A talk given at the ‘Urban activism: Staking Claims in the 21 Century City’ conference at Harvard University on 13 September 2019.
I am very honoured and humbled to be invited here at Harvard University to speak on Urban Activism. I take this opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies who have invited me, and made it possible for organised shack dwellers in South Africa to be represented at this prestigious platform. I am also grateful to Abahlali baseMjondolo for entrusting me to speak here, and with this excellent opportunity for our movement.
When we take our place in our society we take it humble but firm. Today we take it here at Harvard. Just as we occupy land we also try to occupy our place in all discussions that are relevant to us and our lives.
We take our place here because we matter. We take our place here because we are ordinary people. We take it here because now, after years of organisation and struggle, we count because of the strength that we have built from below, and our voice is now counting. But many of us have terrible scars for insisting that impoverished people can think too.
Our cities are built and shaped by impoverished people and the working class. We are the majority in the cities. But many of the elites, in government, business and civil society, want us to remain in silence, in dark corners, while they talk for us and decide for us. When we insist on our dignity as human beings, on our equal capacity to think, and our equal right to participate in decisions that affect us, this insistence is often treated as a form of dangerous criminality or conspiracy.
We have also been treated as if we are beneath the law. In fact we live with the death penalty, and under an effective state of emergency. We can be slandered, beaten, have our homes and possessions destroyed and murdered with impunity.
There is a lot of joy and togetherness in our movement. We occupy land, build creches, halls and vegetable gardens. We celebrate victories. Our assemblies and rallies bring thousands of people together and include music, poetry and dance.
But we have also become experts in organising funerals. We have lost many leaders to assassinations and murder by the state and the ruling party. Since 2019 we have lost 18 militants. Many of our leaders have spent long periods under the threat of death.
The price for land is paid in blood.
We must also live with constant fires and floods. These are not natural disasters. They are a result of the contempt in which we are held by the elites.
The organisation that I am mandated to represent here today has created a home, a space for political discussion, a voice and a political instrument for oppressed people for more than fourteen years. We began to organise ourselves outside of the ruling party because our hope for a better, more equal and more just society after apartheid was betrayed. The dreams and aspirations of well-known leaders like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Emma Mashinini, Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe were lost. Even more importantly the dreams and aspirations of millions more people, most of them ordinary impoverished and working class people whose names are not known to history, had been lost.
We found ourselves completely on our own, violently oppressed by a government that told the world that it had freed us. When we organised ourselves and politely asked them to talk to us they responded with violent repression. We had to rebuild the power of the impoverished through self-organisation, and we had to rebuild a vision of freedom and dignity from below.
Movement to the cities
In South Africa, like elsewhere in the world, millions of us impoverished people have migrated to cities for better possibilities for our lives in terms jobs, schools and universities, health care and the other opportunities that come with urban life. We have also moved to cities because our small towns and villages have not earned the same respect that cities have. Our small towns and villages are in decline. Factories are closing and services are collapsing. Small towns and villages have become areas of neglect and despair. There is no political will from the authorities to upset the economic system that has made us poor, and that keeps us poor. We call that system racial capitalism.
But while many people find more possibilities for their lives in the cities millions remain without any work. When there is work it is often precarious and highly exploited. You can work and remain poor. There are serious problems with addiction, depression, anxiety and violence.
Our children go to schools that are dangerous places where the level of education is shockingly bad.
The question of land, rural and urban, remains a crisis. We do have rural branches and we work closely with rural struggles, for instance the struggle to protect land against mining companies. Many of our members are involved in struggle in the cities and in their rural homes. In the cities the housing question is also a land question. When the government has built houses they have often built them far outside of the cities, in peripheral wastelands that we call ‘human dumping grounds’.
We have had to insist on well located urban land for housing, and that the social value of urban land must be placed before its commercial value. But we don’t only have to confront the market and the power of capital. We also have to confront the politicians who always put their own interests before those of the people. Our impoverishment is an opportunity for them to get rich through tenders. Our struggle is against capital, the politicians and the state.
Cities are becoming more exclusionary places rather than more democratic and inclusionary places. It is very important to repeat and to stress that attempts by people who are impoverished and mostly black to be included in decision-making have been seen as a conspiracy and met with hostility, including slander and violence. Surveillance, intimidation, assassination and torture are being used to control impoverished people.
For many impoverished people access to job opportunities and development requires that one must be ready to pay a bribe or that one must be a member of the ruling party. To really advance one must be somehow connected to those in high authorities or structures of the ruling party. Some NGOs operate in the same way. This is not the world we have imagined.
It is estimated that more than 60% of our world population live in cities. This number is still growing. On the one hand our cities are unable to keep up with the movement of people coming to cities. Our cities’ infrastructure is so bad, and so commodified, that it is unable to accommodate this movement of people migrating to cities in search of a better life. It is most unfortunate that the working class and poorest of the poor who have actually built our cities have no right to these cities. When we say that we support the right to the city we don’t just mean the right to live in the cities. We also mean that we should be able to participate in planning the cities, in making them more democratic places.
Abahlali unapologetically occupy vacant and unused land in our cities. We occupy land to build homes for our families because we know that we deserve a place in our cities too. It is unfortunate that we are compelled to build our homes whether we have jobs or no jobs. That is how shack settlements are built. Often they are built from the waste of the city – pallets, advertising boards, even election posters.
Our occupations give us well located land for housing, and we can build other community infrastructure like creches, halls and gardens. They also give us a space from which we can build self-managed and democratic communities. In our occupations we insist that no distinction is made between people on the basis of which province or country they come from, or which language they speak. A neighbour is a neighbour, and a comrade is a comrade.
The politicians try as hard as they can to turn us against each other in order to weaken us. They always try and create the idea that we are impoverished because of other poor people. Our unity is our strength and we have to do all that we can to build unity. We work, from a base in the occupations, to build democratic popular power from below.
The majority of the residents in our occupations are women, and the majority of the members of our movement are women. Our society has been convulsed by terrible violence against women, as well as migrants. We work as hard as we can to oppose this and to ensure that we build women’s power in our movement and in our society. We are also fully committed to the equality, respect and safety of all LGBTIQ+ comrades. Full and equal human dignity is non-negotiable.
However, each time we occupy land and build our homes we are confronted with state violence. The state has gone so far as to militarise itself against the organisation of the impoverished whose struggle is to build our homes and our cities. In the case of Durban the Anti-Land Invasion Unit has been created to maintain the apartheid urban planning patterns where impoverished black people have no right to the city. Military armoured vehicles, first designed for the colonial war in Angola, and then used by the American military in Iraq, have been purchased to be used against us. In Johannesburg the “Red Ants” have become a death squad. In Cape Town the so called Law Enforcement Agencies are defending huge land for the rich. The impoverished are squashed into small pieces of land with no water and sanitation.
The Road Ahead
What kind of democracy are we living in when the oppressed are governed with military force and day to day state violence? This is an important question, and one which most of the media and civil society are not seriously interested in. We insist on a democracy for everyone, not just on paper but also in reality.
Constant state violence has encouraged us to organise the unorganised and resist all forms of degradation. Poverty, unemployment, injustice and inequality have compelled us to struggle for cities for all. In 2018 our audited membership, all in good standing, passed 50 000 people. We have continued to grow since then, and now organise in five provinces. Joining our movement takes time. It is a slow and careful process. This is what is required when you are serious about building organisation.
Building this movement has not been easy. We have faced many sites of resistance across the elite – not only from the state but from regressive civil society, academia, the media, etc. Many of these forces believed that impoverished people cannot think for themselves. We have encountered severe class and race prejudices from people who say that they are progressive, and who had built personal empires around the representation of the struggles of the oppressed in South Africa to NGOs and academics in North America and Western Europe. Some of these people saw our self-organisation as a direct threat to their own power.
However we have won that argument by building and sustaining a movement, despite severe repression, and becoming the largest popular movement in post-apartheid South Africa. Today no one can seriously deny the scale and power of our movement. We are constantly in the streets, in the courts, organising rallies of thousands in football grounds, and in the national media, including radio and television.
We won that argument when we insisted on the living politic and the politic of dignity. Today our struggle has fought many battles and won many victories in the courts, in the streets, in the land occupations and in the battle of ideas.
After many years of having to struggle on our own at home we are also now building alliances with trade unions outside of the ANC as well a street traders, flat dwellers, migrants groups and other progressive movements of the oppressed. We always work to build as much living solidarity as we can between the oppressed and to support others to organise themselves. We have also built alliances with radical movements elsewhere in the world, especially the MTST and MST in Brazil but also with comrades in many other countries including Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Turkey, Mexico and elsewhere. We work, at home, and internationally, to build an alliance of progressive movements.
Today as global economic apartheid intensifies much of our hope for a better future lies with the urban poor. In many countries around the world the most vibrant struggles, often with women in the majority, are being organised from the cities. The land occupation, the road blockade and democratic self-organisation and management have become important tactics around the world.
Our hope for the future lies with the democratic self-organisation of the very people who are disrespected and treated with indignity.
However, I must repeat that the struggle of shack dwellers in urban spaces has not been easy. We face violent evictions at a gun point, without court orders or any regard for the law. We have rebuilt after each every eviction. It is not unusual for a settlement to have to be rebuilt more than thirty times before the land is won. We have been beaten, arrested, tortured in police custody, slandered in the media and killed by the police, the land invasion units, Metro police, local councillors and their izinkabi (hitmen). Many of these cases have not been investigated and therefore there are no arrests or justice. Despite severe repression the movement has continued to grow dramatically in recent years. Land occupations, road blockades, the strategic use of media, strategic use of the courts, regular assemblies and discussions, and democratic mass mobilisation have become the key tools for the movement to advance its agenda. Although the price of land in urban centres continues to be paid in blood many victories have been won by popular organisation and mobilisation.
We don’t know what the future holds. But we do know that for our children we have no choice but to remain committed to the struggle for a world in which land, wealth and power are fairly shared, a world in which the dignity of every person is respected.