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No Land, No House, No Vote by Sherry

November 20, 2010

When you think of Durban, South Africa, what do you imagine?

As the African east coast’s busiest port city, Durban is home to a bustling tourist industry. Picture a well-composed skyline of impressive buildings, extensive white beaches, and massive sports stadiums — not exactly the prototypical image of post-apartheid South Africa.

What few people realize is that Durban is home to one of the most renowned anarchist societies in the world. While they refuse to outrightly align to a specific political ideology, these Zulu-speaking “Shack Dwellers” (who also call themselves the Red Shirts) have created a massive community of over thirty decentralized shack settlements. They call themselves the Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement.

It all began in early 2005, when one shack-dwelling settlement on Kennedy Road spontaneously acted as an autonomous, independent collective to protest the sale of nearby land to a local industrialist; the land had been promised by local politicians to shack dwellers for better, federally-funded housing. The successful protest, first loosely organized as a road blockade, rapidly and almost inexplicably grew into a collection of thirty settlements with tens of thousands of supporters.

Now, in 2010, there are 10,000 people living in freestanding shacks crammed along Kennedy Road, their houses built of scrap wood and metal and plastic tarpaulin roofs. Picture a winding passage amidst a middle-class area, where shopping malls have sprung up on either side. A standpipe provides water, and scattered throughout are a collection of basic outhouses. Most of the shack dwellers work in the informal sector, in shops or markets, construction sites, or doing domestic labor. This is the Kennedy Road Settlement, home to the heart of the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement and over 2,600 families who consider themselves a unified community under such.1

The Abahlali baseMjondolo describe their politics as “a homemade politics that everyone can understand and find a home in”. They believe in politics that are shaped not by an outlined external ideology, but by the current and relevant experiences of its people. Politics derived from any singular prescribed theory, they argue, creates elitism and patronage. By building their political aims and beliefs directly and internally, they are more successful in addressing the realistic needs of its participants. It is very much a politics of the here and now. They have called for “a living communism” and are adamantly anti-capitalism, particularly in their beliefs that private land should be made public for housing.

In fact, the focus of the movement is to continually push for more housing and housing improvements in shanty towns. Without any organized hierarchy, this massive group was able to campaign for the provision of basic services to shack settlements, perform public protests against eviction, pursue legal action to oppose eviction and forced removals, and provide electricity and running water to many shack settlements.2 They continue to fight for settlements to have easy access to water, electricity, sanitation, health care, and education. Several settlements have set up successful communal projects such as gardens, kitchens, sewing collectives, AIDS support groups, and even football teams. In 2009 Abahlali baseMjondolo took the Provincial Government of KwaZulu-Natal to court to have the Slums Act — which obligated landowners, and then municipalities, to evict unlawful dwellers in slums — declared unconstitutional, and won. They have successfully constructed a women’s league, as well as a youth league, and have established the University of Abahlali baseMjondolo, which runs formal courses, seminars, and issues certifications.3

They practice direct democracy, in that every single member of the collective settlements has a voice in the actions of the group. There are few group leaders; the ones that are in place act more as facilitators than elevated bosses. They are elected via direct secret ballot every year, and even the Youth League within each settlement is given the vote. This truly democratic structure also reflects their surprisingly law-abiding principles. They describe themselves as understanding that day-to-day problems in their people’s lives are not necessarily technical, but political, and that they must move to approach and solve the issues politically and constitutionally. The Abahlali baseMjondolo believe in “a politics of the poor”, in the sense that politics are conducted for the poor, by the poor, and in a free and easily accessible place in the language(s) that they speak. The middle and upper classes, as well as political organizations, are not excluded from this model; rather, they are theoretically expected to accommodate to these places, and partake in politics in a democratic manner.

However, when these outside political bodies cannot accommodate the Abahlali baseMjondolo, they make sure their voices are heard. The Abahlali baseMjondolo are very much against the current structure of government elections in Durban, as well as the interference of external political organizations. In March 2006, they successfully boycotted local government elections with the electric slogan, “No Land! No House! No Vote!” They are against external humanitarian aid efforts which consist simply of a far-removed, well-endowed businessman donating money in order to quiet them. One founder and current leader of Abahlali baseMjondolo, S’bu Zikode, has commented that: “We have seen in certain cases in South Africa where governments have handed out houses simply to silence the poor. This is not acceptable to us. Abahalali’s struggle is beyond housing. We fight for respect and dignity. If houses are given to silence the poor then those houses are not acceptable to us.”4

Their strong stamina is not without setbacks. The Abahlali baseMjondolo have suffered from police brutality as well as harassment and random terrorizing since their establishment in 2005. Attacks on individual Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been reported, and theories that the movement is a secret militant “Third Force” have spurred hate crimes and murders. They also continue to battle efforts by the eThekwini Municipal Council for Durban to make Durban a “shack-free area”; the Municipal Council’s 2001 Slum Clearance Project aimed to relocate shack dwellers to houses constructed on greenfield sites is well-intentioned, but inevitably pushes shack dwellers to developments in the outskirts of the city, far away from job resources and opportunities.

However, their numbers continue to grow at an estimated rate of 10% annually, and they continue to take up issues concerning improvement of living conditions and the voice of the poor in politics. As of 2007, the city of Durban has recognized their peaceful power and negotiated directly with the Kennedy Road Settlement to upgrade the area, delegate the shack dwellers more land, and distribute provisions to other poor areas around Durban. In their five years of establishment, they have gone from being arrested and relocated for raising their voices to being a recognized political force and unified community in the area. Their cries of “Sekwanele!” (meaning “it is enough!”) resonate not only through the city of Durban, but also as a rallying call around the globe. They can be contacted at:

 

Abahlali baseMjondolo
Kennedy Road Informal Settlement
286 Kennedy Road
Clare Estate
4138
Durban
South Africa

 

 

1http://edinburghanarchists.noflag.org.uk/2010/07/south-africa-talk-follow-up/#more-391

2http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/50572

3http://www.abahlali.org/node/16

4http://edinburghanarchists.noflag.org.uk/2010/07/south-africa-talk-follow-up/#more-391

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 27, 2010 3:09 am

    not exactly the prototypical image of post-apartheid South Africa

    So what is the “prototypical image” of post-apartheid South Africa, (whatever that means), and where does it come from?

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