On 4 October 2020 Abahlali baseMjondolo celebrated fifteen years of struggle on a land occupation in Durban. This essay describes the day, and reflects on fifteen years of struggle placing it the context of previous waves of struggle.
From Durban to the world
In much of Africa rain is taken as an auspicious sign when it falls, as a blessing, on a major event. But on a land occupation in Durban, a port city on the east coast of South Africa, it means mud. On Sunday, 4 October, the mud was 6 inches deep in some places at the eKhenana (Canaan) land occupation, and navigating the steep slopes was treacherous. Many of the people who hadn’t arrived in gumboots removed their shoes and went barefoot.
The mood of the three hundred or so people assembled under the tarpaulin in the red shirts, headwraps and berets of their movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo (residents of the shacks), was extraordinary. A person could live their whole life, and be a veteran of more political rallies than they could ever hope to recall, without encountering this kind of collective joy. With bodies packed close together amid hours of cheering, singing and dancing the assembly came to be surrounded in warm steam while the soft spring rain fell outside.
Hand written posters affixed to the side of the tarpaulin affirmed statements from figures like Che Guevara, Steven Biko and Malcolm X, who was quoted as declaring that “We are not outnumbered, we are out organised”.
The speeches, mixing five languages with an admirably promiscuous rejection of the desire for purity, were alternated with performances by choirs and dance groups. There were a number of radical workings of the national anthem one declaring that Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho we occupy the land together. Another wove in Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. The songs rising from the people assembled in the mud reached back to the struggles against apartheid and included many new songs developed in the movement for new times. Some of the new songs recited, with reverence, names from the long list of people who have lost their lives in the course of the movement’s struggle. The chant that received the most enthusiastic response, with people leaping from their chairs in affirmation, was ‘Voetsek (Fuck off) ANC!’.
More than a quarter of a century after the end of apartheid the African National Congress (ANC), the party of Nelson Mandela, remains the governing party. But with mass unemployment, worsening impoverishment and inequality, well organised corruption in the party and the state, and a grim accumulation of assassinations of grassroots activists the party is now held in contempt by a growing number of people.
A large proportion of both the participants and the speakers at the meeting on the eKhenana occupation were women. In striking contrast to the politics of ethnic, racial and national chauvinism that gathered intensity during the repressive kleptocracy that festered under former president Jacob Zuma there were people with different nationalities, from different ethnic groups and people who would have been classified as ‘coloured’ and ‘Indian’ under apartheid, and remain so today.
The eKhenana occupation
The mood became serious when the time for the election of the branch council came. For an Abahlali baseMjondolo branch to remain in good standing it must hold an open assembly each year at which there is discussion of how the branch has done during in the year since the last election and plans for the year to come; and then the election of a new council, followed by an oath of commitment to the movement’s principles.
Nominations for candidates were taken from the floor for each position on the council. The candidates were then asked to step outside, after which there was further deliberation and then voting, by a show of hands, for each position. The votes were counted by two people, one on either side of the assembly, and then separately reported to the movement’s general secretary. If there was a discrepancy there was a recount. The candidates were called back to the assembly, the results announced, and then an oath of allegiance sworn. At this point the event took on some of the sense of a congregation, before pivoting back to beautifully exuberant collective joy.
The reason for this joy was not just the celebration of the survival of the eKhenana occupation, founded in February 2019. It was also a celebration of the 15th anniversary of the founding of Abahlali baseMjondolo, and the movement’s survival and growth in the face of severe and often murderous repression.
The eKhenena occupation is small, just seventy-seven families live there. But it is exceptionally well organised. There is a bold red sign at the entrance of a self-constructed road; a collective tap providing self-organised access to the municipal water system, similar arrangements to access electricity; a farm with irrigations trenches, vegetables and chickens; a democratically run co-operative to distribute the produce from the farm, sell the excess and distribute the income; an office; a recreation centre for young people with a pool table and satellite television; and a political school, painted red and named in honour of Frantz Fanon. All residents are expected to cook and eat four meals a week together, and to rally to the defence of the occupation when it is attacked. It has faced and survived more than twenty armed attacks from the state, some of which have included the use of live ammunition against the occupiers.
The seeds used to start the farm were received from the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST), the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil. The flags of the MST and Abahlali baseMjondolo fly from a large tree on a hill that, grey and leafless, perhaps dead after a lightning strike, is a prominent feature of the natural landscape.
The occupation is just behind the main campus of the city’s largest university, in an area known, after the river that runs through it, as Umkhumbane in Zulu and as Cato Manor in English. It has a long and rich history of Black occupation, sociality and resistance to apartheid’s forced removals. This history has a significant place in the official public memory of resistance to colonialism and apartheid, in the origins of well-known musicians and writers, and in the intimate memories of thousands of families across the city. It was here, in the 1950s, that the ANC first began to acquire a popular character.
The land was first occupied in the 1870s after the destruction of the Zulu kingdom by the British and the movement into the city of Indian workers who had concluded their years of indenture on sugar plantations. Black sailors from the Caribbean and the United States were often brought here by workers on the docks and music and political ideas circulated from around the world. When, in 1906, there was an armed rural rebellion against colonial authority, the Bambatha Rebellion, many residents of Umkhumbane rushed to join the uprising.
By 1928, the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union, known as the ICU, which freely mixed forms of pre-colonial popular politics with Garveyist, syndicalist and socialist ideas had 27 000 paid-up members in Durban, a number of them living in Umkhumbane. Its members wore red, it held meetings of up to 5 000 people, ran a hall in the centre of the city, made astute use of the courts and scandalised white Durban by marching through the city accompanied by a brass band and led by a man holding a red flag emblazoned with the hammer and sickle.
On 17 June 1929 a white motorist was killed during a dockworkers’ protest. That night a mob of white vigilantes, some armed, attacked the ICU hall where they were met by 6 000 Africans. Six Africans and two of the white vigilantes lost their lives in the battle that ensued. In the end the white mob destroyed the hall. As was more or less always the case when confronted with Black dissent the colonial state ascribed the scale and sophistication of the organisation of the ICU, and its rebellious attitude, to its own deeply racist hallucination of white agitators.
In March 1958 the apartheid state, bent on segregating the cities, began to attack Umkumbane. On 18 June the following year a few thousand women gathered and, after being attacked by the police, rioted. A man played a bugle as the night wore on and the police tried to put down the growing riot. This was the point at which ordinary people began to turn to the ANC, which had previously largely been an organisation of aristocrats and professionals. The song Wathint' abafazi wathint' imbokodo! (You strike the women, you strike a rock!) and the call and response chant ‘Amandla!’ (Power!) Awethu! (It is ours!) became popular.
Contestation continued over the years, with nine police officers being killed in early 1960 when a police raid was met with strong resistance. But by 1965 the defeat was complete and the residents of Umkhumbane had either been left homeless or forcible removed to new racially segregated townships on the periphery of the city. The land would remain empty of people for many years to come, with just the churches and temples left standing,
During the 1980s, with the apartheid state confronting a massive urban rebellion, African people began to occupy fragments of land in the interstices of the city, along with the large tract of still empty land in Umkumbane.
When the ANC took state power in 1994 it moved swiftly to honour the leaders of the women’s riot in 1959. A street was named for Dorothy Nyembe, one of its leaders. The building housing the municipal treasury was named for Florence Mkhize, another of its leaders.
But, by the early years of the new century the ANC was, not entirely unlike the apartheid state, removing people, often at gunpoint, from centrally located shack settlements leaving some homeless and removing others to bleak new townships far outside the city.
In 2004 shack dwellers around the country began occupying roads with burning tyres, a form of protest that is common across the cities of the global south, in protest at either their abandonment by the ANC, or outright attacks from the state in the form of violent evictions. There was one statement that appeared across the country, and in all the languages through which protest was organised. It declared, in various formulations, that “We are humans, not animals [or dogs]”. Another common and related statement was the declaration, again in different formulations, that “We are [or must be recognised as] people that think”.
At the time the ANC represented itself as a national liberation movement representing the nation as a whole, as the sole vehicle for Black unity, the custodian of Black interests and, via its alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP), a project that would, in time, build a socialist future. Popular dissent, even when understood by many of its protagonists to be rebellion carried out within rather than against the broad reach of the party’s organisational and moral authority, was presented as ‘objectively reactionary’ and instigated and controlled by unspecified ‘sinister’ forces ‘hellbent’ on restoring apartheid. The colonial fantasy that popular dissent could only be consequent to white agitation had glided into the new order.
The affirmation of an equal humanity and an equal capacity for reason as the legitimation for rebellion within or, at the time, less frequently against the ANC, may appear to be a point of departure that is trivial – a statement of the obvious. But colonial ideas frequently persist in the postcolony. In 1961 Frantz Fanon excoriated national elites for their “incapacity … to rationalise popular praxis, their incapacity to attribute it any reason”. In post-apartheid South Africa the set of prejudices that were previously projected onto all Black people have frequently continued to be projected on to impoverished Black people.
A new movement
On 19 March 2005 this new form of popular politics arrived in Durban. Residents of the long established Kennedy Road settlement, who were living in wretched conditions and facing eviction, blockaded a major road and held it for a few hours. They were subject to police violence and arrest, and described as ‘criminals’ by the ANC. The next day they marched on the police station where the people who had been arrested, including two children, were being held. They were driven back into the settlement with an extraordinary display of militarised force.
In a meeting held immediately after this, with the settlement still occupied by armoured vehicles and rows of heavily armed police officers, S’bu Zikode, a slight, softly spoken young man, told the assembled residents that, now, they were on their own – cast out of the nation as imagined by the national liberation movement. Later, in a subsequent meeting, he raised his fist and said ‘Amanga!’ (Lies!). Other participants in the meeting replied “Awethu!” before realising their mistake and laughing, sheepishly.
In the months to come ongoing meetings were held in other nearby settlements. Committees, invariably unelected, or last elected many years ago; often dominated by a powerful individuals with financial interests in both the settlements and their relations with the state; and acting as political instruments of the ruling party and the state; were replaced with democratic structures elected in meetings open to all with elections run by a show of hands.
There were moments of risk and tension in settlements where committees had been run by people with an established capacity for violence. The new committees had to make public commitments to weekly meetings, regular mass meetings at which everyone could speak and there would be a permanent right of recall, and another election in a year’s time. There was a degree to which this was a return to the best elements of the popular politics of the mid 1980s.
On 4 October that year, elected committees in 12 settlements declared that they had formed a new movement autonomous from the ANC - Abahlali baseMjondolo. The majority of the leaders of the new movement were young men. From the start they eschewed much of the political language of the ANC, which was seen to be fundamentally tainted. Even the term comrade was dropped. This break from the political traditions that derived from or had come to be associated with the ANC was not absolute. The choice of red as the colour of the new movement was taken from the trade union movement which, although it has sustained significant autonomy from the ANC between 1973 and 1985 had come to be subordinated to it. Other terms that had come to be incorporated into the lexicon of the ANC but were not seen as particular to the party, such as the use of word committee to describe a representative structure, were still used.
From the beginning the movement affirmed, against explicit claims and assumptions to the contrary, that its members were as capable as thought as anyone else, and demanded to be able to participate in all decision making relating to its members. The meeting was affirmed as the site of collective thought and discussion and the movement was characterised by vast numbers of meetings, slow and careful events in which everyone could speak. In a politics drawn from a democratic current in pre-colonial culture that had marked some forms of resistance to colonialism and apartheid, it was understood that the role of a leader was to listen, and to enable everyone to speak and the meeting to move towards consensus. It was made clear that, unlike in the ANC, a good leader was a good listener. The new movement’s primary slogan became “Umhlaba, izindlu nezithunzi” (Land, housing and dignity).
From the outset the new organisation was treated as criminal, imagined as a front for unnamed foreign powers, and met with serious police violence including regular arrest, torture and, on occasion, the use of live ammunition against unarmed people. It was brazenly denied basic democratic rights, such as the right to organise protest marches. Members were even subject to arrest and violent force to prevent them from appearing on radio and television programmes.
But by sheer perseverance the rights to march, to appear in the media, and so on were won. In the beginning the primary work of the movement was to resist evictions, something it soon became very good at using a range of tactics including road blockades, the courts, the media and more.
When the middle class left, largely located in NGOs or the academy, began to notice that thousands of people were marching out of shack settlements, taking the state to court, and almost invariably winning, and regularly appearing in the media, they sometimes assumed that they should give the new movement its political direction and that the role of its leaders should be to make sure that buses laid on for NGO events were full. Demands to accede to this kind of politics were declined. This was not well received.
Claims about national unity, Black liberation, and socialist or communist politics, had been relentlessly mobilised by the ANC to discipline impoverished people. The left outside of the ANC was rapidly losing the small base that it had begun to acquire at the turn of the century but did still have did have easy access to the elite public sphere. In some instances it sought to discipline impoverished people in the name of socialist politics. People in both camps presented the movement in explicitly criminal terms when their demands for control were declined.
This left the movement alienated from the putatively emancipatory discourses of elites that had no respect for their intelligence or autonomy, with the result that it had to work out its own politics. This did not begin from nowhere. The founding members of the movement had direct or familial connections with a range of histories of struggle including the trade union movement, the United Democratic Front (UDF) - the coalition of community organisations that mobilised millions in the 1980s - the Black Consciousness movement, the Pondo Rebellion which ended in a state massacre on Ngquza Hill in eastern Mpondoland in 1961, and even as far back as the Bambatha Rebellion.
The movement’s first step in the process of working out its own politics was, drawing on the idea that the political prison had been a university during apartheid, to frame itself as a university, and struggle as a school. It adopted a politics of constant collective questioning. A meeting would generally begin with a question, and continue with careful discussion until a consensus emerged. Meetings were long and frequent – a practice that has been sustained for fifteen years.
There was a general turn to the history of popular rather than elite resistance to colonialism and apartheid, and to modes of organisation and political aspiration rooted, to a significant degree, in forms of pre-colonial popular politics and often drawing on social technologies used in African churches. New concepts emerged out of the constant discussions.
The first of these concepts was the declaration that it was now necessary to develop an autonomous ‘politics of the poor’ – independent of the ANC, the SACP, the trade unions which were aligned to the ANC and uninterested in or contemptuous towards the new forms of dissent developing among impoverished people and, also, the paternalism, frequently racialised, of much NGO politics.
The movement also determined that its philosophical and ethical commitments would be guided by ‘ubuhlali’ –a philosophy of residence, neighbourliness and community rooted in African humanism. This humanism certainly had radical dimensions. There was a complete rejection of ethnic politics, and impoverished people of Indian descent were welcomed as members. The commodification of land was explicitly and directly opposed, but in the name of precolonial practices rather than socialist or communist ideas.
Another key idea was idea that the new politics should take the form of ipolitiki ephilayo (living politics) which had three primary meanings. The first was that politics would deal with issues immediately confronted by people – land, housing, water, state violence, etc, rather than concepts - like the ‘national democratic revolution’ or ‘socialism’ presented from above as dogmatic abstractions. The second was that it would be conducted in a language that everyone could understand. The third was that it would be a ‘homemade politics’, put together with the skills and resources that were already present, or could be developed in the affiliated communities.
The deep sense of the moral corruption of the ANC on the part of the movement’s most committed members grew as their first attempts at organising were met with state violence. When they did directly confront the ruling party’s claim to political authority, and the civic religion it had built, they did so in terms that were fundamentally heretical. From 2006 Freedom Day, the public holiday held each year on 27 April to celebrate the first democratic election after the end of apartheid was renamed ‘UnFreedom Day’ and marked with increasingly large rallies.
But while the young leadership, and people who regularly participated in meetings, came to share a contempt for the ANC, older members who were not as regularly involved in the movement’s day to day practices were less inclined to make a decisive break with the party. Particular individuals, layers or factions in the ruling party were blamed for its failures and its turn to criminalising impoverishment and repressing popular dissent. This made elections a difficult time for the movement, something that has continued.
The initial strategy when elections rolled around was, following the example of the now defunct Landless Peoples’ Movement (LPM) to abstain, in protest. In response to the national elections in 2004 the LPM had used the slogan, ‘No Land! No Vote!’ which resonated with sentiments often expressed in the growing popular dissent at the time, but was received as heretical by the ANC, and as ignorant and dangerous by elites in general. Beginning with the local elections in 2006 Abahlali baseMjondolo, in alliance with the now defunct Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC) in Cape Town, reworked this slogan as ‘No Land! No House! No Vote!’
When, in 2008, xenophobic pogroms began to target African and Asian migrants the movement committed to solidarity, and backed that commitment with real and at times risky action. This commitment to solidarity with migrants, which was shared by some other popular movements, like the AEC, has never wavered.
Repression escalated in September 2009 when the movement was attacked in the Kennedy Road settlement by an armed mob identifying itself as both Zulu and ANC, and acting with the support of the state. After a period of operating underground, the movement regathered, and became as good at occupying land as it was at resisting evictions. It began to grow rapidly.
The movement had, slowly, and with real resistance from the ANC, and some academic and NGO networks, begun to be able to make its own links with progressive organisations abroad. These proved to be invaluable as repression escalated. Protests in London and New York embarrassed the ANC, which still liked to present itself to the world in progressive terms. The ANC did not appear to be concerned about forms of solidarity organised in Harare and Nairobi.
In the 1980s and early 1990s new land occupations were frequently named in honour of the ANC. Joe Slovo, a leader in the SACP and a commander in the ANC’s exiled army, was a particularly common name for settlements, but there were also names like Lusaka, where the ANC had been exiled, or Mandela, Ramaphosa etc. After the massacre of striking miners on Nkaneng hill at Marikana on 16 August 2012 Marikana became a common name for new occupations across the country, marking another step in a growing popular turn away from the ANC.
In 2013, as the degeneration of the ANC escalated under Zuma, the movement suffered its first assassination when, on 26 June 2013, Nkululeko Gwala was assassinated on a new occupation, named Marikana, in Umkumbane. On 30 September that year, Nqobile Nzuza, a 17-year-old, was murdered by the police during a protest by residents of the same occupation. The police told a lurid story, drawing on base stereotypes, about their lives having been threatened, a story that was uncritically repeated in much of the media. In reality she was unarmed and shot in the back of the head.
This was the grim overture to a period in which assassinations became a regular event, and the movement’s politics started to become saturated with a sense of death. It became common to hear middle-aged women declare, in quiet but resolute tones, that they were now committed to umhlaba noma ukufa (land or death). The names of the mounting toll of the dead became names of occupations, and subjects of songs. They were invoked in political speeches and chants. The old ANC slogan ‘Amandla! Awethu!’ Was repurposed as ‘Amandla! Awethu ngenkani!’, (Power! It is ours via a stubborn and forceful determination!).
This was in tune with the spirit of the moment, a moment in which the most common name for new land occupations around the country seemed to be eNkanini, or eNkaneng - a place of forceful, stubborn determination. For Abahlali baseMjondolo it was inkani, whether expressed through land occupations, road blockades or the extraordinary resilience that it takes to rebuild homes again and again after violent evictions, often up to thirty times, that was the way to move from the suffering of oppression, to individual critical thought, to the collective critical thought of the meeting, and in to the kind of action that could win land, and make other material, social and political gains.
This was part of an unfolding process by which the movement began to make a much bolder claim to an affiliation to the history of the popular dimension of struggle for national liberation, taking on and developing some of the language of the ANC, while deliberately rejecting other parts of that language when it had undemocratic connotations. The word comrade returned and women in the movement began to be referred to as izimbokodo (literally meaning rocks but figuratively meaning politically strong women).
In 2014 the turn to a crude ethnic politics under Zuma, and the escalating state violence and assassinations, led a young and charismatic leader of the movement, one of its founders, to successfully turn an angry mass meeting in support of a vote for a liberal opposition party rightly seen as white dominated. This would not have been the outcome of a consensus based process but majority support was won for this position by a show of hands.
It was, plainly, a collective ‘fuck you’ to the ANC, and not a sign of any affiliation to its liberal opposition. The aim was to demonstrate the extent of the popular anger at the ANC, and it worked in so far as repression eased up for almost a year. But it caused real division in the movement, and shocked some of its supporters. In the end the tensions that arose led to a parting of ways with the young man, who had played an extraordinary role in building the movement.
This issue of how to respond to elections is not resolved. There remains a widespread sense that all political parties represent contesting elites, are authoritarian and opportunist in the ways that they seek support before elections. But others, mindful of the severe personal and political costs of the repression meted out by the ruling party and the state take the view that it is tactically necessary to raise the costs of repression for the ANC on the electoral terrain as well as in communities, on the streets, in the media and in the courts.
Connecting with the MST and the metalworkers’ union
In 2015 the movement celebrated its 10th anniversary at the Curries Fountain football ground. The stadium is small, it seats 5 000 on the stands, but has a storied history in popular Black politics. The Black Consciousness Movement, the trade union movement, and the UDF all held events here that have passed into legend. It was a significant moment for a movement of the most dishonoured people in society to take their place in this space, with all its history. It was a claim to a place in an unfolding history of popular resistance. At this point the sheer scale of the movement continued to enable more recognition from and connection with progressive networks abroad.
It is notable that, by this point, a movement that was primarily started by young men had come to be primarily led by women in their 30s and 40s. It had, to a significant degree, become a movement of mothers. In a move that went directly against the grain of the increasingly masculinised terrain of elite politics, and its militarised postures, this was emphatically affirmed via an explicit commitment to ‘build women’s power from below and in struggle’. Amidst the pride in all that had been built, sustained and grown there were also other kind of developments in how the infrastructure of democratic organising was understood and named. The branch committees became councils. Mass meetings became assemblies.
In 2016 Zikode, one of the movement’s most prominent public figures was invited to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis. To Zikode’s profound surprise the Pope asked for forgiveness for not doing enough for the oppressed and asked that Zikode pray for him. In the same year the movement was able to begin to build a relationship with the MST, and with the organisations around the world to which the MST is connected, which would prove important in many ways.
At home the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) had been expelled from the ANC in 2014 as a result of its response to the massacre at Marikana and its public criticisms of Zuma. The SACP had taken over the political education work for the unions after the party was unbanned in 1990, and Numsa had to begin its own education programme after its expulsion. Its model was significantly influenced by the MST, and when, from 2017, some activists in Abahlali baseMjondolo began to participate in this political education project there was a further opening on the road to appropriating the history and symbolism of the language of the national liberation struggle from the ANC, and the language and symbolism of communism, socialism and Black liberation from the groups and classes that had sought to use these ideas and histories to monopolise various forms of elite political authority.
But with a political vision centred on building the democratic power of the oppressed from below via a tiered set of elected councils, with members subject to annual election and the right to recall, the movement’s growing engagement with the socialist tradition carried a distinct distance from the statism common to the left in South Africa.
Socialist or communist ideas were now understood and explained in the language of radical humanism that had been developed in the movement, a language drawing on situated histories of struggle, organisation, ethics and thought. On occasion this synthesis has been described as a commitment to a ‘living communism’. Newly elected leaders in the branches are often told, standing before the people that have elected them before they take their oath, that their task, as socialists, is to ‘humanise the world’.
Organising in a shack settlement is enabled by the proximity with which people live together, the fact that so much of daily life is lived together – such as queuing to use a tap – and the fact that there are moments, such as shack fires, floods or attempts at eviction, in which residents share a common and immediate destiny. But there are also serious challenges. For a start much of the rest of society has very little interest in the repression meted out by the state and the ruling party – which includes assault, arrest, detention, torture, targeted eviction, organised slander and murder. There can also be ethnic divisions to overcome and rivalries between different settlements competing for the little development that the state does provide. And both the state and NGOs constantly try and capture key leaders with financial inducements and, in many instances, seek to delegitimate leaders who are not amenable to capture. NGOs generally offer little more than short term stipends that can support basic survival. But the ANC, with its control of the state and its system of private tenders for public work, has the capacity to make an impoverished person rich in a matter of months.
It is common for organisation and mobilisation to run high when new land is being occupied, or an occupation is facing eviction. But it is often difficult to sustain this when the state concedes, recognises that an occupation is now an established fact and begins to offer some forms of development. This is invariably only exended to members of the ruling party under the authority of local leaders who are offered opportunities for personal enrichment in exchange for enforcing obedience to the party and the state.
For a movement of the most dishonoured people in society - the people who can be abused and killed with the most impunity - to survive all this, and to build a paid-up membership of tens of thousands of people, is remarkable. In recent years that power, rooted in popular organisation, has increasingly been used to intervene in politics at a much wider scale than the land occupations scattered through Durban and, at a lesser scale, elsewhere in the country.
In October 2018 the movement mobilised thousands of people to join what it calls its red river or its read ocean and march through central Durban to demand an end to repression from the steps of the City Hall. In June 2019 a large march was organised to demand the removal from office of Zandile Gumede, the then mayor of Durban and a staunch Zuma loyalist. In February this year thousands of people marched on the City Hall again, this time to demand the complete decommodification of land, and that it be “managed, on a democratic basis, from below”.
When the coronavirus lockdown hit in late March the movement had an audited membership, in good standing, of a little over 75 000 people, with each member’s details carefully recorded on a spreadsheet. The lockdown was difficult as it made open mass organisation and mobilisation impossible, and the state used it to mount regular armed and increasingly violent attacks on key occupations. There was also generalised hunger during this period. But, with an effective food solidarity programme and the astute use of mechanisms to sustain some connection between settlements during the lockdown the membership surged to just over 80 000 when the lockdown was eased.
The celebration at the eKhenana occupation on 4 October was the movement’s first significant public event since the lockdown. Numbers were kept low in the interests of reducing health risks. But there was no doubt, no doubt at all, that the movement had survived the violent repression that continued, at times day after day, during the lockdown.
In South Africa the politics of impoverished Black people is largely ignored by elites, Black and white. A regular exception to this is road blockades in areas traversed by elites which are covered in traffic reports, in much the same way as adverse weather. When ‘the politics of the poor’ is noted or discussed in the elite public sphere academic and journalistic convention demands, at the least, a studied distance. An overt cynicism, not infrequently mediated by assumptions shaped by the standard set of prejudices that fester in middle class society against people who are both impoverished and Black, is often taken as even more credible.
But who could not be moved by people who have sustained such an impressive quality and scale of organisation for fifteen years, and at such a high cost, singing the Internationale, in the mud, on a land occupation that has been held in the face of repeated violence from an increasingly militarised state?
Johannesburg, 6 October 2020
This essay was first published by the Black Issues in Philosophy blog of the American Philosophical Association.