define
ourselves and to develop our own analysis of landlessness and poverty. It means
that we have to constantly develop our understanding of the forces that create
poverty and that want to defend the status quo.

The state has failed to make land available to the poor. They have
decided to commodify land and unless this changes we will continue to have no land
for the poor. The social value of land must come before its commercial value.
People must be allowed to occupy unused land. It must be understood the
land is owned by the people. Abahlali have won many struggles to remain on
occupied land. We continue to occupy unused land and we will continue to occupy
unused land and to defend all existing land occupations. However we have not been
able to force the state to upgrade our settlements in partnership with
us. We have won this on paper but it has never become a reality. The state is not
prepared to go ahead with any development that is not delivered through
the structures of the ruling party.

Our own recognition of our own dignity leads us to organisation and
mobilisation and mobilisation is the basis for all our victories. Even
when have won victories in the courts these are also rooted in organisation and
mobilisation. It is only when a community or movement are well organised
that they can build real partnerships with lawyers and other experts. And it is
only by sustained organisation and mobilisation that we have been able to
win and hold our place in the discussions in the media.

But mobilisation is criminalised and repressed. When we protest we find
that instead of being listened to we face violence from the police. We find
that councillors are ‘leaders’ during the day and become ‘izinkabi’ (hitmen)
during the night. They do this without accountability. The situation is very bad
in KwaZulu-Natal. Political murders are becoming normal.

The ruling elite keep quiet. They say nothing. And most of civil society
and most the media don't care about the repression of poor people's struggles
and organisations. We require ongoing solidarity from lawyers, human rights
organisation and academics that are able to humble themselves to build a
living solidarity with us so that we can defend ourselves against
repression and to keep the space open for organisation and mobilisation.

Abahlali baseMjondolo has brought hope back to its members even when the
question of land remains unresolved. This question will not be resolved
legally or technically. It will be resolved politically. And it will only
be resolved when poor people count the same as all other people in our
society. This will not happen without sustained organisation and mobilisation.
This is why our demand for the recognition of our human dignity comes before
demands for service delivery and even land security.