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The Shack dwellers in South Africa are one of the most marginalized communities, criminalised for being poor. Yet it is they who more often than not suffer from crime along with continued police harassment. These two factors have brought the shack dwellers of Durban together to fight the crime in their communities, says S'bu Zikode.

The poor were not born to be poor. We didn't become poor because we are lazy or stupid. In fact we have to work very hard and be very clever just to find a place for ourselves in this world that the rich have made for themselves. History made us poor and the history of our country is a history of crimes against the innocent. Because of these crimes millions of people are living in shacks and selling in the streets. The poor have the most to gain from an end to crime. More than anybody else we want a country where the human dignity of every person is respected. More than anybody else we understand that working for an end to crime is the responsibility of every one of us. It is our duty to God, to our country and to our children. We are prepared to do our part of this work.

But I feel oppressed when high profile people, including politicians, speak about crime especially since it is very unusual for anyone at their level to be a victim of crime. So few powerful people want to speak directly to communities. They prefer to make statements on the papers, radios and televisions. But when you make a statement there is no person in front of you to tell you about their lives. When you just make statements it is like you think that you already know everything. But when you humble yourself and talk to people you show that you know that you don't know everything. A proper understanding can only come from talking to everybody and for discussions to be open ended. That is why all the good leaders were humble. They were servants of the people, not masters.

Some kinds of crimes are planned in shacks. Others are planned in big conferences at the ICC. Both kinds of crimes make people suffer and must be stopped. However the truth is that with both kinds of crime, most of the time, the victims are not the powerful people but rather those with no power, the poor, the women and the children. Putting more poor people in prisons will only make them better criminals. The way to deal with crime is to invest our energy, resources and time in our communities. When human dignity is at the centre of our communities then our communities are places where crime is not accepted inside or outside.

There is a big problem with many local police stations. We will begin to deal with local crimes only when men like acting Superintendent Glen Nayager of the Sydenham Police Station can acknowledge that he and he alone can't deal with crime. If he keeps treating all the poor as if we are all criminals he will just be wasting his energy. He will just make us feel that the police are our enemies. He must acknowledge that he is too distant to understand the daily life at the grassroots level. He must understand that just because we can't address him like he can address us that doesn't mean that we are just rogues.

Prior to starting the struggle against the big crimes with Abahlali baseMjondolo I struggled against the local crimes. I joined the Police Reserve Force in February 2000 and I had been part of the Sydenham Community Service Centre. Before I entered I found an old African Mama with a baby on her back standing outside the door just helplessly waiting. When I asked her why she was just waiting there she told me that she had been chased out because she didn't speak English. None of the policemen on duty could speak isiZulu or even isiFanakalo and this hurt me. How can a police station serve the people when no one there can speak to people in their own language? I went inside with that woman to translate so that she could lay her charge and from there I decided to be a reservist. I underwent interviews, tests from the District Surgeon and trainings and worked as a Reservist at the Sydenham Police station.

Now that shack dwellers are fighting against evictions and for land and housing in the city we are all called criminals. The police think that they can arrest and beat us any time. They come when we are marching. Superintendent Glen Nayager comes when we are meeting and even when we are just living our daily lives. The Superintendent needs to understand that we are an anti-crime movement. We have a trackable record in working against all kinds of crime. He needs to think about the fact that although the police have arrested hundreds of us, the courts have dropped the charges every time. But we, the shack dwellers, have won a number of victories against the City in the courts. We work to make this a country in which there is respect for the human dignity of each person. We would be happy to work with the local police to make our communities and all the people around us safe if they recognised us as citizens. If our communities could work against crime in a partnership with police officers who treated us with respect, we could make our communities and neighbourhoods safe for everyone.

If the police continue to behave arrogantly towards the people like Nayager does, then I fear that incidents of people taking the law into their own hands, as it happened in KwaMashu recently, could happen more often. When police officers like Nayager take the law into their own hands thinking that they are above the law then communities start to do the same. We can only really condemn what happened in KwaMashu when our police force becomes a police service as Madiba instructed.

We need senior officers and politicians to make less statements and do more talking where people live and work. We need these discussions to be real discussions. We need the results of these discussions to be acted on. We need to build a country where the police serve all the people. If the police serve all the people then they will be trusted and it will be easy to marginalise the criminals in our communities and to organise not just against local criminals but also those high up who are using the country's money for themselves and making the poor poorer. Then we can make our country safe for everyone.

* S'bu Zikode is the elected president of the shack dwellers' movement Abahlali baseMjondolo. On 12 September 2005 he and the organisation's deputy president, Philani Zungu, were arrested on a charge of 'assaulting a police officer' by officers from the Sydenham Police Station while on their way to an interview with iGagasi FM. They had just been warned to cease speaking to the media by a senior official in the provincial Housing Department. They were released the next morning and all charges against them were dropped. Zikode and Zungu have laid criminal and civil charges against Nayagar who they have accused of beating and abusing them severely while they were in his custody.

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