Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

The members of Abahlali baseMjondolo describe their movement as 'made for us and by us' or, as their elected president S'bu Zikode describes, 'a living politics'. Pointing out the essential irrelevance of the Northern-produced term 'gentrification' to describe their conditions, Abahlali stresss that their situation is markedly different and results from the authorities' 'dehumanising hatred'.


We are here as elected delegates of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the South African shackdwellers' movement. We approach each challenge and opportunity from within our own 'living politics' which the president of our movement, S'bu Zikode, has described as a politics that:

'starts from the places we have taken. We call it a living politics because it comes from the people and stays with the people. It is ours and it is part of our lives… It is the politics of our lives. It is made at home with what we have and it is made for us and by us.' (S'bu Zikode, 2008)

Throughout our struggles, we have found that others want to define us and they want to understand our struggle according their own definitions and projects. It is always necessary to resist this and to insist that we think and speak for ourselves. Without this discipline, our living politics would die.[1]


We have discussed the issue that this conference will confront in a number of meetings and, last Saturday, in a camp (an all-night meeting). We have concluded that the idea of 'gentrification' is not one that can really be said to be part of the living politics of Abahlali baseMjondolo. It is not a word that you will hear shackdwellers in South Africa using a lot (or at all really!) to describe their lives or to analyse their situation. This is not surprising since the term was developed in the 1960s by Northern analysts trying to explain certain patterns in the historical development of mostly Northern cities. We know that the word continues to be used, and that it is used quite widely by now. We know that the patterns and issues it deals with are definitely important for all of us who are thinking about cities and who are committed to people's struggles for justice in cities all over the world. We are very clear that we fully support the struggle of the poor against the rich everywhere in the world – in Zimbabwe, in Haiti and also in England. But, from the perspective of the living politics of the shackdwellers of South Africa, we want to suggest that it might be more important to clarify some of the ways in which our struggle is not about gentrification – rather than trying to fit our story to match the theories and ideas developed elsewhere by others who do not know our story. This is why we can really get to know each other and our struggles that are different in some ways and the same in other ways.


Although there are lots of debates about it, 'gentrification' usually describes the process where richer people move into neighbourhoods that had been settled by poorer people but which, for various reasons, have become attractive neighbourhoods for these new groups of richer people. On the surface, the results of this can look quite good – if you prefer the aesthetics of wealthy people and their neighbourhoods to those of poor people! Buildings get done up and repaired, new businesses spring up to service these interesting new elites with money to spend lounging about in coffee shops, art galleries or whatever. But below the surface, the results are usually disastrous for the poor. They may have lived in, and helped shape, the 'edgy' atmosphere so attractive to some of these new elites, and their inner-city housing may have quaint and historical appeal too – but the rising land, housing and rental costs invariably squeeze them out. So people are evicted by the market.

What we must be clear on is that this is not the pattern that affects shackdwellers in South Africa. Our shack settlements, our homes and neighbourhoods, are under active threat of being demolished and destroyed by the state, and we are being forcibly removed. We are violently evicted by the police, anti-land invasion units and private security – including Group 4 Securicor from England. Rich people do not move in and renovate and refurbish our settlements! On the contrary, they want to eradicate rather than upgrade our places. They want to make it look as though our settlements were never there. So it is perfectly clear that elites in our part of the world do not view our settlements as places that are somehow quaint, if a little run-down. Their view is one of utter contempt, and that contempt extends beyond the way they talk about the places we live in – which they repeatedly describe as 'slums' and 'hotbeds of criminality' – to a hateful contempt for the people themselves. This is the dehumanising hatred and contempt we fight against. What we have demanded again and again is to be treated as human beings and citizens who can work with government to make improvements to our settlements on our own terms, so that we can remain in the places we live and make a decent life for the people who are there now.

Often we face resistance to our struggle as shackdwellers from more middle-class people living near to shack settlements. These groups, often sharing the broad elite attitude to shacks and shackdwellers of fear and loathing, can mobilise elite and political opinion against what we can perhaps call the 'de-gentrification' that takes place when we as poor people have occupied land and moved into areas reserved for the rich. It seems to be that the armed wing of the state, especially the police, as well as the party-political classes, are often very sympathetic to these middle-class voices and can join in this struggle to remove us.

Of course, as the movement of shackdwellers, we do not claim to represent all of the struggles of all the poor. We are aware of the struggles that have had to be fought by people living in blocks of flats in the inner city of Johannesburg[2] who face violent and frankly illegal evictions in a process that might be closer to 'gentrification'. But even there, what is happening cannot be seen as some sort of 'natural' process arising from the movement and changes in different social groups of Johannesburg – it is a malicious and aggressive project of the local state, backed by big business, private security and the thinking of the World Bank.


It does not surprise us to learn that, although the poor of other cities experience different patterns to ours, many of the results look more or less similar. It comes as no surprise that other cities also experience the process of elite projects trumping democratic ones, of rich and powerful people benefiting, and of the poor being pushed aside and right outside the cities. We, as Abahlali, have seen very clearly how our world is made to extract land and labour and life from the poor to benefit a small group of the rich and powerful. We have seen how, in practice, this has turned the idea of 'development' into a war against the poor; it has fertilised the elite fantasy idea of the 'world-class city' where the poor have no place, no voice. We reject this in Durban and we reject this everywhere.

We are therefore sure that we can find strength and solidarity with all other genuine and grassroots movements of poor people in cities all over the world, including those who organise and fight to resist gentrification's pernicious effects on them. Where resistance and contestation of these processes by the poor becomes a common, popular and political project forged in the minds and hands of poor people themselves, there we know we will find true comrades in a living politics that asserts the right of everyone to the city. We will support this politics full force.

We know too that gentrification is not only a threat against the long-established neighbourhoods of the poor. It is also a threat against spaces in the city that have been taken and appropriated by those who are not counted in the official order of things. Many young people in cities of the North who are called 'squatters' have already understood the importance of our own struggles in South Africa, and they have, like the Camberwell Social Centre, found important ways of being in solidarity with us as Abahlali. From their own experiences, they know a lot about evictions and the violence of the state that is unleashed against both them and us. Some of them have come to live and struggle with us for a while. They have been there when the police come to evict us, or when the fires race through our settlements. They are our comrades. We are talking about people like Antonios Vradis and Matt Birkinshaw.

Our movement is a scandal for the rich and the state. Perhaps the biggest scandal of a movement like Abahlali baseMjondolo is our refusal to accept this place of having no place and our insistence that everyone counts – and that refusal is made every time and everywhere that people resist being pushed away and aside by the rich and powerful. We like this idea of the ‘right to stay put’. We like it a lot.


So there are differences and commonalities but we also can't help wondering whether what we might call a 'resistance against the gentrification of our struggle' isn't one of the most interesting conversations to have. What we mean is something like this:

- though our struggle/s, we create new political spaces for contesting power

- this inevitably creates speculative interest from professional vanguardist 'activists' and 'civil society' looking for constituencies to populate their imagined fantasies of resistance and revolution

- they try by all means to invade and take over (often with offers of money) the space our struggle opened up and unless we sustain a living politics militantly resisting against this onslaught, the result looks very much like what the academics describe as the result of 'gentrification', namely, the poor get moved out once again, but the quaint and edgy appeal of the spaces they created has a residual value for the professional activist class who occupy it through their superior access to various international currencies – sometimes quite literally, greater resources and money, but also other currencies of organisational and patronage networks, media and communication technology that can 'represent' people's issues and struggles with no accountability to or insertion in the actual movements themselves that are the currency of 'civil society's' claims to legitimacy and relevance.

This is why we said at the beginning:

'We have found that others want to define us and they want to understand our struggle according their own definitions and projects. It is always necessary to resist this and to insist that we think and speak for ourselves. Without this discipline, our living politics would die.'


* This article comprises material from a conference in Manchester, UK, in August 2009.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] See the website of Abahlali baseMjondolo for more information at
[2] The Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) issued a full report on the Jo'burg situation in 2005. It can be accessed at