AbM: South Africa’s Great Change

14 09 2011

S’bu Zikode’s talk at the 30th anniversary of the 1981 protests against the Springbok tour of New Zealand

I wish to thank Global Peace and Justice, in Auckland, for inviting me to New Zealand to speak on the progress of post-apartheid South Africa and the birth of Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement SA. I also wish to thank Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement SA, the movement that I am part of, for trusting me with the responsibility of representing it.

I also wish to extend our deepest gratitude to the anti-apartheid movement here in New Zealand who stood firm with the people of South Africa in the fight against apartheid. Many of our older comrades remember watching, on TV, the protests that you organised against the Springbok tour in 1981. There were thousands of you, many thousands of you. You were attacked by the police. Many of you were beaten and arrested. Your protests were a deep shock to the racists in South Africa. It made them realise that although Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher accepted their racism ordinary people in New Zealand did not. Your protests also gave courage to the people struggling against apartheid in South Africa. You were workers, priests, teachers, housewives and students. You were men and women. You were old and young. You were people in New Zealand who made people in South Africa know that they were not alone in this world. The comrades who were of that generation remember how your brave protests made their hearts sing with joy and hope back in 1981.

As a movement we have always called for a living solidarity; a real solidarity between people, a practical solidarity, an active solidarity, a solidarity between equals. You have shown what can be achieved. Thirty years later your struggle still stands as a real inspiration.

Abahlali also note, with great pleasure, the refusal of the Goven Mbeki Award from the government of South Africa by John Minto in solidarity with Abahlali baseMjondolo and all other struggling poor people’s movements in South Africa. This was a powerful gesture, a gesture of great integrity and a gesture which we celebrated. We were honoured to welcome John Minto to our country, to our city and to the Kennedy Road shack settlement. The Poor People’s Alliance salutes John Minto’s profound integrity.

It is with great sadness that today you will hear unpleasant news. Today you will hear how your struggle here for freedom in South Africa has been betrayed to free some few individuals and not the people of South Africa. Since the end of apartheid the rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer. Many politicians and their families have become rich. But the politicians that rose to power on a people’s struggle have become new oppressors in the name of a democratic state. Your efforts, just like other people’s efforts around the world, just like the efforts of people in South Africa for a free and just country, have been reduced into lousy service delivery.

We appreciate the progress made by millions of South Africans and people around the world in defeating apartheid. Our first democratic election in 1994 brought hope for millions of South Africans. We had high hopes that racism was coming to an end, that political violence and political and economic intolerance were coming to an end. We had high hopes that good education, health care and a decent income would be basic rights. Of course the shack dwellers had high hopes that housing would be a basic human right. In his first state of the nation address Nelson Mandela proclaimed the right to housing and committed his government to build housing for the poor, through the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP). A remarkable number of houses have been built but they have been built very poorly, they are very small, and they are built far away from cities. The houses built by the ANC are smaller and further away from the cities than the houses built by apartheid. When allocated they are given to friends, family members of local councillors and comrades of the ruling party. Houses and other development go to party supporters so that the party can exploit poverty to win votes and remain in power.

Land has not been fairly redistributed. The economy continues to exclude and to exploit. Millions are without work and millions are working but still poor and without security. Most of the land and the economy remains in the hands of rich whites. They have been joined by some rich blacks but the poor, the majority, remain locked out. The great change we have seen over the past seventeen years has been the change from a white government to a black government but this black government is not a government of the people. It is led by a few wealthy individuals who continue to enrich themselves in the name of democracy. Corruption in governance has become the norm. Politics has become a new economic path and a career for the young members of the ruling party. Politics means access to tenders, access to wealth and control. Politics is not about serving the people.

We had thought that the new government would replace a system of exclusion and inequality with a just society. But what they have actually done is to simply take their place in that system of exclusion and inequality. They have not tried to transform that system. We are told that now that the system is under black management we are free. We have refused to accept this. When the government celebrates Freedom Day in the stadiums every year we mourn unFreedom Day in the shacks.

Millions of people remain in shacks. In fact the number of shacks is growing. Shack dwellers live like pigs in the mud, with rats, in homes that leak in the rain and are often in flames. People are burnt to death in shack fires because we are denied electricity and have to use candles and gas stoves. But when we connect ourselves to electricity the municipalities come with guns to disconnect us. Sometimes shack dwellers are treated like children. Sometimes we are treated like criminals. We are rarely treated as citizens.

The housing backlog was 1.5 million in the 1994. It now stands at approximately 2.1 million. That means that approximately 12-million South Africans are still in need of decent shelter. The number of shack settlements in South Africa has grown from 300 in 1994 to 2 600 in 2011. This is unfair in a state that claims to be democratic. Most shack dwellers are black. This is unfair in a state that claims to have liberated black people.

These shack settlements lack basic services. There is often no sanitation and very little access to water. There is no electricity, no road access and no refuse collection. Those in power do not consult when making decisions. There are very few jobs and government jobs are given to party members, friends or family members. The poor are living under constant threat of eviction. In these evictions some are left homeless and others are forcibly removed to human dumping grounds outside the cities. No one can say that this is freedom.

Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack dweller’s movement, realised that politicians can no longer be trusted. It was clear that our government has betrayed us; that the political leadership that we most trusted has betrayed the poor. It was at this stage that we began organising ourselves as shack dwellers, unemployed people and farm dwellers. It is on the basis of this that Abahlali was formed to fight for, protect, promote and advanced the interests and the dignity of all the shack dwellers and other poor people in South Africa. We are a movement of the poor, for the poor and by the poor.

Abahlali has refused to accept that the poor should be passive receivers of services. We have refused to be locked in poverty. We have refused to sit quietly while clever people discuss our future without our presence. We have refused to know our place in the important discussions. We have refused to keep to our place in the shacks and in poverty. Yes we have refused to be treated with disrespect and indignity. Our politic is very simple – we believe that everyone has the same right to shape the future of our cities and our country and that the land and wealth of the country should be shared equally by the people of the country.

Our everyday struggle has confirmed how strong we have become when thinking together, walking together and resisting evictions together. Our struggle has threatened politicians, the state, businesses, the regressive left and some academics and some civil society organisations who think it is their job to think for the poor and to represent the poor. It has become clear that there is no political will to respect and accept shack dwellers as human beings who can think by both the state and some civil society organisations. Our movement is committed to campaign for a society in which every human being counts the same. We see a society in which each person counts as one, in which all people are treated the same, as a normal society.

Our movement has fought many battles and won many victories. We have successful stopped many evictions in our cities. We have fought against transit camps. We have fought for the electrification of shacks in Durban. We have fought the Slums Act. We have fought against the criminalisation of shack activists. We have fought to defend the right of shack intellectuals to be able to think and discuss with all other intellectuals. And of course we have fought to keep the spirit of Abahlalism alive. We have faced serious repression – arrests, beatings and the destruction of our homes – but our movement has survived. While we remain in our shacks we are proud of our struggle and we will continue to confront all forms of exclusion and oppression.

Today we are appealing once again to all New Zealanders to stand in solidarity with the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, to stand in solidarity with all the poor people’s movements in south Africa – the Anti–Eviction Campaign, the Rural Network, the Landless Peoples Movement and the Unemployed Peoples Movement.

We have tried to be in solidarity with people struggling in other countries, like the people of Haiti. If there comes a time when people in New Zealand need support from people in South Africa we will do what we can to support your struggles. At a deep level all our struggles are the same. We are all trying to insist that every person is a person, to build the power of the poor and to reimagine how power can work in our societies. We are all trying to humanise the world.

The struggle in South Africa, like in so many countries in the world, is far from over. But people are struggling all over the world. The struggle for human dignity remains at large in South Africa and in the world. Hope remains at large in South Africa and in the world.

I thank you all. You are all warmly welcomed to visit us if you are in South Africa.


S’bu Zikode
New Zealand, September 2011




One response

10 12 2011

Albahlali basaMjondolo?

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