Experiences of Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Kennedy Road Settlement, Durban, South Africa

10 12 2009

for Development Planning Unit of University College London by Malavika Vartak

Click here to read an annotated version of this report in word.


South Africa’s apartheid past has had a deep and enduring impact on housing, more so in the case of poorer communities. Colonial and later the apartheid era laws including the infamous Group Areas Act of 1950 ensured that housing was strictly along racial lines and attempted to confine communities to race-based zones. Segregation laws and policies thus led to large-scale evictions in the urban areas pushing black African communities to poorly serviced townships on the peripheries of cities. African workers engaged in the growing manufacturing sector in cities were only allowed to live in barracks, hostels or servants’ quarters. Despite numerous efforts by the apartheid government, demands of industrialisation combined with acute poverty and unemployment in the rural areas led to increasing rural to urban migration and the creation of shack settlements. In the absence of a comprehensive social housing programme, shortage in housing stock continued to grow. At the end of the apartheid era in 1994, shortage in urban housing was estimated at 1.5 million, with an increase of 178 000 households per year.1 In an attempt to remedy this crisis situation successive governments from 1994 pronounced plans to undertake large-scale social housing construction programmes. Simultaneously the state also undertook legal reform recognising, among other human rights, the right to adequate housing and providing protection from arbitrary and forced eviction.

Sections 26 of the South African Constitution states that:
(1) Everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing;
(2) The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of this right;
(3) No one may be evicted from their home, or have their home demolished, without an order of court made after considering all the relevant circumstances. No legislation may permit arbitrary evictions.

Additionally, the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act No 19 of 1998 (PIE Act) was enacted to provide procedural safeguards to those living in informal settlements and therefore vulnerable to evictions. Protection provided by the PIE Act applies to all occupiers of land without ‘the express or tacit consent of the owner or the person in charge’ and requires that all such evictions are authorised by an order of the court and must include ‘written and effective notice’ of the eviction proceedings on the unlawful occupier and the local municipality not less than 14 days before a court hearing of the eviction proceedings. This notice must set out the grounds on which the eviction is being sought, as well as the date and time at which the eviction proceedings will be heard. It must also inform the unlawful occupier of her right to appear before the court, defend the case, or apply for legal aid. Further, as per the Act, the court must take into account the particular needs and rights of vulnerable groups of unlawful occupiers including the elderly, children, women headed-household and persons with disabilities.

In 2004 the South African cabinet approved “Breaking New Ground: A Comprehensive Plan for the Development of Sustainable Human Settlements” (BNG). The BNG policy seeks to address various problems associated with the previous social housing programme, which included a slow down in delivery, peripheral location of housing which conformed to apartheid segregation, and the absence of simultaneous development of transport and other infrastructure at relocation sites.2 To rectify these and many other shortcomings of the earlier programmes, BNG includes plans to integrate peripheral housing developments into cities as well as to ensure that future housing development occurs on well-located land. The policy also acknowledges that current inhabitants of areas undergoing urban renewal “are often excluded as a result of the construction of dwelling units that they cannot afford” and attempts to address this by encouraging the development of social housing (affordable rental housing), while also increasing affordability, or ‘effective demand,’ through new housing finance initiatives.3

As noted in BNG, “The acquisition of land to enhance the location of human settlements constitutes a fundamental and decisive intervention in the Apartheid human space economy.”4 It put in place a number of practical measures to achieve this. These included plans to achieve the integration of peripheral housing developments into cities, and plans to ensure that future housing developments were on well located land through the transfer of state land and provision for acquisition of land from private individuals at market value. It also sought to introduce policy mechanisms to promote the densification of urban areas.

Despite legal protection against forced evictions and progressive policy pronouncements, the urban and rural poor across South Africa continue to face forced eviction from their homes and lands. As pressure on land increases and municipal authorities strive to attain ‘world class’ status, several municipalities in South Africa have engaged in acts of illegal eviction without following due process. Mahendra Chetty, Director of the Durban Office of the Legal Resources Centre, noted in 2007 that he had not come across a single incident where the municipality had acted in accordance with the Constitution or provisions of the PIE Act while carrying out an eviction. “There is not one instance that we know of where the City has evicted with a court order. The City, as a matter of regular and consistent practice, acts in flagrant breach of the law… A recurrent theme with these evictions is the simple callousness with which they are carried out. They are carried out in an extremely authoritarian and high handed manner against the most vulnerable people in our society – poor black women, old people and the unemployed”.5

In such circumstances, Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), a shack dwellers’ movement in Durban has contributed tremendously to the protection of the right to adequate housing by mobilising shack dwellers to resist and challenge forced evictions and insist on in-situ upgrading of their areas as the only acceptable solution. While resisting evictions that are carried out through coercive measures and sometimes at gun-point, AbM activists have been at the receiving end of several violent attacks. The latest attack on AbM in Kennedy Road settlement in September 2009 is a cruel reminder of the politics of power and the ferocity of the establishment. At the same time, the value of movements like AbM is highlighted now more than ever before – especially if democracy is to be given a chance in South Africa.

Kennedy Road Informal Settlement, Durban

As the second largest city in the country, Durban in Kwazulu Natal province has attracted migrant labour from different parts of South Africa. Lacking adequate social housing strategies, by the 1980s Durban and the area around the city was home to hundreds of shack settlements. These settlements reflected a new mobility for many men and women from the countryside many of whom had migrated from the Eastern Cape, rural Kwazulu Natal, and the Natal Midlands. While some were fleeing racial violence others were attracted to these settlements by the promise of access to essential services and opportunities for improving living conditions.6 Today, Durban is home to almost 3.5 million people. According to S’bu Zikode, President of AbM, of these, almost 800,000 live in substandard and inadequate housing.7

In 2001 the newly established eThekwini Municipal Council for the Durban area launched its Slum Clearance Project. The project involved clearance of slums and relocation of shack dwellers to houses constructed in greenfield developments (developments on new sites invariably on the out skirts of the city) under the National Housing Subsidy Scheme. In-situ upgrading of informal settlements was to be undertaken only in a few cases.8 The eThekwini Municipal Council also declared that by 2010 (later pushed forward to 2014), Durban would be a ‘shack-free’ city. In this context, although the Slum Clearance Project has been promoted as an opportunity to fast-track subsidised housing construction for Durban’s shack dwellers, many shack dwellers are concerned that similar to slum clearance in the apartheid era, the slum clearance project too will result in pushing shack dwellers to the margins of the city, far away from basic services and job opportunities. Lindela Figlan, Vice President of Abahlali baseMjondolo points out, with an average income of R600 per month, if relocated to Verulam, one of the proposed relocation sites approximately 20 kilometers from the city centre, “most of the earnings would be spent on transport and people would bring hardly anything home.9

As COHRE’s 2008 report observes, the rhetoric of slum eradication has had at least four negative impacts on the lives of shack dwellers in Durban. Informal settlements are now increasingly perceived as essentially temporary and therefore there is no substantive investment in improving living conditions; any complaints from shack dwellers regarding living conditions are not dealt with seriousness as the shacks are soon to be eradicated; the rush to meet the 2014 deadline has meant that relocation is often conducted without regard for due process including consultations with affected persons; and slum clearance is increasingly understood as merely the removal of shacks rather than the realisation of the right to adequate housing.10 As a result, not only has there been a policy decision to stop all further electrification of informal settlements in Durban but also municipal authorities regularly demolish any new shacks or any extensions to old shacks without proper notice let alone a court order. Further, in-situ upgrading as it is often undertaken without adequately consulting people and taking into account their particular needs has also resulted in evictions and homelessness. In the words of S’bu Zikode, “The ambition to attain world class status has in fact encouraged City authorities to engage in illegal evictions.”11

The Kennedy Road Informal Settlement is one of the numerous shack settlements in and around Durban and is home to 10,000 people or 2600 working families.12 Most of Kennedy Road’s residents are engaged in the informal sector and work in shops, markets, building construction sites and as domestic labour. Others run shebeen (liquor) or spaza (small convenience) shops in the settlement. Kennedy Road settlement is located within Clare Estate, a predominantly Indian middle class area complete with shopping centres and high-rise buildings. As pointed out by AbM activists from Kennedy Road, the location of the settlement is central to the lives and livelihoods of its residents. Basic necessities like schools, clinics and a railway station essential for commuting to places of work, are a short walk from the settlement. Kennedy Road is close to sources of employment such as the Springfield Industrial Area. Additionally, middleclass homes in Clare Estates also provide employment to a large proportion of women from the settlement who work in these homes as domestic labour. In the words of Zodwa Nsibande General Secretary of the Abahlali baseMjondolo Youth League, “we rely on middleclass people for work. Although they don’t pay much, it at least helps us put food on the table”.13

Abahlali baseMjondolo: A brief background

Kennedy Road settlement has the distinction of being the birthplace of one of South Africa’s strongest and most vocal people’s movements. Abahlali baseMjondolo which could be translated from isiZulu to mean shack dwellers or residents of shacks was formed in 2005 in Kennedy Road as a result of rising frustration due to a series of broken promises by the local authorities.

At the time of formation, Kennedy Road residents, through their elected Kennedy Road Development Committee (KRDC) had been trying to draw the attention of various municipal authorities to their dismal living conditions and lack of adequate services. Kennedy Road like several other shack settlements across South Africa had poor living conditions with respect to overcrowding, water and sanitation. In February 2005 The KRDC had a successful meeting with the Director of Housing of eThekwini Municipality and the Ward Councilor. The municipality promised Kennedy Road residents a vacant piece of land in Elf Road within the Clare Estate area. However, a month later, residents noticed bulldozers on the land promised to them for housing and soon found out that the land was in fact given for the construction of a brick factory.14

Frustration at yet another false promise led to a spontaneous protest where over 700 people blocked the Umgeni road for four hours on 21st March 2005. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to dispel the protestors and 14 protestors were arrested on charges of public violence.15 Following this, around 1200 people marched on the nearby Sydenham police station where the 14 were held. They demanded the release of the 14 or then asked to be arrested too. The march was met with increased violence, the use of tear gas and dogs. Ten days of prison and court appearances later, the Kennedy Road 14 were freed.16 Intense mobilisation followed, leading to the birth of Abahlali baseMjondolo.

As the AbM website documents, “The movement that began with the road blockade grew quickly and now includes tens of thousands of people from more than 30 settlements. In the last year and a half the movement has suffered more than a hundred arrests, regular police assault and ongoing death threats and other forms of intimidation from local party goons. It has developed a sustained voice for shack dwellers in subaltern and elite publics and occupied and marched on the offices of local councillors, police stations, municipal offices, newspaper offices and the City Hall in actions that have put thousands of people on the streets. The movement also organised a highly contentious but very successful boycott of the March 2006 local government elections under the slogan ‘No Land, No House, No Vote’. Amongst other victories the Abahlali have democratised the governance of many settlements, stopped evictions in a number of settlements, won acces to schools, stopped the industrial development of the land promised to Kennedy Road, forced numerous government officials, offices and projects to ‘come down to the people’ and mounted vigorous challenges to the uncritical assumption of a right to lead the local struggles of the poor in the name of a privileged access to the ‘global’ (i.e Northern donors, academics and NGOs) that remains typical of most of the NGO based left. The movement’s key demand is for ‘Land & Housing in the City’ but it has also successfully politicised and fought for an end to forced removals and for access to education and the provision of water, electricity, sanitation, health care and refuse removal as well as bottom up popular democracy. In some settlements the movement has also successfully set up projects like crèches, gardens, sewing collectives, support for people living with and orphaned by AIDS and so on. It has also organised a 16 team football league and quarterly all night multi genre music competitions.”17

Committed to democratic values and principles, AbM elects its leadership on a yearly basis through a process of secret ballot. This format applies not only to the movement as a whole but also its various components like the Women’s League, the Youth League and local AbM committees. Speaking of the organisation of AbM and decision making within the movement, Lindela Figlan says “We believe in real democracy and we do not discriminate against anyone. We believe that even our children can make meaningful inputs. Decisions to take a particular action are only made after the membership is given full information about the incident and asked for their inputs.”18 In situations where technical expertise maybe required, AbM invites supporters from academia and other sectors for their inputs. AbM membership, however, always make the final decision on the way forward.

AbM’s operates based on the understanding that many of the problems that they face in their day-to-day lives whether they are to do with housing, sanitation or shack fires are not necessarily technical but political. The movement’s approach is therefore to address the issues politically while remaining committed to working within the parameters of the law and the Constitution. While legal interventions are viewed as the last option, there is also an understanding that legal remedies need to be pursued in a conducive environment and therefore public education must go hand in hand with legal intervention. Thus as Zodwa Nsibande says, “in order to support our legal action we go to the streets and demonstrate and show the establishment that the power is with the people.”19

AbM remains wary of both political parties and NGOs who may have agendas different from those that the movement has espoused. Taking a clear stand of not affiliating with any political party, S’Bu Zikode says “political parties have a role to play but we should also be given a chance to play our role”. Similarly Lindela Figlan categorically states “we don’t work with NGOs who think that they can think and plan for us. As Abahlali we are free to say what we want.”20

Over the last four years since its inception, AbM has taken up several issues concerning including improved living conditions and freedom from fear of forced evictions. Their work has ensured that the poor can no longer be invisibilised by the rhetoric of development.

Living Conditions in Kennedy Road

Living conditions in Kennedy Road settlement, like those in several other informal settlements in Durban are poor to say the least. “Animals are better off”, says Lindela Figlan when describing the quality of life in informal settlements.21 Basic services like electricity, water and sanitation are found to be severely lacking in the settlement thus putting the health and lives of residents at serious risk.

For the 10,000 residents at Kennedy Road, there are five water standpipes providing potable water leading to long queues and many hours spent in collecting water. As the responsibility for ensuring the adequate availability of water for the family often rests with women, the lack of adequate sources of potable water is a huge burden on the women of the settlement. Sanitation is also severely lacking. Initially there were only 6 toilets for the entire settlement and it was only after Abahlali activists petitioned and fought for better services that more toilets were installed and the settlement now has 112 toilets. However, the toilets remain insufficient, and as Zodwa Nsibande points out “many are forced to go out into the bush and women and children are sometimes attacked and even raped.”22

Closely linked with water and sanitation is the issue of refuse collection and solid waste management. Although municipal authorities are required to collect garbage on a weekly basis, according to Kennedy Road residents, they rarely enter the settlement due to the lack of proper access roads. The absence of solid waste management not only results in increasing the incidence of disease in the settlement but has also led to the increase of rats. In 2008 three children were bitten by rats in the settlement and in January 2008 a four month old baby died due to rat bite. While the municipal authorities blamed this on the garbage dump in the vicinity, AbM activists pointed out that rats were a menace in all informal settlements and the problem arose because municipal authorities did not collect domestic garbage from shack settlements.23

Access to electricity is also severely lacking in the settlement. As electrification of shacks settlements was discontinued since the launch of the Slum Clearance Project in 2001, only about 40% of the Kennedy Road residents have access to electricity, many of these are ‘self-connections’ or informal connections. The lack of electricity in the settlements has forced many residents to use candles and paraffin lamps, leading to the regular occurrence of shack fires. Shack fires in Kennedy Road have claimed several lives including those of children and the elderly and have destroyed many more homes. The problem is made worse by the fact that emergency services are unable to reach the inner areas of the settlement due to the lack of proper access roads. In several settlements in Durban including Kennedy Road, shack fires and the destruction of homes has been used by the municipality to effect evictions by not allowing people to re-build their homes. In one case, Kennedy Road residents had just begun to clear the debris to rebuild their shacks when members of the Land Invasion Unit along with armed guards and bulldozers tore down their homes. The municipal authorities wanted to move the fire-affected residents to transit camps away from Kennedy Road, however, when the residents refused to move and insisted on re-building where their shacks once stood, the authorities finally conceded and provided them with building material.24 While the municipality seems to have accepted (due to pressure from Abahlali activists) that rebuilding on the original site is the best way forward for families affected by shack fires, it remains to be seen whether the same support will be extended to fire-affected families in other settlements.

In Zodwa Nsibande’s words, “living conditions are really bad – we are still living like we were in the apartheid era.”25

Combating Evictions

According to the Abahlali activists interviewed, Kennedy Road Settlement was established in the early 1980s on land given to 43 families by Mr. Jordan, a member of the Durban Municipal Corporation. The land was given free of charge with the advise to not sell it nor allow anyone to evict them from it. As S’bu Zikode points out, “it sounds like he [Mr. Jordan] knew that with the passing of time, a lot of people would want this land”. It is possibly for this very reason that despite almost 30 years since establishment, Kennedy Road residents lack security of tenure and therefore have faced several attempts at forced evictions by the local municipal authorities.

Despite proclamations by the government in 1994 to take steps to remedy human rights violations committed by the apartheid state, many South Africans continue to be subjected to human rights violations including violations of the right to adequate housing. Forced evictions systematically carried out by the apartheid governments continue even today. As Zodwa Nsibande recounts, “from 2004 there were many threats of evictions. The local elections were coming up in 2006 and the municipality was threatening to relocate us to far-off Verulam. This was also the time when Abahlali baseMjondolo was growing as a movement and 2005 had been declared as the Year of Action by the Kennedy Road Development Committee”.26

The Year of Action included various forms of protests and direct actions to resolve the issue of eviction and have the municipal authorities listen to the demands of the people. Some of the notable marches organised at this time included the blockading of a six lane free way that ran through the city on 19th March 2005 and a 5000 strong march against Councilor Yacoob Baig to demand an end to the threat of evictions, the provision of land, housing and toilets and the resignation of the Councilor.27 Doubtless these protest actions as well as others were met with a severe response including violence and arrests of several activists.

The pressure to ‘clear’ slums has often come from wealthier settlements in the surrounding areas as they fear that the presence of shack settlements in the area will bring down property prices. As Lindela Figlan says, “It is our neighbours who ask the municipality to evict us. They suspect us to be criminals. If there are shacks close to houses no one would want to buy the houses. That is why they put pressure on the municipality to evict us”28 However, the official reason given for the eviction is quite different. According to S’bu Zikode, the municipality has tried to carry out the eviction on the pretext of health and safety concerns. “Kennedy Road residents have been given a number of excuses on why they need to be relocated including that the land is prone to landslides, that there is gas emanating from the land and that the land is unstable. We found out later that these were all merely excuses to evict us.”29

After several protests, arrests, and incidence of violence on the part of the state authorities, in 2007 Abahlali baseMjondolo and the City began negotiations to upgrade Kennedy Road and other settlements in Durban with the help of Project Preparation Trust. So far, AbM activists had been treated like criminals, to bring the municipal authorities to the negotiating table was testament to the movement’s growing popularity.

Several intense rounds of negotiations later, on 9th February 2009 Abahlali baseMjondolo and the eThekwini municipality drew up a Memorandum of Understanding which agrees to in-situ upgrading for Kennedy Road along with two other settlements and the provision of basic services to 14 other settlements affiliated with the with movement. Also known as the Abhalali Settlement Plan, the agreement commits the municipality to carry out in-situ upgrading in adherence with the provisions and principles of the 2004 Breaking New Ground Policy. “It is not possible to accommodate all Kennedy Road residents in the new plan for upgrading the settlement” says S’bu Zikode. “As a result, priority has been given to the first 43 families or ‘senior citizens’ who settled in Kennedy Road in the early 1980s. The decision about who will stay and who will be relocated has been a collective one, based on the particular needs of the remaining families. Unlike previously, those relocated will be given houses in the nearby, mixed income development called Cornubia located adjacent o the wealthy suburb of Umhlanga. We are expecting construction to start by January 2010”30 S’bu Zikode also points out that the plan also commits municipal authorities to provide all interim basic services while the upgrade is ongoing. “People must not die from lack of services while waiting for houses”.31

The Abahlali Settlement Plan has been a high point in the journey that AbM activists embarked on in 2005. From being criminalised for raising their voices and demanding their rights they have successfully negotiated a deal with the municipality which essentially recognises their rights as South African citizens and accords them the life of dignity that they have been fighting for. AbM has been able to ensure that they will be consulted at every stage of the project. Pointing to lack of proper consultation as the key cause of failure of several projects, Lindela Figlan opines, “we have a mind and we have eyes and therefore we must be consulted. We need to see that the government is trying their best to find alternatives for us. If convinced, we will accept what the government proposes”.32

As Richard Pithouse, an Abahlali supporter and academic from Durban puts it, “If it is properly implemented this deal will mark considerable progress in Durban including a decisive break with the spatial logic of apartheid (the settlements to be upgraded are in the inner suburban core), an acknowledgment that settlements need services and that development is not an all or nothing once off event limited to ‘delivering housing opportunities’, a recognition that development can be a collaborative process between communities and the state and, also, a recognition that shack dwellers have the right to
organise outside of party structures.”33

Victory in the Constitutional Court

Abahlali baseMjondolo have recently also successfully challenged attempts by the Kwazulu Natal legislature to introduce some draconian and anti-poor measures through the Prevention and Re-emergence of Slums Act of 2007.

Abahlali baseMjondolo first critiqued the legislation when it was introduced as a bill in October 2006. Reminiscent of apartheid era legislation, the Act gave landowners the right to evict persons who were illegally occupying their land. According to Marie Huchzermeyer, “…the KwaZulu-Natal legislature has approved legislation that, while mentioning the progressive realisation of the right to housing in passing, introduces draconian measures to remove the phenomenon of informality from the urban landscape and to prevent it from re-emerging in any possible form. Owners of informally occupied land are mandated to institute evictions within a period stipulated by the municipality, and owners of vacant land are mandated to prevent informal occupation through measures such as fencing off areas and posting security guards.”34

The UN Special Rapporteur after his mission to South Africa in 2007 also raised several concerns regarding the Slums Act including that the Act did not obligate the authorities to look into the housing support available for evictees and that it did not provide for any requirement of consultation with the affected persons prior to eviction. Noting that there may have been a misunderstanding on the implementation of international commitments like the Millennium Development Goals leading to a focus on slum eradication rather than improving the lives of slum dwellers, the Special Rapporteur advised the authorities to re-examine the Slums Act in light of South Africa’s domestic and international human rights obligations.35

The complete ban on new shacks introduced by this Act not only ensured that a large number of the urban poor would have to remain homeless till the state caught up with the huge housing backlog but it also put the burden on those already living in cramped and over crowded spaces to accommodate those without homes. COHRE’s 2008 report records such situations as seen in the Siyathuthuka settlement, where 50 families made homeless by the implementation of the Slums Act were now living in their neighbour’s overcrowded shacks. The shack demolitions in this case had been carried out against persons who had been living in the area for 8 years, without due process or a court order.36

When the legislation was passed despite concerns from several different quarters, AbM with the help of the Johannesburg based Centre for Applied Legal Studies challenged the constitutionality of the Slums Act in the Durban High Court in 2008. The day after the movement announced that they would be challenging the Slums Act in court, Kennedy Road witnessed a mass disconnection drive by the of the municipal authorities. Municipal authorities, resorting to their usual strong-arm tactics arrived along with heavily armed members of the South African Police Service and a dog unit started disconnecting electricity from one end of the settlement without warning or explanation. Approximately 300 connections were removed in a single day.37

Judge President Vuka Tshabalala of the Durban High Court did not rule in favour of AbM. Declaring that he found the Act to be fair, the Judge President opined that the act would make things more orderly and should be given in chance.38 As S’bu Zikode announced soon after the Durban High Court hearings, AbM appealed against the verdict and the case was ultimately decided on 14 October 2009 in South Africa’s Constitutional Court.

The Court in a majority judgement decided that section 16 of the Prevention and Re-emergence of Slums Act of 2007, which authorized a Member of the Executive Council of the province to publish a notice in the provincial gazette determining a period within which an owner or person in charge of the land unlawfully occupied must institute proceedings to evict the occupiers under the PIE Act. If he fails to do so the municipality must bring proceedings to evict the occupier, was unconstitutional and therefore struck it down.

The Constitutional Court judgement not only confirmed concerns about the Act raised by AbM activists through their various petitions, marches and legal intervention but has strengthened protection from forced eviction for millions of South Africa’s shack dwellers. It has also once again shown that a movement comprised of and led by shack dwellers has the capacity to hold governments accountable by working within the parameters of the law.
Abahlali under Attack

The power of a shack dwellers movement to challenge not just their local authorities but also the provincial and national government has also led to efforts to de-legitimise and de-stabilise the movement including violent attacks on individual leaders. AbM activists have often been attacked individually and collectively and aspersions and accusations of being the ‘Third Force’ have often been leveled against the movement.39 In 2008 Mzonke Poni of AbM in the Western Cape and S’bu Zikode in Kwazulu Natal were violently attacked within days of each other by well-equipped groups of men. AbM activists do not believe that these attacks were isolated incidents or a mere coincidence but have been a part of the strategy adopted by political parties to undermine the movement.

Most recently on 26th September 2009, at 11:30 p.m. a group of about 40 men heavily armed with guns, bush knives and a sword attacked a meeting of the Kennedy Road Development Committee (KRDC) in the Kennedy Road community hall.The AbM Youth League was holding an all night camp for the Youth League nearby. The armed men intimidated and threatened people at the camp and went on to find specific AbM activists in the settlement. Lindela Figlan narrowly escaped death as he hid in his house, which had been padlocked from the outside. While recounting the horrors of the 26th nights Lindela Figlan said “they had planned it on the 24th. I was warned that someone was going to kill me but I thought it was a joke. Later one man and three girls also told me not be in the settlement. On the 26th night the attackers came to my door and started violently banging. I was inside the house but when they saw that it was padlocked from the outside they left saying that the Pondo is not here.”40

Many others like S’bu Zikode had to flee in order to save their lives and remain in hiding till today. Two people were killed in the attacks. The attackers, giving the impression of ethnic conflict were reportedly shouting that the AmaMpondo are taking over Kennedy Road Settlement and that the settlement was actually meant for the AmaZulu.41 However, the reality is that only the shacks of AbM office bearers were targeted and attacked. It was clear that behind the façade of a spontaneous ethnic conflict lay a plan to target AbM. When Kennedy Road residents called the near-by Sydenham police station for help, they were told that the police could not come right away as there were no vans available. According to AbM, when the police did arrive eventually, they collected a few statements from the attackers and arrested six members of the KRDC most of whom are AbM activists. The attackers continue to roam free.

In the opinion of those interviewed, it was clear that the police were acting upon the orders of their superiors and politicians. AbM activists believe that the attacks were instigated by local African National Congress (ANC) leadership who have been intent on de-stabilising the movement in order to reverse its numerous achievements and growing popularity among South Africa’s urban poor. S’bu Zikode when speaking of the attacks said “We are not surprised by the attacks. AbM has challenged the local, provincial and national governments; has exposed the ANC with regard to corruption and misallocation of housing. AbM has been able to protect our Constitution from invasion and this has made the ANC very angry. The ANC are trying to show that there is no local leadership in Kennedy Road and that the settlement is ungovernable. It also does not surprise us that two days after the attacks when two people were left dead, the local ANC leadership visited Kennedy Road and elected a new KRDC.”42

Although the violence has ended, the atmosphere remains tense. Many AbM leaders like S’bu Zikode and Lindela Figlan are in hiding, unable to return to a life of normalcy. As S’bu said, “Today I am a refugee in my own country, my own province, my own city and my own neighbourhood.”43


Despite the recent attacks and attempts by those in power to scatter the movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo remains a shining example of the power of the people when organised to challenge and hold accountable governments at various levels through democratic means. “People need to first identify and then organise themselves if they want to challenge those in power and protect their human rights” says S’bu Zikode.44

The movement, through a multi-pronged approach of public education, public protest, strategic use of the media and legal remedies has successfully given voice to South Africa’s shack dwellers. While discussing future plans AbM activists speak about organizing workshops for communities in differing circumstances on legal remedies and the on ways in which the Constitution can be used to protect human rights. Forging alliances through the Poor People’s Alliance a platform for a variety of people’s movements like the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, Landless People’s Movement, and the Rural Network (Abahlali baseplasini), AbM has ensured that their struggle is not limited to housing for shack dwellers alone but for respect and dignity for poor people in South Africa. As S’bu Zikode points out, “We have seen in certain cases in South Africa where governments have handed out houses simply to silence the poor. This is not acceptable to us. Abahalali’s struggle is beyond housing. We fight for respect and dignity. If houses are given to silence the poor then those houses are not acceptable to us”.45

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