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The state has failed the poor in South Africa. Now they must organize themselves and demand an equal place in society, even when this is very difficult. It means that they must survive repression

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


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 delivery.

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 order. 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 is 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.