In 2005 Durban’s shackdwellers started to build the Abahlali baseMjondolo (people living in shacks) movement, which in just four years has become the largest organisation of the militant poor, not only in South Africa but across the whole continent.
The broad aims of Abahlali are to prevent illegal evictions and the demolition of shacks; to demand improved service delivery such as clean water, electricity and proper sanitation; to challenge anti-poor legislation such as the 2008 'Slums Act'; to provide training and education to develop the skills of its members; and to build alliances with other land rights and poor movements in South Africa and across the globe.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Thank you both, the two of you for coming and meeting with me today. Mnikelo and Zodwa can you tell me a little bit about your backgrounds, and how you came to live in the settlements?
ZODWA NSIBANDE: For me, I came to live in the settlement, it was 2003 because I had finished my studies, I had to come to Durban and my mother was already staying in the informal settlement so I had to stay with her.
MNIKELO NDABANKULU: I came to this city after I was over 18 years of age, usually in South Africa when moving from childhood to adulthood, you have to look for employment in order sustain or start your own family. That requires someone to move from rural areas to urban areas, because the urban areas have more job opportunities then the rural areas.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: So that’s how you came to stay on Kennedy road is it?
MNIKELO NDABANKULU: Actually I am staying in another area called Foreman Road Informal Settlement.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Mnikelo, you were one of the founding members of Abahlali. And as I understand, the decision to form the movement was taken in October 2005, following the march on Quarry Road. What was the vision you had at that time, and what were your goals during those initial months?
MNIKELO NDABANKULU: Well, actually there was not an official conference or any gathering which was called where the people said, we must form an organization. It was not like the way NGOs [non-governmental organisations] are formed whereby people meet or have courses and decide to form a non-governmental organisation. The organisation was formed because of frustration and the loss of patience by the shackdwellers to the non-fulfilment of the promises, particularly the land and housing delivery promises to the people who live in the informal settlements.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What in particularly happened during the Quarry Road march that kind of spurred on the idea of the movement?
MNIKELO NDABANKULU: Actually the organisation was formed before even that march, the first protest march that the organisation staged was before it was officially called by the name of the organisation. It was when the Branch (which is one of the first branches to form the organisation) was promised a certain piece of land close to where they were staying. It started when they saw some Caterpillars clearing their land, people said: ‘Oh God at last, since 1994 we have been promised houses, here is the construction to start building houses.’ Then people started to approach the Caterpillar driver to ask: ‘What is really happening here?’ The Caterpillar driver said ‘no’, he is working for a private company that is going to build a big industrial plant next to the informal settlement. People were so frustrated and said: ‘No no no no, you cannot do such things, this is our land we have been promised it by the country, in no way can you come in and make business out of the land that was earmarked for housing, for us!’ The people started to mobilise one another and blockaded the road by burning tires, and around 40 people were arrested. They appeared in court and were set free; nobody is behind bars now. We then started to mobilise more communities, because we found out that there is a lot in common between the settlements, we started to organise to read the constitution and follow the protocol about what do you do before you stage a protest, and then the movement moved forward to today.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What was your vision, what were you thinking at that time, what was the long-term goal that you had in mind? In terms of your demands, but also in terms of the bonding of the movement itself?
MNIKELO NDABANKULU: The thing that unites us is the non-fulfilment of the promises that were made to us. In the near future we need the shackdwellers to be respected in dignity, to be consulted about the things that involve them. Talk to us and not about us. We don’t want the government to sit in the parliament and decide that we will do this for the people. We want to be consulted from the beginning of the process because if we people have never been consulted, then they might not know what people think is good about them. Because the people are not pro any party, they are human beings, they have their own ideas, so they need to have an input in something that involves their lives.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Abahlali has been described by its elected president S'bu Zikode as a living movement, a kind of ‘living politics’. What do you understand by that term – living movement, living politics?
ZODWA NSIBANDE: The reason why it has been described as ‘living politics’ is because this politics that we are standing for is the politics that is made by the people, through the people. It is also the politics that can be understood even by an old granny, without having to go and learn about politics. It’s a politics that everyone has a say in, for this reason the term ‘living politics’.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Zodwa, you are the general secretary of the Abahlali Youth League. Why was there a decision taken to form a separate branch of the movement for youth?
ZODWA NSIBANDE: As we have seen, the movement has been growing and growing, and although this is the case, as it is growing, the main founders are growing in age. The people are getting poorer so we will continue to grow. While still in action the young have to be trained because we believe that this struggle will still continue.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What sort of work do you do with the Youth League?
ZODWA NSIBANDE: We normally encourage the youth to participate in the development issues, because most of the youth think development issues have nothing to do with them, it's for people that are old. We also encourage the youth to learn; especially in the settlements you don’t see the youth learning. Although you are living in a settlement, there is a life there and so you must sustain yourself.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: As a woman and as the general secretary of the youth league and as a living member of Abahlali, you have multiple roles. How do these three roles integrate with each other? Also, could tell me a bit more about the participation and contribution from women comrades in the movement?
ZODWA NSIBANDE: As a woman of the movement – as well as the youngest woman of the movement – we respect the views of each and everyone. As I’m the youngest woman of the movement but have been part of its formation, it gives hope to other women: ‘No matter how old or young you are you can still participate in the making of the change’. It is not important whether you are a woman or a man. It’s not only men that can make a change, it is also women that can make a change. With this African culture, we believe that it’s only men that can make a change and the only place for a woman is in the kitchen – outside the kitchen, you don’t have to do anything. We as women have to be an example to other women and give them the chance to participate.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: One of the problems in South Africa today is violence against women and as a movement that campaigns for equality and respects everybody, how has the Abahlali movement managed deal with the issue of violence against women? Is this something you have had to address within your own communities? I am talking about domestic violence, rape, harassment, and so on.
ZODWA NSIBANDE: South Africa has a high rate of domestic violence but within the settlements, what we are encouraging is to form what are called citizen security communities that are able to encourage security. It is because it is easier for a person within a settlement to report a crime to someone they know and trust. Furthermore the members of the security communities lead as a good example. The security communities work hand in hand with the local police stations so that the crimes can be handled in a rightful manner.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Recently Abahlali has chosen to form an alliance with other land rights movements in South Africa. Could you tell us a bit more about why you decided to do this and how that works?
MNIKELO NDABANKULU: While we were addressing the shackdweller’s concerns we found out that everyone in his own corner is facing the same problem so we felt the need to unite our struggles. We amalgamated our struggle with the Rural Network which is an organisation standing for the land rights and the farm workers rights. As well as the Anti-eviction Campaign from the Western Cape, which stands for the rights of people not to be evicted from their houses. As well as the Landless People’s Movement (LPM), which stands for the rights of the landless people. It worked for us – for instance when Abahlali took the government to court, we only had enough resources to organise one bus to take us there. However, as we are allied with the LPM, the comrades came to the court in a show of solidarity. The media, the government and the judges can see that this is somebody’s bother, and can see that we are upstanding for the rights of the people by crowding the corridors of court houses with lively people that are standing up.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: David, you are from the Church Land Programme, could you give us a little background about how that organisation started? And also why you chose, as an organisation to build the alliance with the other land rights movements?
DAVID NTSENG: The Church Land Programme was formed in 1997 by two key NGOs in Pietermaritzburg, Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa. One being the Association for Rural Advancement and the other one being Pietermaritzburg Association for Christian Social Awareness, for the reasons: To look at land issues, land struggles and how rights of communities are secured on farms, especially on mission farms owned by the Catholic, Lutheran and other missionary churches.
Later in the year, having worked a great deal in the land reform sector, we continued to look at how these rights are protected to an extent that we realised, nothing much is moving in so far as the realisation of the dream to have a home, dream to have land to call your own without insecurity of tenure. Nothing was moving around that and as an organisation we started raising questions: Why does it take so long?
Part of the findings in asking that question was that its not about the pace of the land reform but the direction that the land reform is taking. The direction being that it is serving the neoliberal agenda. For land reform to take place, there has to be the willingness of the farmer to sell the land, or the willingness of the church to sell or donate the land. If there is not that, there is not much movement.
Secondly, when land is dealt with there has to be a convincing business plan by communities wanting land to produce or develop some entrepreneurship once they get the land. Now that underlines two things: One, people want land because it is part of their history, people want land because its part of restoring their dignity, people want land because it is who they are whether you want to proceed to entrepreneurship and become a commercial farmer or a small scale farmer. But this is people’s history, this is people’s lives. This is the extent of the mismatch as far as the land reform is concerned.
When discovering that, we said ok, Church Land Programme not only defines itself as an organisation working on land issues – we work with the people, we work with the land, and we work with the church. Because there is so much mismatch, it has to be talked about. It has to be raised in all corridors were we make presentations or we dialogue with people.
Now Abahlali formed in 2005, which is eight years after our existence as an organisation, and we only managed to draw links with them towards the beginning of 2006. Since then our relationship, when we work around it as an organisation, is that we have to employ a different kind of politics in relating to people’s formations. It has to be based on how they want that relationship to be, they being the movement, not how we as an organisation/NGO want it to be. So in a lot of instances we support them with resources and with presence of organisational personnel. But ensuring in whatever way that it appeals to what the movement is looking and asking for. There are spaces where we are asked to share an opinion on specific issues that the movement is faced with.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Although you are an NGO, an organisation, what do you think of the connections historically and also in the present between rural land rights and the urban shackdwellers’ movement?
DAVID NTSENG: There are very strong connections, one of them is based on the fact that both people affected in these areas are not given space to express their demands and both people in these areas are represented or over-represented either by what the state believes they want or what some of us as NGOs believe they want.
In doing that representation we are silencing their voice and in addition to silencing their voice, we are hitting them. This happens in both areas, in rural areas and in urban areas. In both instances they are neglected in a sense that they are first to live in conditions that do not allow their dignity to prevail and their humanity to prevail.
In both instances, what they are forced to go through is dehumanising and as an organisation we see the need to be part of the imagined politics in both these contexts. Where in rural areas people are saying we cannot allow ourselves to be subjected to the injustices that some farmers are putting us through but also what the government is putting us through by being insensitive to our issues. In the urban areas there are instances were even city officials demonstrate, openly the unwillingness to pay attention to the demands of people represented within Abahlali baseMjondolo.
This for us is immoral as an organisation that is uncalled for. We then try to draw the attention of the church leaders to this fact that we cannot fold arms when people are tortured in this way and in a so-called democratic society. Where is our conscience? What do we say about their humanity? What do we say about their right to reclaim their position as citizens of the country of South Africa?
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: There has been quite a bit of discussion amongst academics and activists on the nature of Abahlali’s demands. Whether these demands are simply about service delivery? Whether your vision is actually far more complex then that and much broader then simply the delivery of services? For example: You went to court regarding the Slum Elimination Bill, which is much deeper then just talking about service delivery. Could you expand on that?
ZODWA NSIBANDE: It is not about the service delivery as the media puts it, it is the way of the community of reminding the those in power, this is what you promised the people, so do it, when are you going to do it? And then the media says that it is just a service delivery protest. It is not about service delivery, it is also about human dignity of the community. It is the community saying, what you promised us, bring it back to us. You have to listen to us, you are accountable to us, you don’t only have to give services but human self-respect, dignity and life.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Why do you feel so strongly about the Slum Elimination Bill?
MNIKELO NDABANKULU: It is because this act is bringing back one of those apartheid ideas, which take anybody’s rights in the nation. For instance, the constitution of South Africa states that no one may be evicted from their house without an order of a court. But this act talks about evicting people, but it does not clarify under what criteria, it does not show that it is going to follow a protocol.
This act is going to make it and offence and a crime to resist evictions, which is not something that can happen in a democratic society. Resisting eviction in South Africa is a democratic right for every citizen, to say no to something they don’t like. This act says that if you resist eviction you might be fined for ZAR20,000 or you might spend 10 years in prison. The act was passed by a department that is not even a relevant department because it is a housing department; their job is to house. They don’t have the power to pass land rights, that’s the Department of Land Affairs and even they could not pass the bill if it was not hand in hand with the constitution because we will not allow that.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Abahlali also chose to boycott the elections, not to vote. Why was that decision made and what did you hope to achieve?
MNIKELO NDABANKULU: We are too patriotic about our country and we respect the heroes and heroines, which died for the liberation of South Africa, which gave every citizen a right to vote. Everyone was happy to vote, especially in 1994 for the first time. We voted, with the big hope that South Africa would change for the better.
The people’s government said that it would do one, two, three, and four for the citizens when it came in to power. After 14 years of patience we never got what had been promised by the people in government when they get into power. That frustrated us because we were voting because we hoped that something might happen after voting. Then when they don’t do the things that they promised us before elections, after the elections, it frustrated us.
We said to the government: ‘government, this time around we have voted more then once, with the one promise of housing and land for the slum dwellers, and you have never delivered onto that promise. This time around we will boycott our vote to show that we are no longer going to participate in something that does not work out for us.’
When we are saying, ‘no land, no house, no vote’ its not that we did not have the willingness to vote, its just that we wanted our government to be accountable to us and wanted our government to show respect to us. Because we said, ‘we do know that you cannot build houses within a short period of time’, but what did the government do to help?
Maybe they should conceive a memorandum of understanding our argument, to the people and the government, that in two years’ time, or one year’s time or five years’ time, we will build houses for you because this thereby promises that they build free houses for all. Nobody is accountable for these promises that are made on radio and through the media, there are no records in black and white that make someone accountable if the promise is never delivered.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: So what do you think are the real motives behind the government’s forced removals and the fact that they want to move you to the outskirts of the city?
DAVID NTSENG: It’s multiple issues but the most important one is that in every instance where there is a threat of eviction or an ongoing eviction, there is a development in terms of infrastructure, be it roads and whatever – big, big multimillion projects coming or going on.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: So are you saying there is a relationship between the government’s eviction policy and development of other projects in the area?
DAVID NTSENG: Very much so in terms of practice and what we have observed. In one area around Durban, a community of about 500 people was evacuated and forced off their land to make way for a highway. As we speak there is a big debate of about another threat of eviction pending for a community of about 10,000 families in northern Zululand, because there is a big development of a pipeline supported by a big company coming from Dubai to establish a mega shopping, entertainment centre that has never been seen on the continent of Africa, which will take in the region of ZAR55 billion to put up.
Now, that is not just evictions for the sake of evictions, it is evictions because there is a big mega million project coming. Varying in scale, ya? In some instances, in rural areas in particular, when these evictions take place it’s because farmers want to set up game farms and amalgamate their smaller farm plots. This is relatively speaking, when I say small. When they are put together they just fence their whole land off and introduce some game farming. Those who may have seen that a continuum of commercial farming is not taking them anywhere, they change land use from live stock or cash crop farming to game farming because they know northerners, and other people are still fascinated to see some wild life roaming around Africa.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Remember the huge out-spring of xenophobia in South Africa? Abahlali, unlike the government, chose to actually intervene by speaking out and opposing the xenophobic attacks. Why did you feel as shackdwellers, that it was important for you to intervene in those xenophobic attacks?
ZODWA NSIBANDE: As the movement, we feel that our brothers and sisters from other countries are becoming the victims because of the government. They were the nearest targets to the locals but the end frustration was directed to the government because of the slow pace of service delivery, and because of the not fulfilling the promises to the community.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: To end up, what I would like to ask all of you – I know this is quite a difficult question – what do you think is the most transformational achievement or success that you have had as a movement, and David, as an organisation, over, say, the past three/four years?
MNIKELO NDABANKULU: A long time before Abahlali were born, everybody thought that people from the informal settlements, also have informal minds. We showed them that we can be poor in life, but God does not automatically make us poor in mind.
Before Abahlali was born there was nothing on the news about the shackdwellers, even the media did not pay any attention, it was a forgotten society. It was only important during elections, for politicians to go into the settlements to catch their votes, and then forget about them. But now there is a lot of on coming news from the shackdwellers.
Before Abahlali, I never thought that an ordinary shackdweller can stand and say; ‘government you are wrong!’ and take the government to court. Although we are still waiting for the results of the Slums Act to see whether we are winning or not, we have 99.9 per cent hope that we are going to win because we know that the constitution is on our side. We have won numerous cases of evictions when the municipalities just went and demolished and evicted in the settlement without an order of court. We took them to court with our lawyers, and have won 10 out of 10 of these cases against the government!
Also when the government tried to ban our protest march we took them to court and we won! We never had the situation of losing a case against the government because in most cases, the poor people are honest and are victims of the violation of their right. They have never done anything, which is outside of the law of the country. This is a big achievement because in the history of South Africa, never have ordinary people taken the government to court and enjoyed a victory over it, a victory like we are hoping to enjoy when the results of the Slums Act case come out.
DAVID NTSENG: I will quote the words of Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement’s president S'bu Zikode. Three words come to mind: ‘Reclaiming, humanity, action’. That’s how he describes the work of Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement and that reflects the project to transform the society. When the movement starts off, as Mnikelo says, forgotten citizens, that concientise people about who they are, what they are about.
I also quote our catholic brother, Philipo Mondini who is back in Italy, when he said in one of the gatherings: ‘When I see people from the shacks, I see God, because not only are they made in the image of God but in them lives God. Whoever smashes their homes, smashes God’s homes, whoever puts them in prison, is putting God in prison.’ This talks about a bigger thing, that addresses who our society is? When you ask who our society is, what does the movement see as the responsibility of those that our leading our society? Now, if anything sounds, proves to be inhumane and dehumanising, this organisation stands it’s ground to reclaim humanity in action.
ZODWA NSIBANDE: We have achieved a lot because the main idea, was to reclaim the dignity of the people that are living in the informal settlements. This has been a success and the dignity of the people in the settlements has been reclaimed their voices have been brought back.
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
* Mnikelo Ndabankulu is a founding member and spokesperson for Abahlali baseMjondolo.
* Zodwa Nsibande is the general secretary of the Abahlali Youth League.
* David Ntseng is with the Church Land Programme, an NGO based in KwaZulu-Natal province.
* Sokari Ekine conducted this interview for Pambazuka News.
* This interview was transcribed by Steffen Fischer, who is an intern with Fahamu.