South African shack dwellers: ‘a new social movement’

February 14, 2011

Editor’s note: S’bu Zikode of Abahlali baseMjondolo of Western Cape spoke recently in Oakland, Cal., on a U.S. tour about this movement within South Africa. Here are excerpts from his talk:

People are born and live in these shantytowns, at least 2.3 million of us. In 2005 Abahlali baseMjondolo, an organization representing 25,000 people, came together to build a movement. Abahlali is a Zulu word meaning residents; baseMjondolo means living in shacks.

The movement was born out of anger, hunger and frustration. It started spontaneously as a road blockade. Twenty-five people were arrested, then beaten and tortured in the local police station.

After that we realized that a road blockade is a political action. We were not aware we were playing with fire. The objective was to fight for and protect the interests of the shack dwellers. The initial idea was to petition the government. As the movement grew, it became a challenge to the authorities.

S'bu Zikode

We are fighting for land and housing in the city. South Africa prides itself on building “world-class cities,” cities without poverty, without the homeless. The campaign to achieve that was similar to Mugabe’s campaign in Zimbabwe, where thousands of homes were destroyed a few years ago. South Africa was writing legislation that would give legitimacy to evictions, which we had to challenge.

In some communities as many as 10,000 of the evicted share only five communal tents. They have to wake up at 2:00 AM to queue up to get water. There are only six toilets. There is a lot of disease in shantytowns, a lot of HIV and AIDS, yet all have to queue up to use those six toilets and women are raped waiting for them. In most shantytowns there is no water, no road access, no electricity.

Of the people in shantytowns, 80% are unemployed. The 20% who are working are in the “alternative” economy, selling things on the street, or providing domestic labor in the surrounding middle-class homes.

We began by saying, this is who we are, this is where we are, this is what we want. We created our own space, a democratic space, democratizing the neighborhoods where we work. We run an HIV/AIDS project. We have partnerships with some of the state departments who are able to fund services: more water, more toilets.


We have victories apart from securing some services and winning in court against the eviction act. We have a space where the shack dwellers, the unorganized, unemployed, uneducated can come together and share our suffering. What a precious space we have created! We protect this space against all who try to take it.

We encourage a culture of learning within the movement. We have our own university of Abahlali baseMjondolo to stimulate and create learning through opportunities we create, libraries, debates. We send some shack dwellers into universities to learn and then bring back their learning to the community.

When you join our movement you have responsibilities from the very first day. We ask everyone to pay membership dues. Whatever issue brings you into the movement—unemployment, housing, poverty—we ask that you find 50 others in your community who would want to work with you on that.

The work we promote is at the community level. When there are 50 people in a community wanting to work with us, we send someone to explain who we are and what is the responsibility that each of us has. When we launch a new branch, we stress that we are not going to struggle for you, but we will struggle with you.


People learn that you don’t act in isolation, that a community is people you can rely on, who will hear you when you are in trouble. So the movement doesn’t depend on leaders in the office, but the community that takes on a commitment and a responsibility.

This concept of a social movement is new. It used to be that people thought that joining one of the existing parties was the only form of political participation. Abahlali baseMjondolo is unique in that we are not of any party. Some politicians feel threatened by this force. We came up with what we call “living politics,” which is politics that ordinary people can understand. If I have no water and no electricity, it is not for any other reason but for my life that I need water and electricity.

In distinction, party politics focuses on electoral politics, affiliating with a political party as a license to enter politics. Whatever party you belong to does not provide you a job, a house—you are still here, living in this shantytown. A lot still needs to be done to deal with the trauma of apartheid, like the inferiority complex and the lack of confidence. The political leadership has failed to deal with it. But it is all of our responsibility to create a new society, from the family level, to neighborhood, to provincial and national level before we can talk about a global change of mindset.


We pay a price for organizing. Some people who say their job is to think for us, to make decisions for us, think that it is a bad thing what we are doing. They attack our form of democracy, attack our people.

For example, we have evidence that an attack on us which took place in December 2009 was planned very high up in the government. Some people were killed, many were evicted, their homes burned or looted.

We were forced into exile, we had to become refugees in our own country, in our own city. In the post-apartheid “democracy” we find ourselves without homes, without jobs, without anything. Our movement called for an independent inquiry into the attack, but the government had something to hide.

The African National Congress (ANC) continues to send people to intimidate us. We may need to prepare for even worse to come in our struggle for social justice. Organizing is hard, but what keeps us going is trying to help people, even if we don’t have any money and rely only on our strength and our unity.

We have been successful in getting together thousands of people, and we find that when we are together we are very powerful, we can shape our country. When we are together we can make the law work for us, make our own laws. Organizing does impact policies.

We are facing the threat of arrest and even death. When South Africa became democratic, we had all hoped that things would be much better. But the work of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and so many others has been undermined. The work that we do is to continue that unfinished story, to try to bring a better world where everyone is equal.

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