By Abahlali Solidarity UK
National elections are being held in South Africa this year. In the UK, a new High Commissioner, Obed Mlaba, has just been installed in South Africa House. Mlaba has a failed record on urban housing and symbolises the betrayal of the post-1994 South African State. South Africa is still a place where mass popular movements are up against the ruling elite and Abahlali baseMjondolo, an organisation of shackdwellers, is one such popular movement. We look back on Abahlali’s work and their current position in South Africa’s politics.
Election Action today outside South Africa House, London: https://www.facebook.com/events/1410879215854379/
South Africa goes to the polls on today, 7th May. The first national elections since the death of Nelson Mandela in December 2013 will see, for the first time, the generation born after the end of apartheid casting their votes. The ANC government, in power since 1994, has lost popularity. It is accused of corruption and has failed to fulfil the promises of the post apartheid constitution. These include the provision of water, electricity and proper housing to every citizen.
The ANC’s party political opponents, though, aren’t trusted. In the second most unequal country on earth, they offer no solutions either. The ANC will almost certainly win the election.
However, the election is an opportunity to examine one particular development in South Africa: popular resistance to poverty. The country’s majority is becoming poorer. Abahlali baseMjondolo, the national shackdwellers’ movement, has mushroomed since its founding in 2005. One in four of South Africans still live in shacks, both urban and rural, with no official electricity, water or sewage connections, nor do they have the right to stay in the homes they’ve built themselves. Abahlali’s members are fighting for proper housing for themselves. They’re up against urban developers who, like in London and other cities worldwide, favour corporate interests and the rich. The ANC government’s record on housing, like its record on land redistribution, is shameful. Urban and rural property ownership has hardly changed since apartheid, with 87% of land still in white hands.
Abahlali was founded in eThekwini (Durban), at a shack settlement in Kennedy Road. It was an angry reaction to failure by the municipal government (for many years headed by Obed Mlaba) to provide basic amenities for shack dwellers, and failure to build proper housing for those evicted during the municipal Slums Clearance Programme.
A decade later, Abahlali, now a national movement, has tens of thousands of members in over 40 settlements. From the start it has adopted community-
based, horizontal politics that reject established parliamentary parties and state institutions, as well as NGO patronage. Abahlali knows that that line-up is incapable of operating in the interests of the poor. Naturally, the history of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa means that many activists have good memories of taking direct action against the powerful institutions attacking their communities. Abahlali has abandoned the official processes of the ANC. Its grassroots, participatory politics are central to the way it organises. Like people’s movements worldwide – Sem Terra in Brazil, for example – Abahlali is trying to find a new expression of democracy.
Its first major action was a boycott of the 2006 municipal elections under
the slogan ‘No Land! No House! No Vote!’, whilst continuing on-the-ground
resistance to evictions. In 2009, after a long legal process, Abahlali won a court case that ruled the KwaZulu-Natal Slums Act unconstitutional. The act had made it legal to evict shack dwellers and was used repeatedly to evict people from their homes, often rehousing them many miles from the city in tin huts that a pair of scissors could cut – hardly the quality new housing the constitution promised. Diversity of tactics, using both direct action and legal channels, is a founding principle of Abahlali baseMjondolo.
Repression and resistance
Abahlali’s success has brought reprisals. Its opponents have tried to undermine its culture of solidarity and participatory democracy. They’ve launched violent attacks. In 2009, in the Kennedy Road settlement, an Abahlali meeting was attacked by youths chanting ANC slogans, clearly aiming to intimidate members.
After two of the attackers were killed, 12 Abahlali members were arrested. They were charged with murder despite zero evidence. Two years of legal struggle followed until in 2011 the charges were thrown out of court.
Worse was to come. In September last year, four vocal critics of eThekwini municipal corruption and housing policy were killed in the street, as well as a 17-year-old bystander. In the same month, Abahlali activists occupied
unused land in Cato Crest, Durban, in protest at municipal corruption and in solidarity with the 34 striking miners in Marikana whom police murdered in 2012. Abahlali was once again visible in the region. On New Year’s Day 2014, the Cato Crest occupation was violently evicted and 20 people arrested. Despite this, AbM continues to fight, with a court victory in March this year ruling in favour of a Cape Town land occupation: evictions were stopped – and a court order issued to rebuild demolished homes.
In the light of ANC killings, Abahlali has decided that boycotting the 2014 election isn’t enough. While no political party represents it and none of its leaders can be a member of a political party, if any party – excluding the ANC – fulfils its demands, then Abahlali will recommend tactical voting to its members. (*Update by editor – AbM have recommended a tactical vote for the Democratic Alliance).
International Solidarity and actions in the UK
Around the world support for Abahlali has grown. Impromptu actions have taken place, and solidarity groups are springing up, including Abahlali baseMjondolo Solidarity UK. South African embassies worldwide have been picketed. Raising awareness of Abahlali’s fight continues internationally. In the UK there’s an additional reason to raise Abahlali’s profile. Early this year, Obed Mlaba, former mayor of eThekwini Municipality, was installed in South Africa House in Trafalgar Square as High Commissioner to the UK.
Between 1996-2011, Mlaba presided over housing policies which were plainly vindictive towards the poor, including stopping the electricity supply to shack dwellers. He was a constant opponent of Abahlali. Mlaba has managed to avoid facing accusations of corruption and fraud, including unlawful influence on multi-million rand tender housing projects which benefited family members.
He pick up a high-level diplomatic job without being held accountable for his eThekwini political record? It seems so. Abahlali stresses how important it is to know that people worldwide are publicising their movement. On the occasion of the South African election, Abahlali Solidarity UK is highlighting Mlaba’s UK appointment, and we’re showing solidarity with the continuing struggles of Abahlali and the poor across South Africa. We’ll be protesting outside the South African High Commission today, the day of the election, to highlight the failure of the South African state to redistribute the country’s wealth to all its citizens.
Abahlali has called 2014 the year of change. Here in the UK and all over the world, we’re in it together, in the movement against elites and the unaccountably powerful.
Abahlali Solidarity UK’s demonstration is at 4pm on Wednesday 7th May
outside the South African High Commission, South Africa House, Trafalgar
Square, London WC2N 5DP. Bring cardboard boxes.
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