Resisting degradations and divisions: an interview with S'bu Zikode

S'bu Zikode
S'bu Zikode

S’bu Zikode is the elected president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a radical and radically democratic shackdwellers’ movement in South Africa that has committed itself to waging its struggles independently from party-political and NGO control. This is an excerpt from a longer interview.

Submitted by red bird on May 3, 2009

Richard Pithouse: What is your understanding of a living politics?

S’bu Zikode: That is a simple one because we are all human beings and so our needs are all, one way or the other, similar. A living politics is not a politics that requires a formal education – a living politics is a politics that is easily understood because it arises from our daily lives and the daily challenges we face. It is a politics that every ordinary person can understand. It is a politics that knows that we have no water but that in fact we all deserve water. It is a politics that everyone must have electricity because it is required by our lives. That understanding – that there are no toilets but that in fact there should be toilets – is a living politics. It is not complicated; it does not require big books to find the information. It doesn’t have a hidden agenda – it is a politics of living that is just founded only on the nature of living. Every person can understand these kinds of demands and every person has to recognise that these demands are legitimate.

Of course sometimes we need formal expertise – we might need a lawyer if we have an eviction case, or a policy expert if we are negotiating with government. But then we only work with these people when they freely understand that their role is to become part of our living politics. They might bring a skill but the way forward, how we use that skill, if we use that skill, well, that comes out of a meeting, a meeting of the movement. By insisting on this we have found the right people to work with.

Richard Pithouse: You’ve also spoken about a living communism before.[2] Can you tell me what you meant by that?

S’bu Zikode: For me understanding communism starts with understanding community. You have to start with the situation of the community, the culture of the community. Once you understand the complete needs of the community you can develop demands that are fair to anyone; to everyone. Everyone must have equal treatment. And obviously all what needs to be shaped in the society must be shaped equally and fairly. And of course if everyone is able to shape the world, and if we should shape it fairly, that means that the world must be shared. That is my understanding. It means one community, one demand.

To be more simple a living communism is a living idea and a living practice of ordinary people. The idea is the full and real equality of everyone without exception. The practice, well, a community must collectively own or forcefully take collective ownership of natural resources – especially the water supply, land and food. Every community is rightfully entitled to these resources. After that we can think about the next steps. We are already taking electricity, building and running crèches, insisting that our children can access the schools. We just need to keep going.

Again I do not think we should be thinking away from ordinary people, having to learn complicated new ideas and ways of speaking. Instead we should approach the very ordinary people that are so often accused of lacking ideas, those who must always be taught or given a political direction. We need to ask these people a simple question: ‘What is needed for your life, for your safety, for your dignity?’ That simple question asked to ordinary people, well, it is a kind of social explosion. From that explosion your programme just develops on its own.

Of course a struggle always starts in one place, amongst people dealing with one part of the human reality. Maybe they are, like us, living like pigs in the mud, strange pigs that are also supposed to survive constant fires. Or maybe they are being taken to Lindela or maybe they are being attacked from the sky, being bombed.[3] You have to start with what is being done to you, with what is being denied to you.

But for me communism means a complete community. It does not mean a community that is complete because everyone in it thinks the same or because one kind of division has been overcome. It means a complete community that is complete because no one is excluded – a community that is open to all. It means a very active and proactive community – a community that thinks and debates and demands. It is the universal spirit of humanity. Obviously this starts with one human life. We know that if we do not value every human life then we would be deceiving ourselves if we say that there is a community at all.

We are communists here in the mud and fire but we are not communists because of the mud and fire. We are communists because we are human beings in the mud and fire. We are communists because we have decided to take our humanity seriously and to resist all degradations and divisions.

Richard Pithouse: You have suffered in this struggle. You have lost your job, you’ve been arrested, slandered, beaten. Why do you think that the state reacted so badly to the emergence of Abahlali baseMjondolo?

S’bu Zikode: I think that it is because the system is such that it makes it impossible for equality. It makes sure that it divides in order to retain the status quo. It has created its own empire for its own people that matter to it, that are accountable to it. The system itself makes other people to be less, to be not important, not to matter.

What I was trying to do was to invade their territory and to show that we all have the power to do it.

It is a capitalist system and it is also a political system in which the few dominate the many. So it has to make certain people better than others, to be privileged over others. If you want to join the winning team then you have to fight. And it’s not easy. They want us to think that we can never beat them and that the only hope is to join them. But the system makes these different layers and it makes it very difficult, almost completely impossible, for a certain layer to penetrate. That’s where the issue of blood and death first comes in. This is a very strong empire.

If you decide not to join the winning team, if as a poor person you decide to change the whole game, well, then you are invading their territory, territory that is too good for you. They will first ask, ‘Who the hell are you?’ That is always the first question – from the councillors, the police offers, the officials, the politicians, everyone. And if you have an answer, well, sometimes intelligence is not enough. Blood and death come in again. And when you are challenging the system rather than trying to get inside it there are still these layers. Even if you pass the first layer it will ensure that you do not reach the next layer where clever people belong, people who count. If you are born poor it is taken that you are born stupid. But if you invade their territory you don’t find clever people. You find that it is greedy people and ruthless people who seem to count. You find that they want to control the world. They will defend their greed. I am very clear that if you try to pass into the forbidden territory you will have to pass certain tests, certain difficulties.

I always wonder how the system can divide people. I always say that the strongest thing that the system can do is to be able to divide people which is why we all struggle in our own confined dark corners, separated from one another. At the end of the day we are the majority, not the system. But it is such that it manages to divide us, to divide our struggles. This is why the big question that most people ask is ‘How few hands can remote so many people?’ Those few people in the system are able to remote the world. How do they do this? How can hundreds of people remote millions? The answer is the division of our struggles. That is why I understand why Kennedy was such a big threat. The collectivity that we built, first within Kennedy, and then between the settlements that formed the movement – on its own it is a threat to the system.

It is interesting that we send comrades to this WSF [World Social Forum] with a clear message that another world is necessary, necessary as a matter of urgency. We hear that everyone agrees that another world is possible. This is good but no one has ever asked when this will happen, when we will all take a collective step towards this change.

I am not too sure at what stage our own intellectuals will understand the system and why ordinary people still don’t have a way of changing the society. I still wonder at what stage a new communism will become necessary. I don’t know when it will become clear that poor people themselves can and must come up with a new living, an autonomous life, a completely independent stance where a new order would be about alternative ways of living and working instead of trying to compete with each other or limiting our demands to the return of what is already stolen. But it is possible. Already the struggles of the poor have created a situation where everything is done in the name of the poor. The state, the NGOs, academics, the churches, the World Bank, all of them are saying that what they are doing they are doing for the poor. Now that the poor themselves are saying ‘not in our name’, now that we are saying that we will do things for ourselves, that we will think and speak for ourselves and that we will keep going until we find our own way out and a new society is born we have opened a real space for discussion. Our first duty is to keep this space wide open. Our second duty is to encourage as many people as possible to take their place in this new space.

Intellectuals are also called upon to serve our little world. It is difficult to analyse and change the world, to change its format, to turn it upside down. I always remember Bishop Rubin Philip’s speech when he said that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.[4] It is easy to say it, and it’s acceptable to most people, but it’s not easy to make it real. But to be realistic we must start from where we are, with what we have, from our families, by teaching our children, and then to our schools, to our little neighbourhoods and communities before we say anything at the world level like the WSF. We must not fool ourselves and produce ideas that are not grounded in any soil.

Richard Pithouse: For many people Abahlali is best known for the position that it took against xenophobia. How did the movement come to take the position that equality must be universal?

S’bu Zikode: This is a bigger question, a question of people who are in this world. But we’ve already talked about ubuntu, communism and what makes a complete society. It is true that this could be in the sense of belonging. But belonging where? It could be in one country but it could also be in the world, that it is acceptable for everyone in the world to live freely without any boundaries, without any colour or any other restrictions.

Obviously if you were to talk about a just society then it is the human culture, ubuntu, that makes a complete human being. The culture, where a person comes from, the colour – this does not count. Therefore it was clear for Abahlali that we have to take a very strong side in defending human life – any human life, every human life. It is acceptable and legitimate that one person protects another. It is as simple as that.

There are no boundaries to the human life. Therefore the attack on people born in other countries, the so-called foreign nationals – it was inhuman. It was very easy to take a position on this.

Obviously you have got to look at the perpetrators of this, at their intelligence, their conscience, their consciousness – their intelligence really. Whatever they say about their reasons for the attacks clearly shows how the world was corrupted. People breathe a poisonous air. They get caught up, in their whole life, in a way of living where you turn an eye to one another. It is a terrible situation. This is a very big challenge for South Africans who have lived most of their life during apartheid, whose teaching was about boundaries, segregations – that not everyone was a human being. At that stage only whites were considered to be human by the system. A proper opposition to that system would reject its segregations completely and insist that everyone is human. But some of the opposition to that system has been about fighting to take a place in that system, not doing away with it. So now black people have turned on other black people, against their brothers and sisters. It is a disgrace. This is one of the damages the past laws have installed in some people’s minds. A lot needs to be done to change the mindsets of those whose frustration is unsound.

Richard Pithouse: What has been the best thing about being involved in Abahlali?

S’bu Zikode: All the victories we have won. I don’t just mean victories in court, or evictions that have been stopped, or water and electricity connected. I am talking about seeing comrades becoming confident, being happy for knowing their power, knowing their rights in this world. Seeing comrades gaining a bit of respect, seeing people who have never counted being able to engage at the level at which they struggle is now fought. Young comrades are debating with government ministers on the radio and TV! Seeing the strength of the women comrades in the movement. Seeing poor people challenging the system, because it's not just about challenging Bheki Cele[5] or Mabuyakhulu, it’s about challenging the whole system, how it functions.

Richard Pithouse: Would you like to say a little more about the strength of the women comrades in the movement?

S’bu Zikode: Well I am very satisfied and proud to see how some of the Abahlali settlements are chaired and led by women. This is evident in Siyanda A, B and C sections in Newlands in Durban. This is also evident in Motala Heights in Pinetown, in Joe Slovo and other settlements. From the very beginning women have been elected to the high positions of leadership in the movement and it is impossible to imagine the movement without the strength of women comrades. The Abahlali office itself is headed by a young woman, Zodwa Nsibande, who has earned herself a high respect from both men and other women for her role in connecting the movement and the outside world. But there are also many projects that don’t get the same public attention and most of these projects, such as crèches, kitchens, sewing, bead work, gardening and poetry are run purely by women.

The strength of women comes from the fact that women are expected to carry our love, not only for their children and husbands but for the communities too. Women are raised to be sensitive and caring. We are all told that a home that has a woman is often warm with love and care. A person that is given responsibility for this love and care will fight like a lion to protect her home and her family. It is not surprising that women are often in the forefront of struggles against eviction, for toilets, for electricity and against the fires. Sometimes in Abahlali women feel that men are very slow and too compromising.

Over the years many women have faced arrest and police beatings. Women have confronted police officers, landlords, shack lords, BECs, councillors, NGOs, academics – everyone that has to be confronted in a struggle like this. The fact that Abahlali women have given away fear and decided to confront the reality of life tells us that there is something seriously wrong with our governing systems – that another world is necessary. Women don’t risk their safety when they have children to care for unless they have a very good reason for doing so. The fact that women have stood up to and faced the barrel of guns during our protests is an indication that indeed another world is possible, because without women nothing is possible and without courage nothing is possible. Our hopes are dependent on the courage of women.

We know that in the past that in times of any war women were never and under no circumstances touched by the physical pain associated with any war. But today poor women are shot by the same police who are meant to protect them by law. I wish to salute the role that our mothers are playing in not only raising us under these trying circumstances but in also having to face this violence from the state while fighting for a better world for us. Their motherly [contribution] does not count because they are not the wives of the politicians and of the rich.

But we know that their strength changes their subjectivity to vulnerability, putting them in the forefront of our struggle. We know by nature that their tears can never be ignored by a natural person forever and ever.

* S’bu Zikode is the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo.
* Richard Pithouse is an independent writer and researcher in Durban.

[1] This is a short extract from a much longer interview. The full interview is available at Abahlali baseMjondolo website
[2] Zikode first made a public call for a living communism in an address to the Diakonia Council of Churches economic justice forum on 28 August 2008.
[3] Lindela is a notorious detention centre to which undocumented migrants are taken prior to deportation.
[4] Anglican Bishop Rubin Philip has been a longstanding supporter of Abahlali baseMjondolo. The speech referred to here was given at the Abahlali baseMjondolo UnFreedom Day event on 27 April 2008.
[5] Bheki Cele is the minister for security in the Province of KwaZulu-Natal.