‘We were promised a piece of land. That land was sold to a businessman. Anger welled up.’

✑ S'BU ZIKODE (INTERVIEW) ` ╱ ± 6 minutes
‟We were able to sustain that protest and turn it into a movement.

The South African shack-dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo is fighting for land reform and dignity for the poor and dispossessed. S'bu Zikode, one of the founders, explains the origins in an interview with Tricontinental Institute.

From: Tricontinental Institute (Dec '18) ╱ About the author(+)
S'bu Zikode (1975) was a founding member of the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement of shack-dwellers and its first president. See a short biography on Wikipedia and an article about his life and mission on the news site Ozy. In a 2013 article in The Guardian he explains the origins and goals of the movement.

Twenty-four years after the end of apartheid in South Africa, the majority of the country’s poor and dispossessed continues to live under precarious living conditions despite decades of promises of improved housing conditions. According to the UN Habitat’s 2016 World Cities Report, one in eight people across the world currently lives in slums, and 56 per-cent of the increase of slum dwellers in “developing regions” between 1990 and 2014 were in sub-Saharan Africa. In this context, the shack-dwellers’ movement – Abahlali baseMjondolo, or AbM— is among the organizations of the world’s poor and dispossessed fighting for land reform and dignity. Despite waves of repression by the state, AbM membership now numbers over 50,000 in settlements across the country since their founding in 2005. Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research interviewed one of the movement’s founders, S’bu Zikode. In a new dossier from Tricontinental Institute, Zikode talks about the essence of the shack-dwellers’ movement—what they are fighting for, who they are, what they have achieved, and what we can learn from them.

Zikode's answer to the first question, on the political and economic roots of the movement, is published below. The other questions and answers, on the organization of the movement AbM itself and the repression it faces, can be read in the complete dossier on thetricontinental.org.

Could you tell us how Abahlali started and how it has developed?

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 private 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 realized 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 emphasize – 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.

There wasn’t any proper idea that we wanted to start up something.

The state makes promises. The state breaks its promises. People respond. We were promised a piece of land. That land was sold to a businessman. Anger welled up. We brought traffic to a standstill for hours, demanding answers from the authorities. Most popular protest in South Africa uses 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.

What made that possible is that the state was prepared to lie and put lies ahead of the truth and put profit ahead of human needs. Because they were prepared to continue lying, I think that act really enabled us to put sustaining plans in place to resist. 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.

Ours is a politics of the poor – a homemade politics that everyone can understand and find a home in.

Since 2005, we have won many victories and survived waves of serious repression. A number of our comrades have given their lives to the struggle. We’ve lost many comrades who struggled for a world in which everybody lives in peace and harmony. In April 2018, our audit of members in good standing in Durban passed 50,000. We have branches in more than 40 land occupations in Durban and in 5 provinces across the country. Recently our membership in rural areas, particularly on the side of the Eastern cape closer to Durban, has been growing.

When it comes to land occupation, it’s something that we did not do from the start. The movement was 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 really doesn’t pay much. As a result, people cannot afford to rent flats. What they tend to do is to occupy a piece of land and build themselves shacks.
‟Occupation becomes key. Because how do you buy something that belongs to you?
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 in order to be put in 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. So, we realised that we can no longer wait on a housing list because the list does not even exist. We’ve been calling for a policy where there is a better housing list, where there is a clear democratic housing policy allocation committee. We are no longer going to wait for the government to act. 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.

Related: Poor Black South Africans Are Ready For Real Land Reform, But Who Will Benefit? by Boaventura Monjane.

Occupation as a political act to address the question of homelessness has always stemmed from a genuine need of people to occupy land in order 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 legally give it to them. 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.

The rest of Zikode's answers, on the organization of the movement AbM itself and the repression it faces, can be read in the complete dossier on thetricontinental.org.

Top image: by Madelene Cronjé / New Frame, 29 May 2018. Cato Manor has seen many territory battles between the shack dwellers and the Police after The eThekwini municipality started with its violent and unlawful evictions in the last two years. Mlungisi Mokoena was shot in the legs during one of these clashes.


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