This article by Richard Pithouse, first published in Monthly Review, charts the rise of the militant South African shack dwellers' movement Abahlali baseMjondolo which first emerged in 1995 and has gone from strength to strength since then despite severe state repression.
On November 9, 1993, the African National Congress (ANC) issued a press statement condemning the housing crisis in South Africa as “a matter which falls squarely at the door of the National Party regime and its surrogates.” It went on to describe conditions in the informal settlements as “indecent” and announced that
Nelson Mandela will be hosting a People’s Forum on Saturday morning in Inanda to hear the views of residents in informal settlements....The ANC calls on all people living in informal settlements to make their voices heard! “Your problems are my problems. Your solution is my solution.” says President Mandela.
One of the settlements specifically mentioned was Kennedy Road in the formerly Indian suburb of Clare Estate, Durban. Seven months later the ANC swept to power in the national parliament.
On June 4, 1999, the ANC greeted news of their first victory over the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in the KwaZulu-Natal provincial elections with a euphoric press statement. They promised, that, as their first priority, “The ANC will together with our people address the concerns of the poorest of the poor living in squatter camps like Kennedy Road, Lusaka and Mbambayi.” Their power, including their power to demobilize popular militancy, was justified first and foremost in the name of the poorest—people in “squatter camps” like Kennedy Road. In both elections Kennedy Road voted solidly ANC.
That was then. On the morning of Wednesday, September 14, 2005, well over 5,000 people from the Kennedy Road settlement, together with representatives from nearby settlements, marched on their local ANC councilor to demand land, housing, toilets, an end to the threat of forced removals, and the councilor’s resignation. All the various attempts by the local ANC to stop the march had come to naught. It was a massive humiliation.
This was the fourth instance of mass political insurgence into the bourgeois world to emerge from Kennedy Road this year. The first was an illegal blockade of both the in and outbound lanes of the N2 freeway running into the city from the north on Saturday, March 19, 2005. Around 750 people barricaded the road with burning tires and mattresses and held it for four hours. There were fourteen arrests on the criminal charge of public violence. Among the arrested were two school children. Alfred Mdletshe, one of the protesters, told Fred Kockott, the first journalist on the scene, that “We are tired of living and walking in shit. The council must allocate land for housing us. Instead they are giving it to property developers to make money.” Kockott’s article in the Sunday Tribune explained that:
[The] scene was reminiscent of apartheid-era protests—and the mood was similar, except now the target of the crowd’s anger was the ANC governors of Durban.
“People working for the government, they have nice houses, gardens, water and electricity, snazzy cars and everything, so they do not care a damn about us,” said Nhlakanipho Cele.
“We vote for a party which tells us it is fighting poverty, but look what’s happening,” added Mdletshe.
“If you are poor, it means you only get poorer,” he said.
“The rooms are hard to live in, and there are no toilets, so the bush around us is full of excrement. When it rains, there’s sewage slush all around. It really stinks,” said Mdletshe.
This was arguably the most militant protest to have shaken Durban in the post-apartheid era. But these events were not unique to Durban. More than 850 illegal protests have been logged around the country so far this year and similar revolts have occurred in cities and towns across the country in recent months, most infamously in Harrismith where seventeen-year-old Teboho Mkonza was murdered by the police. According to the City Press, a video in their possession reveals that “police opened fire without any warning. The demonstrators turned and ran for cover. Police, however, continued to fire at their backs. They also continued shooting as people fell to the ground.”
The scandal is that there is no scandal. The death of Teboho Mkhonza was treated as a trivial event in elite circles. This pattern was established in previous murders by the police, such as when Michael Makhabane was killed in Durban in 2001 in a peaceful protest against the exclusion of poor students from the university, and in early 2004 when Marcel King was killed in Phoenix by armed men disconnecting his mother’s electricity. The day after the City Press article appeared, the Independent on Saturday reported that President Thabo Mbeki, speaking in response to the death of Teboho Mkhonza, had “sent out a clear message that the government will act decisively against communities that use violent means to protest against lack of service delivery...Mbeki said...his government would not tolerate the destruction of public property and anyone who broke the law would be arrested by the police.”
No More Illusions
Most elites argue that the new outbreaks of defiance reveal that something is wrong with the defiant. Academics generally feel entitled to speculate about the cause of the protests without bothering to speak to the people organizing and undertaking them. Thabo Mbeki’s response to the Kennedy Road blockade was to inform the nation, “We must stop this business of people going into the street to demonstrate about lack of delivery. These are the things that the youth used to do in the struggle against apartheid.”
The Kennedy Road settlement is a space of hope and suffering. The chance for very poor people to live in a wealthy suburb near the city center means access to all kinds of opportunities for livelihoods, as well as education, health care, and the sporting, cultural, and religious life of the city. And while there is a vibrant community life in the settlement with a collective cultural, religious, sporting, and political life and various forms of formal mutual support projects, material conditions are severely degraded. The imijondolo (shacks) cling to the side of a steep hill squeezed between the city’s main dump site and the big fortified houses of suburban Clare Estate and tumble down to the ugly, big-box stores of Springfield Park. Some of the children have emaciated limbs and bloated bellies, which indicate that poverty has been written into the future of their bodies. Everyone seems to have someone who is desperately sick, and there are a number of households headed by children. But looking over Springfield Park and through the valley cut by the Umgeni River, you can see the Indian Ocean sparkling in the sun. Hadedas (ibises) take wing at dusk, and when night has fallen, an isicathimiya group (a Zulu choral style made internationally famous by Ladysmith Black Mambazo) sings with abundantly delicate grace, from a hall with broken windows and peeling paint: “We are going to heaven, all of us we are going to heaven.” For the always immaculately dressed and avuncular Mr. Ndlovu, “Sometimes it is just so beautiful here. They think this place is too good for us. They want it for the rich.”
On the Monday after the fourteen arrests, which happened to be Human Rights Day, 1,200 people staged an illegal (because permission had not been requested) march on the nearby and notorious Sydenham police station where the fourteen were being held. Their demand was that either the Kennedy Road Fourteen be released or else the entire community be arrested because “If they are criminal then we are all criminal.” The march was dispersed with dogs, more police violence, and tear gas. There were no arrests this time because the police were looking for one person in particular—S’bu Zikode. He escaped dressed in women’s clothes. Afterward, back at the settlement the line of young men returning the gaze of the riot police lounging against their armored vehicles were entertained by a drunk sarcastically shouting, “Viva Mandela!”
At a meeting that afternoon there were no slogans or pompous speeches, only short and intensely debated practical suggestions. It was decided not to accept a legal aid lawyer, as they are paid by the state and therefore cannot be trusted. It was agreed that the accused should represent themselves and that everyone should contribute ten rand toward bail costs. There was, in that moment, an overwhelming sense of profound collective isolation from the structures and pieties of constituted power. An activist writer planning a story for Indymedia was thrown out and warned not to take any pictures.
The next day the Kennedy Road Fourteen were denied the opportunity to speak even one word to Magistrate Asmal and then denied bail at a court hearing that was over in less than a minute. The fourteen, including the juveniles, were moved to Westville prison to await trial.
S’bu Zikode, the elected chair of the Kennedy Road Development Committee, is a former Boy Scout. He remembers the Scout Law and the Scout Promise. He is a quiet and gentle man who got two distinctions in matriculation in 1993 but had no money for university. There was no work in Escourt and therefore no chance to make a life as an adult. After overcoming a crushing depression, he made his way to Durban, set up home in Kennedy Road, and eventually found a job at a petrol station on the way to the giant mall and colonial-styled gated suburbs and office blocks built for the rich on the old sugar cane fields to the north. This land, which was stolen from the amaQwabe by colonial conquest and then worked by indentured labor brought in from India, is now being sold off, at huge profit, so that the rich can live and work behind high walls and in front of the sea.
Nonhlanhla Mzobe, the elected deputy chair, is a generous woman, with a spontaneous and embracing warmth. Nonhlanhla now works at the dump collecting the litter that blows around. She hopes to get a better job if a planned project to turn the methane gas in the dump into electricity comes to fruition. Like many people in Kennedy Road she is furious with the middle-class environmentalists who oppose this project because they want the dump moved out of their neighborhood. She says that these people either speak as though the people in the shacks don’t exist or speak for them without ever actually speaking to them. The most prominent of these activists, Sajida Khan, has been uncritically celebrated and promoted to liberal Northern NGOs as “South Africa’s Erin Brockovich.” Her campaign to get the dump out of her neighborhood conveniently offers a media- and NGO-friendly Southern face to challenge the World Bank’s plans to use the proposed gas-to-electricity project in its carbon trading scheme. But Khan’s promoters don’t mention that she also wants the shack dwellers out of her neighborhood.
After returning home from the first court appearance without the people taken by the police, Zikode and Mzobe explained, in the accusing glare of the white police lights singling them out in the blue dusk, that the immediate cause of the protest was clear. People had consistently been promised over some years that a small piece of land in nearby Elf Road would be made available for the development of housing. The promise had been repeated as recently as February 16, 2005, in a meeting with city officials and the local councilor. The Kennedy Road Development Committee had been participating in ongoing discussions about the development of this housing when, without any warning or explanation, bulldozers began excavating the land. A few people went to see what was happening and were shocked to be told that a brick factory was being built on the land by a private company believed by some to be connected to the local councilor. They explained their concerns to the people working on the site and work stopped. But the next day it continued and “the men from the brickyard came with the police, an army, to ask who had stopped the work.”
“So”, as Zikode explained,
on Saturday morning the people wake us. They take us there to find out what is happening. When you lead people you don’t tell them what to do. You listen. The people tell you what to do. We couldn’t stop it. If we tried, the people would say, “You guys are selling us.” So we go. A meeting was set up with the owner of the factory and the local councillor, but they didn’t come. There was no brickyard, no councillor, no minister, nobody. There was no fighting but the people blocked the road. Then the police came. Then the councillor phoned. He told the police “These people are criminals, arrest them.” We were bitten by the dogs, punched and beaten. The Indian police I can definitely tell you that they have this racism. They told us that our shacks all need fire. It is only Indians with power here. The police, the magistrate, the prosecutor, the councillor, the man building the brickyard. Everything goes to the Indians here. Some of our women are washing for them for R15. Everybody else is just rotting here. We have no land. Most of us have no jobs. They can call the police to bring their dogs to bite us any time. What is to become of us? When the police come they make fools of us. We can’t control the people—they get angry. They burnt tyres and mattresses in the road. They say we have committed public violence but against which public? If we are not the public then who is the public and who are we? [City Manager Mike] Sutcliffe talks to the Tribune about us but he doesn’t speak to us. All they do is send the police every time we ask to talk. It is a war. They are attacking us. What do you do when the man you have elected to represent you calls you criminal when you ask him to keep his promises? He has still not come here. We are not fighting. We want to be listened to. We want someone to tell us what is going on.”
Mzobe was very emotional. “My granny came here from Inanda dam [after mass evictions when the dam was built]. People were coming from all over to wash for the Indians. My mother schooled us by picking the cardboard from the dump. I was four years old when she came. Now my child is fifteen years old. All this time living in the shack and working so hard. We are fighting no one. We are just trying to live but they say we are the criminals. We haven’t got no problem if they build just some few houses that can’t fit everyone. But they must just try.”
The anger sprang from many sources. Zikode, like many others, simply felt betrayed. “The poor,” he said, “gets more poor and the rich gets richer. And this is the government that we voted for.” Zikode was right. Even the government’s own statistical agency, Statistics South Africa, agrees that the rich have got richer and the poor poorer in the last ten years. This has not been, as often claimed by apologists for power, because a lack of skills has meant that the ANC has been inefficient since coming to power—on the contrary, public money and skills have very effectively subsidized all kinds of elite projects in Durban in the name of development: a (failed) Zulu theme park aimed at satisfying the colonial fantasies of European tourists; five-star hotels; casinos; a film studio; and so on. All kinds of other elite projects such as new sports stadia and an airport and more are planned. Fabulous private fortunes have been and continue to be made while life gets worse in Kennedy Road. The people in whose name the power of the ANC was legitimated have been betrayed.
Many people in Kennedy Road made the point that the meager public resources there, which were built in the last years of apartheid—the community hall and so on—are in steadily worsening conditions. Other key issues, on which endless patient attempts to seek official support to move forward had been rebuffed, were the lack of the municipal rubbish bags that would allow people to have their rubbish removed to the adjacent dump and the failure to respond to multiple requests to erect speed bumps on the road that has claimed the lives of a number of children—one just a month before the road blockade. There was also major unhappiness about the pitiful condition of the small number of toilets. The city stopped emptying the 118 pit latrines five years ago, and Mzobe estimated that there were only five working portable toilets for six thousand families.
This was a revolt of obedient and faithful citizens. These are people who had done everything asked of them. They had participated in every available public participation process. They cared for their sick and the orphans of the dead and dutifully called what they are doing “home based care.” Many had, as so many well-paid academic consultants recommend, given up on finding work to become “entrepreneurs” in the “informal economy.” This can mean anything from hairdressing to hawking fruit or trawling the city collecting cardboard, plastic, or metal for sale to recyclers. They had fully accepted that “delivery” will be slow and that they must take responsibility for their own welfare. They were the model poor—straight out of the World Bank text books. They revolted not because they had believed and done everything asked of them and they were still poor. They revolted because the moment when they asked that their faith not be spurned was the moment their aspirations for dignity became criminal. On the day of the road blockade they entered the tunnel of the discovery of their betrayal. Nothing has been the same again.
A Non-Racial Rebellion Mounts
After ten days and the intervention of a good lawyer, the Kennedy Road Fourteen were released. Zikode, together with Nonhlanhla Mzobe and other community activists, organized a welcome home party for the fourteen, at which Zikode held the crowd rapt with the following affirmation of their actions: “The first Nelson Mandela,” he explained, “was Jesus Christ. The second was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. The third Nelson Mandela are the poor people of the world.” The resonant idea of the third Nelson Mandela became, via a journalistic intervention from activist-academic Raj Patel, part of the discourse of struggle around the country.
The next day permission was sought for a legal march on the local councilor, Yacoob Baig. Two weeks later, on May 13, 2005, more than 3,000 people from Kennedy Road, with support from people in five nearby settlements, residents in the municipal flats in nearby Sydenham, as well as seasoned activists from the formerly “colored” (mixed race) township of Wentworth and the Socialist Students’ Movement, marched on Baig to demand land, housing, and Baig’s immediate resignation. The march was pulled off in the face of all kinds of intimidation and dirty tricks, which included a misleading article in the Daily News by Farook Khan claiming that the march was not legal; the distribution of smartly printed flyers falsely claiming that this would be an IFP march; and a large armed military presence in the settlement the night before the protest. Perhaps the most telling banner on the march was the one painted last, while people were singing against the soldiers on the night before the march. It simply said “The University of Kennedy Road.” Struggle is, indeed, a school. That afternoon the newspaper billboards shouted, “Massive Protests Rock Durban.”
Among other things, the march began the process of building an effective non-racialism. Discussing and uniting behind the collective demands for Baig’s resignation, land, and housing, entailed far more engagement between communities splintered by apartheid than any other event in the history of the ward. Zelda Norris of the Sydenham Heights Ratepayers’ Association, an association coded as “colored” under apartheid, explained why they joined the African Kennedy Road settlement on the march:
[Baig] is our councillor. We’ve all put him in that position. In the end he’s made a lot of promises which he never kept. The Kennedy Association met with us and we decided to combine with different organisations because we all felt our issues weren’t getting addressed.
After years of contemptuous neglect, the government, in various forms, suddenly became very interested in Kennedy Road. On Monday, August 29, a cavalcade of yellow cars from various departments rolled in (up to two hours late) for a meeting to discuss, in particular, the work being done by the community for people with AIDS. For some time the community has provided various forms of support to orphans (including food, clothes, liaison with schools), food for the sick, assistance with grants, linkages with hospitals, hospices, clinics, and so on. The meeting was opened by an official from the Department of Agriculture, Health and Welfare. Her opening statement was as follows:
We are very pleased to be here in the field with you. We target the same clients and have the same core business. We want to work closely with all our stakeholders so that we can improve services delivery in an integrated manner. We are committed to mainstreaming AIDS and want to help you to develop a business plan.
This is an exact quote.
The actual structure of the meeting took the form of using a “tool” prepared by a consultant. The “tool” was a very detailed twenty-one page questionnaire asking detailed (often statistical) questions about what the community organization does in the area of AIDS. Government people took turns asking the questions on the form. The community organization was not given the form in advance and so, even though they keep very detailed records in a series of carefully bound and filed notebooks, they couldn’t answer all the questions. No organization could have answered similar questions about its own operation without preparation. The structure of the exercise meant that as it went along the tone of the government officials became somewhat inquisitorial and judgmental and the community organization people became somewhat depressed. What else can happen when questions can’t be answered or, when they can, the consultant’s research has deemed the answers “wrong”? If research has shown that food parcels must cost 280 rand (about $40) then spending 150 rand per food parcel per family is wrong and must be explained.
Nevertheless, not every impulse toward solidarity could be crushed by the “tool.” People on both sides could find ways around the consultants’ madness. When it came to the question of “sustainability” the community organization duly produced beaded AIDS ribbons which they had made and said they would sell. The government duly said they would train them to develop a business plan. Everyone knew this was nonsense, but once the sustainability box was ticked, it was possible to move on. And support for some of the extant initiatives was duly and sincerely pledged. In a community where children have been found eating the worms that grow in the shit in the portable toilets, every material advance is a victory. One official even proposed a new project—a social worker would arrange for eight rand (about $1.20) per old person to be paid to hold a monthly get together of the old people.
This was welcome, but it wasn’t good enough. Another legal march was planned for September 14, 2005. Then, on September 7, 2005, the big boys rolled in under the confident leadership of Deputy City Manager Derek Naidoo. The elected negotiating team began by handing Naidoo a broken child’s chair left over from the last days of apartheid when an NGO, the Urban Foundation, had offered some material support to the community-run crèche (daycare center). He sat on the chair.
Naidoo began, as these people always do (Have they read Frantz Fanon? They always act out the script with precise accuracy.), with a glowing account of his personal role in “The Struggle.” He said nothing about his more recent role in privatizing the city’s transport system. He moved on to speak at length about how progressive the Metro Council was and how it was put there by the people and by “The Struggle.” He then (in what he clearly saw as a magnanimous gesture) spoke about how the people in Kennedy Road had suffered and how the metro felt their pain. He quoted the Durban mayor Obed Mlaba quoting the Freedom Charter (the manifesto adopted by the ANC in 1955) on housing to make his point concrete. He spoke at length about an article that would be appearing in the Mercury the following day and that it showed how well the municipality is doing.
The article duly appeared on the front page of the Mercury the next day. Titled “Feeling Good about Durban,” it begins by noting that “New Developments, like uShaka Marine World, and the Suncoast and Sibiya Casinos, have made residents more positive about the city.” It doesn’t enquire as to which residents, exactly, are so pleased that hundreds of millions of Rands of public money have been spent on casinos and a theme park while people starve. It goes on to note that, of those working, 92 percent of whites are happy with their jobs, 80.2 percent of Asians, 50.5 percent of colored, and 41.5 percent of Africans. It concludes with Bonke Dumisa, CEO of the Durban Chamber of Commerce, saying that “poverty was a concern” but it wouldn’t affect investor confidence because “Investors accept that South Africa has two economies, a first world economy with people with a high disposable income, and a third world economy.”
Naidoo, at the Kennedy Road meeting, then moved to his key purpose. “We are here,” he announced, “to avert the march.” Then, after a long ramble about budgets and policies—punctuated by an interlude where people were berated for allowing the settlement, which he spoke of as if it were a disease, to grow from 716 shacks in 2002 to 2,666 in 2005 (“This growth is unacceptable!”)—he made his offer. Council wanted a “partnership” with the “leadership” of the community. The council would build two toilet blocks in the settlement, and the “leadership” would run these toilet blocks by charging “10 cents and 20 cents a time” (Ten cents for a piss and twenty for a shit? No one was sure) and using this money to employ a cleaner and to cover the maintenance costs. Toilets are not a small issue in Kennedy Road. But Naidoo’s offer of two pay-per-use toilet blocks was greeted with fury.
People asked about the nearby land that had been promised to the community for years. They asked about the housing they had been consistently promised in every election campaign and in numerous meetings. Naidoo said that the land was not safe for housing—it could move—and that the air (due to the adjacent dump) was not safe to breathe. The pollution, he kept stressing, affects people of all races. People in Kennedy Road are well aware that council tells the people in the big houses across the road that the air is safe. They asked how could this be and how could it be that the land was safe for a factory but not for housing? How could it be that the land was safe on one side of Kennedy Road (where there is a suburb) but not on the other (where there are shacks)? How could it be that the land and air were safe for a nearby school and college but not for them? A silver medalist in the eighty-nine-kilometer Comrades Marathon on the negotiating team noted that he was perfectly healthy. Why was council so worried about the air they were breathing when they left them to wallow in shit because they had no toilets? Was the council concerned that, lacking electricity, they must breath fumes from kerosene heaters every winter night, not to mention the risk of fire?
Naidoo had no real answers. But when pressed he told the truth about the city’s plan for the poor. The squatters will, he said again and again, be moved to the rural periphery of the metro. In his exact words, “The city’s plan is to move you to the periphery.” From the last days of apartheid until this meeting people had consistently been promised housing in the area. People had also been told that some housing would be provided in the outlying ghettos of Verulum or Mount Moriah, but they had never been told that they would all be moved to the rural periphery of the metro. Naidoo’s emphatic announcement of impending mass forced removals from the city was deeply shocking.
He came under attack. Where will we work? Where will our children go to school? What clinics are there? How will we live? His answer basically came down to the claim that the city would try to enable entrepreneurship in its rural periphery. People will be dumped in the bush and given training to start businesses. He was told that there was no infrastructure in rural areas. Naidoo agreed and said that people must understand that it is too expensive to build it there and that the development focus was the twenty-mile circumference radiating out from the nodal point of the city center. No one took any comfort from that. No one was prepared to understand.
Nonhlanhla Mzobe stormed out shaking with rage. It was put to Naidoo that this was the same as apartheid—black people were being pushed out of the city. It was put to Naidoo that this sounded like a slower and more considered version of Mugabe’s attack on the poor in Harare. Naidoo said that if people didn’t like it “they should go to the constitutional court.” This is, he observed, a democracy. He was told that people would rather block the roads than go to the court. Everyone knows that the courts are for the government and the rich.
Naidoo kept saying that there was no land. Cosmos Dlamini pointed out that there was in fact plenty of land around. Examples were cited. Naidoo said that the land belongs to a private company—Moreland. This is the company currently building gated suburbs, shopping malls, and office parks on the old sugar-cane plantations.
Naidoo was told that the march would be averted if he promised 2,500 houses in the city in writing. He said, “No, this place has been identified and prioritised for relocation. It is ring-fenced for slum clearance.” He was asked if he would put his offer of a partnership around the toilets in writing. He said, “No. The city is extending their hand. This is participatory democracy.” Naidoo was told that people wouldn’t be voting in the local elections. He berated them for not respecting democracy and said they had no right to tell people not to vote. Naidoo was told that the march on the fourteenth was going ahead and that if it didn’t get results it would be the last attempt at a legal intervention. Further road blockades were promised.
S’bu Zikode declared the meeting closed. He spoke about all the people who had lied—Councilor Yacoob Baig, city official Nigel Gumede, and others. He ended his closing statement, “You have lied, you are lying and it seems you will continue to lie. We’ll put thousands on the streets.”
Naidoo and his entourage left. The intense discussions about strategy continued into the night.
Preparing for the March
The political process in the two weeks leading up to the march was extraordinary. There were nightly meetings in nearby settlements as well as the Sydenham Heights municipal flats and the Jimmy Carter Housing Project in Sherwood. The meetings began with a screening of Aoibheann O’Sullivan’s film Kennedy Road and the Councillor and then moved into open discussion. O’Sullivan’s film gives a short overview of the Kennedy Road struggle from March to June of 2005. Interviews are often in Zulu, and the film takes the lived experience and intelligence of its subjects seriously (as opposed to the more common practice of distorting the reality of struggles here to make them appear to conform to the expectations of northern NGOs, northern academic networks, or fashionable northern theories). It begins with the sanitation crisis and broken promises around toilets before moving into broken promises around land and housing in Clare Estate. But, crucially, it includes the articulation of an abahlali basemjondolo (shack dweller) political identity and a direct contestation of the stereotypes that seek to objectify shack dwellers as stupid, dirty, lazy, criminal, and dangerous. As this struggle has developed, it has become clear that, as always, symbolic and material oppression have to be confronted together.
Thousands of people saw O’Sullivan’s film and were part of intense political discussions during these two weeks. Each community confronts a situation with its own singularities and so each meeting had its own character. In Sherwood there were too many people to fit into the community hall and the film was projected onto the wall of the hall. Here people have good houses and there is a democratic organization which gives clear support for the ANC, but people enthusiastically agreed to support the struggle of the shack dwellers. In Quarry Road a generator was used to project the film on a sheet of cardboard erected on a large traffic circle. In this settlement, leadership is contested between the ANC-aligned South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO) and a somewhat demagogic militancy, but everybody wanted to support the march. It turned out that a seventeen-year-old boy from Quarry Road was still in Westville Prison after a violent clash with the police in December 2004 in a successful fight against an armed attempt at forced removal. Moreover, while people in Kennedy Road were struggling against the reduction of the number of toilets from 118 to six, people in Quarry Road had had all their toilets removed in an attempt to force them out. (Given that the settlement lies along the banks of a tributary that runs into the Umgeni river, this act could well result in a wider health crisis.) The head of SANCO in Quarry Road, Angelina Mosiea, is disabled and elderly. It is not difficult to understand why she was leading an ANC-aligned organization against the ANC.
In Foreman Road there had been heavy leafleting at the time of the previous Kennedy Road march claiming the initiative as an IFP front, and there was a clear split between a majority who wanted an open discussion and an aggressive minority who wanted to stop it. There were some tense moments as M’du Mgqulunga, a bass guitarist making a living in the city from a shack in Kennedy Road, had to hold the space while a stand off with a small group of goons dragged on for ages as people battled to get the generator working. Suddenly it kicked into life and the images of suffering in the shacks and the language of universal dignity made any talk of a plot ludicrous. The space was won. Ashraf Cassiem, who spent some of his childhood in the area but is now a key militant in the Tafelsig Anti-Eviction Campaign in Cape Town, gave a quietly powerful speech arguing that the colonial war unleashed on the people of this country has continued through apartheid and into the parliamentary democracy. Black collaboration, he argued, doesn’t disguise it. On the march two days later much would be made of amaBhunu amanyama (black boers: the name boer usually refers to white Afrikaners). The discussion incited that night continues—excited and serious. The large banner-painting workshop at Kennedy Road on the Sunday before the march was held in a carnival atmosphere with music, food, and lots of discussion about the slogans.
This time the security forces exerted no collective pressure and individual harassment was low key and always away from the settlement. But, at the last minute, local ANC structures were informed that any member joining the march would be expelled from the party; the IFP front smear was resuscitated; and people were told that when delivery came communities that had supported the march would be left out. Sherwood and the Lacey Road settlement dropped out altogether and support plummeted in the Foreman and Jadhu Place settlements. But on the morning of the fourteenth well more than 5,000 people (some estimated the number to be as high at 8,000) set off up Kennedy Road to fire their councilor.
The March and its Aftermath
The shack dwellers were joined by a bus load of people from South Durban mobilized by the inimitable Des D’sa, a renowned organizer from Wentworth, and various other supporters, including a group of young white boys with signs written in bad Zulu saying something about toilets. Young white boys with shaven heads and the look of poverty have a whiff of fascism to the refined noses of the middle-class left, and “out of context” they can look like rent-a-mob. I asked them, trying to disguise my suspicion, who they were. It turned out they were from a Pretoria orphanage. They have an annual coastal camping holiday in, of all places, ugly, industrial Pinetown and over the years came to know the campsite caretaker well. He lives in Kennedy Road. They walked into town and caught a taxi to Clare Estate with him. Such is the beauty of struggle.
The councilor came to meet “his people” in an armored car from which he, at times visibly shaking with fear, watched a performance of his funeral. The somber priest (Danger Dlamini) and wailing mother (Nonhlanhla Mzobe) asked the impassive heavens who would replace the late Councilor Baig. Who would lie as he had lied? Who would show the contempt that he had shown? Who would leave them to shit in plastic bags? Who would switch off his phone when they pleaded with him to intercede with the fire brigade when their homes were burning? When the carnival was over, Yacoob Baig was forced out of the armored car to receive a memorandum from a gentle man who works at a petrol station and lives with his family in a home made of earth and sticks. Back in Kennedy Road brandy was spilled for amadlozi (the ancestors), and the march was celebrated as a major triumph.
The next day the national tabloid, the Citizen, led with a banner headline screaming “6 Thousand People Have to Use 6 Toilets,” and the Durban morning newspaper, the Mercury, led with the march and reported that the chair of the Kennedy Road Development Committee, S’bu Zikode, had affirmed that “if there was no progress soon the protests would be intensified. He said people would begin taking services by force, beginning with operation Khanyisa, which was taking electricity by force.” The media interest rolled on through the weekend and a scandal broke about City Manager Mike Sutcliffe, a master of self-promoting spin and media manipulation, earning more than the president while the poor suffered. Sutcliffe was panicking. He even went so far as to revive the old racist agitator thesis used so extensively under apartheid and told various audiences that the more than 5,000 marchers were all being “used” by a prominent and effective academic critic of neoliberal policies, Patrick Bond. In a near hysterical rant, Sutcliffe told activist academic Fazel Khan that “Bond must pay for the toilets.” Bond had in fact played no role in the protests and had had no contact at all with any of the shack dwellers. There was a rip, small but clear, in the carefully and expensively manufactured consent for the city’s casino and theme park led development policy.
The first days of the next week began with meetings in the Quarry Road and Jadhu Place settlements, in which democratic consent emerged for open resistance. In Quarry Road there was support across the political divisions for a march on their councilor, Bachu. In Jadhu Place a democratic community structure has long been run by a group of Zulu Muslims well-placed to access charity from local Muslim elites —especially in times of disaster like shack fires. But they were loyal to Baig and were voted out by a group of young people, who intend to fight against Baig and against the ANC, for land and housing in the city. In the massive and massively dense (one assumes that it has been allowed to become so huge because it is behind a hill and hidden from bourgeois eyes) Foreman Road settlement the faction, numerically large but not politically dominant, that is seeking to build a political project independent of the ANC, entrenched its tenuous right to exist as a counter project within the settlement. Across the settlements in the north of the city, including those happy to vilify their councilors, Mayor Obed Mlaba, and City Manager Sutcliffe, but not willing to break with the ANC, the idea of “No Land, No House, No Vote” was uniting people in a new assertion of their power. On Thursday the Kennedy Road Development Committee held its annual general meeting. The men and women who had held their nerve so firmly throughout the unfolding of this rebellion were swept, joyously, back into office. Meetings and discussions continued over the weekend in Quarry Road, Foreman Road, and Jadhu Place. At Jadhu Place there were more than five hundred people at a meeting that Sunday.
The concrete achievements of this struggle at this point included a major and life-saving concession—the pit latrines last cleaned out by the council five years ago were being cleaned and new toilet blocks had been promised. There has also been a promise to renovate the dilapidated community hall. But officials in the city and provincial administration have not budged on relocation. Their only “concession” so far is to say that if people can identify land and check out who owns it and what it is zoned for at the deeds office, then, if the land is council owned and suitable, they will consider housing developments. Moreover, although the success of the march has meant endless offers of meetings there has been no retreat from overt contempt by officials. Indeed, at the first meeting after the march, held at the Martin West building on September 15, top officials from the City Housing Department began by berating the elected Kennedy Road delegation (System Cele, Fazel Khan, M’du Mgqulunga, and S’thembiso Nkwanyane) for “putting lies in the newspapers” and made much show of banging a copy of the Citizen on the table. They then entertained themselves by e-mailing photographs of conditions in the settlement to each other and loudly commenting about how dirty the people were. The pictures on which these claims where based were of a pile of rubbish. Kennedy Road, adjacent to the municipal dump, has long asked for and always been denied refuse collection. So people collect rubbish in plastic bags and burn it once a week. The pictures which the officials were using to claim that the people in Kennedy Road are dirty were of this pile of bagged rubbish.
It was decided that there will be no more meetings in government offices. As S’bu Zikode explained: “Why must we go and sit on those comfortable chairs to listen to the crooks and liars. They must come and sit with us where we live. The battle is on. We will use all tactics.”
On Monday, September 26, the negotiating team met Faizel Seedat, S’bu Gumede, and other officials from the city in the Kennedy Road hall. It had been decided that hundreds of people would stand in a circle that runs around the hall and sing in low voices as the talks went on. If necessary they would enter the hall and collectively call the officials to account. After twenty minutes, 300 people entered the hall. The door was locked and a formal meeting held. Officials reported back and took questions via the chair. More important, concessions were made around repairing the hall, providing 300 chairs for the hall, refuse collection in the settlement, local labor for local construction and cleaning work, and more. The Housing Department sent a low-level official who was only able to report that an engineer’s report was being completed and that the consultant would begin his (100,000 rand) report soon. An old lady, Ma Khumalo, said that she has been living there for twenty years and that in that time every demand for housing had been met with expensive research—research into the land, the air, everything. The meeting proposed and accepted a motion that a meeting would be scheduled with the head of the Housing Department within three days or a march would be organized on the department. The doors were unlocked. The meeting was scheduled for October 10—at the Kennedy Road hall.
A Community of Struggle
But what has been won also includes all that has been created in common to be held in common: the crèche which runs every weekday; the office with the only telephone line in the settlement facilitating all kinds of things like grant applications and negotiations with schools, hospitals, and hospices; the monthly food parcels and weekly cooked meals for the destitute; regular and very well-organized care for child-headed households and people with AIDS; security and fire watch patrols at night; and so on. Much, although not all of this, was present before the break with obedience following the road blockade, the racialized attacks from Indian police on the command of the councilor, and the arrests. But struggle changes everything. There are now vastly more people working on these projects and they are being taken forward with much more seriousness. Before the break with obedience, the crèche was run in a derelict room under the hall. That room now looks as bright and safe as any crèche in a rich suburb. As Fanon has taught us, struggle is, among other things, a movement out of the places to which we are meant to keep. Among many other things new relationships emerge out of this movement and so there has been better access to resources. Most resources are still generated from within the community, but a man from a local ashram has provided a gas stove and a weekly food donation that makes the weekly communal meals possible. An anarchist webmaster, John Devenish, has provided two reconditioned computers for the office so that typed letters and press releases can be produced in the community.
Part of what has been created in common is a community of struggle. Since May, thirty or forty committed activists have emerged in Kennedy Road. They have gotten to know people in other settlements and formed unmediated, ongoing relationships with communities struggling elsewhere in the city from nearby Sydenham Heights and across town to Wentworth. The enthusiasm for making these connections is enormous. Representatives are elected for meetings, money is collected to pay for transport, and in each case detailed report backs and discussions have been held. People in Kennedy Road have also formed connections with three or four middle-class activists in Durban who have been willing to put resources and skills and networks under the democratic control of the struggle, seeking at every point to share their skills and networks via workshops. For example, instead of just producing a press release in accordance with what is decided at a meeting, a press workshop was held at which people learned the skill and discussed the politics of the skill. This can’t be achieved in every instance—access to the (hired) equipment to make and screen films is not something that can easily be put in common—but the middle-class activists have worked to put their class-based skills and networks in common wherever possible. Four men and women from Kennedy Road have now been elected to travel to Cape Town and have spent time with the Anti-Eviction Campaign, and Max Ntanyana and Ashraf Cassiem from the campaign spent a few days in the settlement in the lead up to the big march. Although the campaign is currently not able to mobilize on the same scale as Kennedy Road, it has a far longer history of open resistance, is currently working with shack dwellers in QQ section in the township of Khayalitsha, and has taken the strategy of road blockades further than anyone else. All of these new connections, and the experience of struggle within new alliances, have rapidly and radically developed the politics of this struggle. A struggle that started with many people seeing a local councilor in alliance with an often (although certainly not uniformly) hostile local elite as a problem within the system is now confronting the systemic nature of oppression.
Sustained collective reflection on the experience of struggle continually advances the understanding of what has to be fought and how it has to be fought. In May 2005 your experience may have led you to believe that your suffering was directly linked to Indian racism. In September 2005 you may be paying your part of the 350 rand (about $50) to send a taxi to the predominately Indian working-class suburb of Bayview to show solidarity with the struggle of the people there because you have come to understand their experience of suffering. And you may have elected radical (Indian) academic Fazel Khan, a man you have come to know, respect, and trust in the praxis of struggle, to be on the Kennedy Road negotiating team in a crucial face-off with the city. In May 2005 you might have believed that the World Bank would create jobs for your community at the dump. But while building solidarity for your march, you may have discovered that the same jobs have been promised to other nearby communities that you would never have met in the course of ordinary life lived with everyone in their place.
What the newspapers are now calling “the national wave of protests” from shack settlements has generally been characterized by a sudden eruption of militancy, often characterized by road blockades, quick repression, usually including beatings and arrests (although there has, of course, also been the murder in Harrismith), and then silence. This has also been the way things have gone down in Cato Manor on the other side of Durban. These local mutinies have to confront arrests, and people are generally charged with public violence—even if there has been no damage to person or property. None of the few legal services available to struggling communities are allowed by their donors to take on criminal cases, and so people often spend months and months in prison awaiting trial. Access to donor-independent legal support is vital if these resistances are not to be crushed. The Kennedy Road mutiny received this legal support. They didn’t seek it—they were initially determined to represent themselves, but after the shock of Magistrate Asmal’s visceral contempt for the people in her dock, it was agreed to accept support. Of course, the various self-promoting, bureaucratized, donor-funded and globetrotting elements of the left were not interested, but a small group of local militants put up their personal resources and, when she returned to Durban, secured the enthusiastic and effective pro bono support of struggle lawyer Shanta Reddy. But this has happened before, quite often in fact, without an initial break with obedience developing into a sustained mass struggle. If legal support is a necessary condition for the development of these struggles, it is not a sufficient condition.
The key factor is that Kennedy Road had developed a profoundly democratic political culture and organization, years before the road was blockaded. It means weekly formal meetings, detailed record keeping, and minutes and all those things. But because these things don’t occur in a separate and self-legitimating sphere, they are never pompous, boring, or self-serving. Because there are constant report backs to mass meetings and lots of subcommittees and projects taken on in common, the “leadership” is in constant dialogue with “ordinary” people and, very often, under constant pressure from them. In the struggle that has unfolded since May this year every important decision has been made in collective decision-making forums and every individual or group to have traveled elsewhere has been elected and mandated and has taken the obligation to report back very seriously. Opportunities for things like travel—whether across the city or the country—are scrupulously rotated. Age and gender balances are excellent in all respects. A nineteen-year-old woman, System Cele, has been elected to negotiating teams on a number of occasions. It was, I think, this highly democratic nature of the organization in Kennedy Road that produced its radicalism. For years Kennedy Road has dutifully sent representatives to meetings with government. They did everything that was asked of them and became the perfect civil society organization in search of “partnership” with other “stakeholders.” In return they got contempt. The ongoing collective reflection on the experience of the failure of the official model produced an ongoing and collective reflection on a developing commitment to open resistance. The “leadership” has had no choice but to accept this. There are people with extraordinary character and skill who have been elected onto the committee. There is no doubt about that. But the work of these people remains a function of the committee which remains a function of the community. Of course, this does not mean that the committee is in direct connection with the entire community of Kennedy Road—many people don’t participate in politics at all—but there is a larger community of struggle within Kennedy Road made up of around thirty to forty committed activists involved in day-to-day work, a few hundred people who come to mass meetings, and a few thousand who will be willing to come to a large event like a march.
But the threat of relocation to the “rural periphery” still looms.
When City Manager Mike Sutcliffe gave a public lecture at the now sole university in Durban last year, he showed photographs of shacks in the elite, formerly Indian, suburb of Reservoir Hills (adjacent to Clare Estate) and said that transformation had to be pushed hard because formerly Indian suburbs still had informal settlements. He didn’t mean, as you would expect from a self-described Marxist, that he would be encouraging land occupations in formerly white suburbs. On the contrary, his implication was that justice entailed extending the prerogatives of white privilege to the Indian elite. And so the phrase “slum clearance” has returned as the currency of the policy people. We are told, as people were when Sophiatown and District Six were threatened under apartheid, that better, more hygienic housing will be built elsewhere. What is actually being proposed is that the poor be forcibly removed from the city at gunpoint and dumped in rural ghettoes. The city is attempting to, in large part, reverse the popular challenge to the Manichean logic that underlay the material segregation of the colonial city. A policy that aimed to integrate the city would require the appropriation of privately owned land and in particular the sugarcane fields now being developed into gated communities for the rich by Moreland. This would not only require a direct conflict with capital. It would also require a direct challenge to the anxieties and prejudices projected on to the poor by the white and black middle classes—prejudices that often repeat, precisely, the stereotypes directed at all black people by white racism under apartheid.
The struggle continues. On October 4, 2005, over a thousand people, more or less the entire population of the small Quarry Road settlement, marched on their councilor, Jayraj Bachu, demanding the return of their toilets and the provision of land and housing within the city. They also staged a mock funeral and declared they would refuse to vote in the coming election if their demands were not met. The widely read Zulu tabloid, Isolezwe, gave them two pages of coverage, and they got the front page, the third for this movement, of the free local newspaper, the Rising Sun, as well as an hour and half on the popular community radio station Al Ansaar. The day after the Quarry Road march, young radicals in Foreman Road declared that they too will march. James Nxumalo, the new speaker of the eThekweni Metro (the eThekweni metropolitan area extends well beyond Durban, including nearby towns, peri-urban, and rural areas), used his first speech to rail against mock funerals saying they were deeply unacceptable given that two councilors from the other side of the city had been assassinated in the last month. Local councilor Fawzia Peer spoke darkly about protests being “orchestrated,” and the city hall was awash with ominous talk of a sinister force behind the protests. But two days after the Quarry Road march, a meeting of twelve settlements was held in Kennedy Road. There were thirty-two elected representatives there, seventeen men and fifteen women. They agreed that they will not vote and that they will stand together and fight together as Abahlali baseMjondolo (shack dwellers). A new movement has given birth to itself.
—Durban, October 10, 2005
For more information on Abahlali baseMjondolo we highly recommend you visit http://www.abahlali.org