“Poor people can think for themselves”

Submitted by Matthew on 27 March, 2015 - 12:01

In South Africa, the governing African National Congress (ANC) considers itself the only legitimate voice of the poor. Self-organising among the poor is met with brutal repression by the state and its organs.

Christoph Plutte and Anja Hertz talked to Ndabo Mzimela and S’bu Zikode of Abahlali base Mjondolo, a grassroots organisation of people living in informal settlements in South Africa who struggle for the dignity of shack dwellers and against evictions and repression by the state and its organs.


In 2014, South Africa celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first democratic elections. What does it mean to be poor in the “new South Africa”?

The word “democracy” is a nicer word for the oppression we face today, so that people will be loyal to the ruling class. We are still being excluded from the processes where the rules that affect our lives are being made. We are still in shacks because of the same system that is ruling the country today, controlled by the ruling class, so we can’t fool ourselves and say we are free.

People think that people living in shacks are stupid and not taken seriously. We always say we are not poor but we were impoverished. We were made poor by the capitalist system. And we say that we are the city makers. There is this building today because there is someone who is poor and goes out and looks for a job and he is the one who built the city.

What is living in a shack like?

We do not have toilets, water, and electricity. Paraffin stoves mean that there are frequent fires and our shacks are made of materials that burn easily. 2,000 people will share a toilet. People connect themselves to water and electricity, electricity makes you feel dignified. The houses that are being built by the government are allocated to people with ANC connections.

How do you make a living?

I live from 1600 Rand. I have to pay for food. Some people living in shacks are actually paying rents to landlords. We often have temporary jobs, most people work in clothes factories in or do garden work. This is why we resist evictions because if we leave the city we won’t have jobs and can’t sustain ourselves.

What are the main aims of your struggle?

We are struggling for justice, dignity and equality in our society. By dignity, we mean equal access to goods, transportation, housing, sanitation. There is no dignity without land because if I buy a house and the land belongs to someone else, he can come in five years wanting to build something on this land. It is the same with RDP houses allocated by the government. The government owns the land and can relocate you.

What means do you use in your struggle?

The communities meet once a month. If it comes to the point that they have been ignored by the government they take to the streets, burn tyres, make road blocks, make sit-ins and force politicians to take our memorandums on the situation in the communities or to press for an inquiry into the killings of our comrades. People taking to the streets humiliates the politicians. This is how we force them to take us serious.

We organise in communities, let the communities decide themselves. The executives don’t decide. We normally say that a community must have 50 or more people before they can join Abahlali. Our members have membership cards. We can’t claim to represent all people living in shacks because there are people manipulated by ideology, who think that living in a shack is the lot that god has given them.

You are facing massive repression; in 2014 three AbM members were shot — in all likelihood by hired thugs — and there are death threats from local ANC structures against you on a regular basis. How do you deal with this?

There is a death list, people in AbM are on a death list and there will be more deaths. We make memorandums and demand investigations and we organize open letters of international solidarity. We make press statements or let the people comment but there have never been any arrests, only more threats. The ANC think we are terrorists who want to take over. That by bringing people from the rural areas into the city we want to destabilise their rule.

You used to have this slogan “No land no house no vote” but for the last elections you endorsed the (liberal, main oppositional party) DA. Why?

After all the violence the people faced at the hands of the ANC, we thought that we need to prevent the ANC from getting a two-thirds majority because that would enable them to change the constitution. And the constitution protects us poor people (against unlawful evictions etc.).

We do not mind who is in power. We will keep making noises if you don’t act in a way that is good for us. We thought that in taking the DA into power we will have another enemy in power but they won’t kill us. No matter if we are being led by and elephant or a snake, the power for the ordinary people in our communities who live in shacks will remain. And we will keep insisting on the fact that our matters will not be decided for us in our absence. We don’t think that voting for the DA will change a lot but at least we can hold them accountable. This was a tactical vote to out sit or weaken the ANC.

In your struggles, you draw on the constitution but at the same time the constitution protects private property. How do you reconcile this?

The constitution protects the people who do wrong and those who do right. We use section 26 of the constitution of the Republic of South Africa to protect us because the constitution says, once you have stayed in a structure for 48 hours and that you can show that you live and sleep in that structure you am constitutionally protected. So you go to court, so that they can’t remove me without providing an alternative, so we use the courts and the constitution strategically.

And the alternative the municipality provides you with must be also within the reach of the city, with access to health care and schools. And it must be healthier than your previous place.

One of the land occupations you are involved in is called Marikana. How do you see your own struggle in relation to struggles in the workplace? And do you get support from organisations such as unions?

The settlement was named by the general members. They looked at the form of oppression we face in this particular area where we are excluded from development but then try to get the authorities to listen to us without success. When we protest, those big trucks come with tear gas and water guns and people are shot.

It was named after Marikana in saying that the violence that is being used in Marikana is continuously being used by the police and the authorities, outside of the mining centrers. What happened in Marikana can happen again because the oppression and the ignorance of human rights still takes place. Our brothers in Marikana were killed because they were fighting for their rights. This is how we see that our struggles are related, we share the same suffering and we are oppressed in the same ways. We shouldn’t be separated, our struggles are the same.

We have a difficult history with the support — or lack of support — by other civil societies. We tend to be lonely when we face an eviction. When COSATU call into the streets for mass action, then they would invite us to add into their numbers. When we are in trouble, no statement, no solidarity, nothing, they are nowhere to be found.

You are very critical of NGOs, why is that?

Yes it comes from experiences that the role of NGOs is to use us, to feed us, to think for us and tell us what to do, their role is to give us money and technical support where it is necessary — they have never thought that we are human beings who are able to think for ourselves. You know what the government and their NGOs say? “A poor person cannot think. Because when you don’t have anything to eat, you can only think about the next meal (food).” And even some professors think that it’s their role to think for us. But when we face eviction, they are nowhere to be found.

Later on, they say “these guys need political education!”