Serving our Life Sentence in the Shacks


People all over South Africa have been asking the leaders of Abahlali baseMjondolo as to why the government continues to ignore the demands of the shack dwellers. They have been asking why after all the marches, statements, reports and meetings the Kennedy Road settlement continues to get burnt down through the endless shack fires. They have been referring in particular to the recent Kennedy Road shack fire on Sunday, 4 July 2010 that took four lives, leaving more than three thousand people displaced and homeless.

Without much more words to explain this continuous tragedy we have replied that in fact the shack dwellers of South Africa are serving a life sentence. Everybody knows that we are the people who do not count in this society. But the truth that must be faced up to is that we have been sentenced to permanent exclusion from this society.

Over the years it has been made clear that the cities are not for us, that the good schools are not for us and that even the most basic human needs like toilets, electricity, safety from fire and safety from crime are not to be met for us. When we ask for these things we are presented as being unreasonable, too demanding and even as a threat to society. If we were considered as people that did count, as an equal part of society, then it would be obvious that the real threat to our society is that we have to live in mud and fire without toilets, without electricity, without enough taps and without dignity.

Waiting for ‘delivery’ will not liberate us from our life sentence. Sometimes ‘delivery’ does not come. When ‘delivery’ does come it often makes things worse by forcing us into government shacks that are worse than the shacks that we have built ourselves and which are in human dumping grounds far outside of the cities.’Delivery’ can be a way of formalising our exclusion from society.

But we have not only been sentenced to permanent physical exclusion from society and its cities, schools, electricity, refuse removal and sewerage systems. Our life sentence has also removed us from the discussions that take place in society. Everyone knows about the repression that we have faced from the state and now, also, from the ruling party. Everyone knows about the years of arrests and beatings that we suffered at the hands of the police and then the attack on our movement in the Kennedy Road settlement.

We have always said that in the eyes of the state and the ruling party our real crime was that we organised and mobilised the poor outside of their control. We have thought for ourselves, discussed all the important issues for ourselves and taken decisions for ourselves on all the important issues that affect us. We have demanded that the state includes us in society and gives us what we need to have for a dignified and safe life. We have also done what we can to make our communities better places for human beings. We have run crèches, organised clean up campaigns, connected people to water and to electricity, tried to make our communities safe and worked very hard to unite people across all divisions. We have faced many challenges but we have always worked to ensure that in all of this work we treat one another with respect and dignity.

The self-organisation of the poor by the poor and for the poor has meant that all of those who were meant to do the thinking, the discussing and to take decisions on our behalf – for us but without us – no longer have a job. Our decision to build our own future may therefore not be an easy one to accept for those who can no longer continue to take decisions and to speak for us but without us. Some of the people who have refused to accept our demand that those who say that they are for the poor should struggle with and not on behalf of the poor are in the state. Some are in the party. Some are in that part of the left, often in the universities and NGOs, that sees itself as a more progressive elite than those in the party and the state and which aims to take their place in the name of our suffering and struggles.

We call this left a regressive left. For us any leftism outside of the state that, just like the ruling party, wants followers and not comrades and which is determined to ruin any politics that it cannot rule is deeply regressive. We have always and will always resist its attempts to buy our loyalty just as we have always and will always resist all attempts by the state and the ruling party to buy our loyalty. We will also resist all attempts to intimidate us into giving up our autonomy. We will always defend our comrades when they are attacked. Our movement will always be owned by its members. We negotiate on many issues. Where we have to make compromises to go forward we sometimes do so. But on this issue there will never be any negotiation.

We have done a lot for ourselves and by ourselves. But for a long time what we could not succeed in doing for ourselves was to secure good land and decent housing in our cities. We stopped the evictions and we were no longer going backwards but it was a real struggle to go forwards. But we kept pushing and made some small advances here and there. This really offended the authorities in the party. This became very clear and evident when the provincial government of KwaZulu-Natal passed the notorious Slums Act, meaning that the shack dwellers would never again have any place in our cities. Our successful challenge to the Slums Act in the Highest Court in the land was a great setback for the government’s plan to formalise our life sentence by eradicating our settlements and putting us in the human dumping grounds. The deal that we negotiated with the eThekwini Municipality to upgrade two settlements and to provide basic services to fourteen settlements was another setback to the eradication agenda of the politicians. The recent announcement by the eThekwini Municipality that they will accede to our demand to provide services including, for the first time since 2001 electricity, to settlements across the city is another victory of our struggle and another major setback to the eradication agenda. We are slowly but surely defeating the eradication agenda.

As South Africa was hosting the World Cup Abahlali warned that it will not benefit the poorest of the poor in our land. We warned that it would make the poor, poorer and more vulnerable. Leading up to the World Cup there were more evictions and pending court cases in different parts of the country. Poor street traders had their belongings confiscated as they had no permits to sell in restricted zones and the taxi industry suffered the impoundment of their taxis. Stopping the rush to celebrate the World Cup by raising all these questions and condemning these attacks on the poor as immoral and illegitimate has been a slap on the authorities’ faces. Although the fact is that all these huge soccer stadiums, hotels and other projects were built by the poor of the poorest they remained outside their benefit. The South African government has overspent its budget in building a ‘world class country’ and could not match and balance such expenditure with social needs such housing and the provision of the most basic services. The amount that has been spent for the World Cup could have built at least one millions homes for the poor. Although we acknowledge the efforts that have been put into this event we still feel that such effort could have been used to bring basic services and infrastructure to the poor. If that had been the case then the shack dwellers would not have been affected by these ongoing fires every time.

The truth about the attack on our movement has always been firm and not changing at any stage. We cannot make public comment on matters that are sub judice but our demand for an independent commission of inquiry that will bring the whole story into the light remains unchanged. The Kennedy 5, part of those who are already serving their life sentence in and out of the jails, have now been released from Westville prison. They had already been serving ten months of their punishment without any evidence of guilt being brought to the court and without the court saying anything about their illegal detention. The South African Constitution says there shall be no detention without trial and that a person cannot be detained for more than 24 hours without a proper bail hearing. The fact that, up until the release of the Kennedy 5, this trial was being conducted as a political trial outside of the rule of law even though it was taking place in a court of law tells us something very important about the position of the poor in post apartheid South Africa. Those who have handed a life sentence down to us always want to exclude us from fair and equal access to the courts and the rule of law. When they fail to achieve this through the commodification of the legal system they are willing to actively undermine the system from above.

The movement insists that the people shall govern; this is what the famous Freedom Charter says. Abahlali holds on to that. The strength and the autonomy of the movement compels us all to strive for a just world, a world that is free, a world that is fair and a world that looks after all its creations. We remain convinced that the land and the wealth of this world must be shared fairly and equally. We remain convinced that every person in this world has the same right to contribute to all discussions and decision making about their own future. For us all to succeed we have to be humble but firm in what we believe is right. We have to resist all our jailers, be they in the state, the party or the regressive left, and to take our place as equals in all the discussions.

We also know that the South African government still wants to look good in the eyes of the international communities and that they fear disgrace and shame. They want to show the world Soccer City but hide eTwatwa, Blikkiesdorp, Westville Prison, the red ants and the shack fires all around the country. We wish to thank all the international activists and organisations who have raised their concern against the repression that we have faced, including those that have organised protests against the South African diplomats in their respective countries.

We hope South Africa will become one of the world’s caring countries. We hope that one day our society will be an inspiration rather than a shock to you. As Abahlali we have committed ourselves to achieving this goal. But right now we are serving a life sentence and fighting all those who are trying to keep us imprisoned in our poverty, all those who demand that we know our place – our place in the cities and our place in the discussions. We have recognised our own humanity and the power of our struggle to force the full recognition of our humanity. Therefore we remain determined to continue to refuse to know our place.

Compiled by Zodwa Nsibande and S’bu Zikode
-Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement SA.