A biography of Abahlali baseMjondolo militant, Lindela Figlan, from late September 2012.
Lindela Figlan was born on the 27th of December 1970 in J.B. Location in Flagstaff in Pondoland in what was then the Transkei bantustan.
His mother was from the Hadebe family and she kept the home. His father was secretary of the congress that went into revolt on Ngquza Hill in 1960. More than 4 000 men occupied Ngquza Hill. They were determined to fight for their land and for their dignity. The apartheid state sent in the military and there was a massacre. The courage of the men on Ngquza Hill is always remembered in Pondoland today. The songs from that struggle, like 'Asiyifuni idompas', are still sung today. When Lindela was a young boy the police used to come to their home from time to time, kick in the door and kidnap his father. Sometimes they would take him to a place known as Betani where they would force him to dig potatoes with his hands saying that they did not want to risk damaging their tools. When he came home his fingernails would be red.
When Lindela was a boy his father would talk a lot about Mandela when he was drinking with his brother. He would say that Mandela was a black man who was going to lead South Africa and build a just society. But when he noticed that Lindela was listening he would keep quiet or chase him away. Lindela would pretend to be asleep in order to be able to listen to his father and his uncle discussing Mandela.
Lindela's father was also a mine worker. He worked in gold mines near Rustenburg. Although his father had work as a mine worker the family were still very poor. In 1983 Lindela's father he came home from the mines and Lindela remembers that he was 'coughing like a train'. While he was at home some soldiers came through the area. One of the soldiers, a young white boy, grew angry at the way his father was coughing and beat him severely. It was a huge shock to Lindela who remembers that “I had thought that no one could beat my father”. Lindela's father died later that year. No cause of death was ever given to the family but it is highly likely that he, like many thousands of other mineworkers in Pondoland and other parts of the country, died of silicosis.
Lindela was 13 when his father passed and the family suffered a lot after his death. His mother kept the family together but it was always a difficult struggle. Lindela stresses that black people could not have survived apartheid, and could not survive now either, without the work and tenacity of black women. He stresses that much of the strength of Abahlali baseMjondolo is rooted in the strength of women and their day to day struggles to survive in an oppressive system. His mother died earlier this year. It was a real struggle for Lindela and his brothers to bury her with the dignity that they felt she so richly deserved.
In 1983, the year of his father's death, Lindela saw a guy wearing a t-shirt with the Freedom Charter on it. This young man was called Simthembile Munelo. Lindela approached Simthembile looking for more information and Simthembile then organised secret meetings at night where young people could learn more about the ANC. Whenever he started talking about Ngquza Hill he started to cry a lot. He would say that so many people died there and that they way that they were buried was very humiliating. He said that they just opened a very big hole and pushed the bodies inside. He always stressed that the men on Ngquza Hill were fighting to protect their land. At these meetings Lindela was still wearing shorts. He was always barefoot as he didn't own any shoes.
After his father died Lindela struggled to complete his schooling but finally completed matric, his final year of school, in 1996. His history teacher in high school, Mr Mulelani Dlokweni from Matatiel, used to teach politics outside of the formal curriculum. He was not an ANC member. He was a PAC member. He taught what he called 'real politics' that was 'guided by the people'. He was very critical of the ANC and used to call Nelson Mandela 'a capitalist icon'. He was a big follower of Karl Marx. He believe that people always have a right to overthrow oppressive governments and that workers are the strength of a people in struggle and the strength of a county. He also believe very strongly that the workers must be on the side of the poor and not, as has often happened in South Africa in recent year, on the side of the bosses and the government.
Lindela became the chairperson of the Students Representative Council at his school, the Walter Cingo Senior Secondary School. He was also elected as the chairperson of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) at his school and as the regional secretary of COSAS.
Lindela is one of three brothers. One became a miner worker at Marikana but he was fired after a strike. His other brother was also working as a mine worker at Marikana but he is now working, still as a mine worker, in Kimberly. Lindela knows Marikana well as he used to visit his brothers there. He would stay at Putsaneng.
After he finished school Lindela found work at a shop. But he was paid R5 a day and the transport was R4.50 so in 1998 he came to Durban. He came to the Foreman Road shack settlement in Clare Estate where a lot of people from Flagstaff were staying. He saw a lot of old friends there. After three months in Durban he found a job working as a security guard and in 1999 he married Nokwanda Vundisi, who he had met two years before in Flagstaff. In 2004 he got a live in position as a security guard at a nearby school but in 2005 he had to find new work and he moved into the Burnwood shack settlement in Clare Estate. This is where he first began to get involved in shack dweller's politics. He was struggling inside the ANC at this time. But he was critical of the ANC and so he started to be threatened. As a result he withdraw from the ANC. It became clear to him that the ANC was becoming a way to control poor people rather than to emancipate poor people and so he joined Abahlali baseMjondolo when it was formed in October 2005. What excited him most about Abahlali baseMjondolo was the idea, on which the movement was founded, that poor people should think for themselves rather than always relying on other people to think for them.
The ANC reacted very badly to his decision to join Abahlali baseMjondolo. Soon after he joined the movement he started to get all kinds of threats. One day he was at a meeting in Chesterville and his wife called him to say that ANC members had surrounded his shack and were threatening to burn it down. Some ANC members were saying that Abahlali baseMjondolo was a front for the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and others were saying that it was a front for the United Democratic Movement (UDM). He had to flee the Burnwood settlement with what could be carried. For a while he rented the cellar of a house near the Foreman Road settlement thinking that it would be a safer place to live. But it was much worse living there than in a shack and the rent was R700 while his salary was R1 500. He moved back into the Foreman Road settlement where he was soon elected as the chairperson. In late 2005 and early 2006 there was a period of real and sustained militancy in the settlement which fragmented somewhat after a brutal police response, including the use of live ammunition as well as rubber bullets and stun grenades, to a peaceful and unarmed protest that, after a democratic decision taken at an open assembly, went ahead in defiance of an unlawful ban. A number of people were seriously injured by the police at the protest and back in the settlement. The extent of the police brutality, and the open justification for it by leading figures in the Durban ANC, lead some people in the settlement to conclude that raising issues outside of the ANC was just too dangerous to be a viable strategy.
In late 2006 Lindela moved to the nearby Kennedy Road settlement. The following year he was elected as the chairperson of the Kennedy Road Developmenet Committee, a structure that had affiliated to Abahlali baseMjondolo when the movement was formed the previous year. It was felt that as an outsider he could be a unifying person and for some years the settlement became a site of intense political activity. There were daily events in the hall and the movement did a lot to help a many people always being careful to offer the same support to all residents irrespective of their apolitical affiliation. The movement even buried people that had been critical of it. This showed people that the movement was really serious about building a different type of politics to the ANC which by then was openly insisting that people had to have party cards if they wanted to access services or jobs. At the same time the movement was growing rapidly in other parts of Durban and in smaller towns elsewhere in the province of KwaZulu-Natal and a branch was also set up in Cape Town. Lindela was elected as the Deputy President of Abahlali baseMjondolo in 2008 and again in 2009.
The campaign that eventually bought Jacob Zuma to the Presidency took on a distinctively ethnic form in Durban and this, together with the growing ability of the movement to mount successful challenges to local party bosses as well as to the state itself led to a sustained campaign of vilification against the movement by the ANC. It often had ethnic overtones with Abahali baseMjondolo, an ethnically diverse movement, being presented as front for Phondo or Indian interests, or as a front for imperialist interests or a front for the new political party, COPE, that emerged following the defections of some members from the ruling party in protest at the ascent of Zuma to the Presidency.
Things came to a head in November 2009 when, following a series of brutal assaults on Abahlali baseMjondolo leaders, including Lindela, and then a failed plan to assassinate some of the movement's leaders at a public event in Pinetown, outside of Durban, the movement was attacked in the Kennedy Road settlement on the 26th of September 2009. The attack was carried out by armed men self identifying as ANC members and, also, in ethnic terms, as Zulus. The police refused all requests to intervene. Lindela was one of a number of people singled out for attack and it was made clear that the intention was to murder him. It was said that his head would be cut off after he had been killed and left in the hall and his body would be dumped in the Umgeni river. It was also said that Durban was a place for Zulu people and that Pondo people could only come to the province of KwaZulu-Natal to kills the weeds in the sugar cane.
Lindela was lucky to escape with his life that night but he, like many others, lost his home and all his worldly goods. He continued to be subject to death threats and had to go underground for some months. The morning after the attack the ANC seized control of the settlement, declared that a decision had been taken to 'disband' Abahlali baseMjondolo as it was a 'criminal organisation' and that the settlement 'had been liberated'. The police then proceeded to arrest a number of young Pondo men who were all members of an imfene dance troupe and to charge then with a variety of offences including murder. For months after the attack the homes of well-known Abahlali baseMjondolo members were openly destroyed by ANC supporters while the police refused all requests to intervene.
In the attempt to concoct a case against the men arrested after the attack the police engaged in torture and there were death threats and assaults from the local ANC. One of the state's witnesses, who was found to be credible, courageously testified that she had been pressurised to offer false testimony against Abahlali baseMjondolo and that she had been attacked in her home by local ANC leaders when she refused to lie in court. A police officer, also a state witness, who had been based in the settlement also bravely testified that the Abahlali baseMjondolo account of events was correct. The judge found that the witnesses that did support the ANC's account of events had been lying, that their witnesses statements directly contradicted their evidence given in court and had been written by the police and that the police line-up was fraudulent with witnesses being asked to pick out members of a dance group well known for performing at Abahlali baseMjondolo events rather than people that they had seen committing any crime. The state's case against the men was thrown out of court without the defence having to even a mount a case on the ground that there simply was no case to answer.
The authoritarian left in Durban, overwhelmingly dominated by middle class white and Indian activists, had always been deeply suspicious of Abahlali baseMjondolo's commitment to self organisation, to bottom up democratic practices and to insisting on the autonomy of the organisation. It is referred to as 'the regressive left' in the movement. Its claims about the movement had always been grossly dishonest, rooted in deeply prejudiced ideas about the political capacities of poor African people and in lockstep with those of the state. The authoritarian left even went so far as to actively support the state's propaganda on the attacks. It was entirely discredited after the state's case collapsed in court.
After some months living underground Lindela, together with others who had been in a similar situation, was able to come out and to begin rebuilding the organisation. He and Nokwanda, who now had two children, moved to the Cato Manor shack settlement where he still lives. Nokwanda has a sewing machine and is working as a seamstress from their shack in Cato Manor. Lindela was elected for a third term as Deputy President of Abahlali baseMjondolo in 2011.
Lindela still works as a security guard. He recently risked his own life to save a white family from a fire in their home on a gated estate. Shack dwellers, denied legal access to electricity, and living in cramped structures made of highly flammable materials, face constant shack fires for which they are frequently blamed. Lindela has often been denied jobs as a result of his political commitments. He offers the following thoughts on working security in today's South Africa.
“Working as a security is a hell. The people who you are protecting don't care about you. They treat you as a dog. The companies exploit you. They only want to make money from you. They get us to spy on each other. It is a boring job and it is a dangerous job. We are sacrificing our lives for people who don't care about us. They don't even know how much we are being paid or that we can't even pay for our children to attend school properly. We are being insulted everyday. We are insulted by the company bosses, by the union bosses, by the visitors and by the clients. Everyone is undermining us. Every month we have to make a pay query. They don't even pay us all that they are supposed to even though it is so little.”
For some years Lindela was interested in starting an independent union for security guards but he is now deeply cynical about all unions:
“I really hate the unions. They are just there to exploit. It is a double exploitation – we are exploited by the bosses at the companies and then we are also exploited by the union bosses. Workers are just a step ladder for the union bosses to go further. All the unions are problematic. Even those that criticise the ANC so strongly will still tell the people to vote ANC when the elections come. Now they are telling us that Zuma is too bad and that we must support Motlanthe. Before that they told us to support Zuma against Mbeki. But all the time it is the same ANC that they are telling us to support. All the time they are telling us that the solution is to vote. There is no union that believes in the power of the people. I don't believe in any union. They are all exploiting. They are all part of the system of oppression. When will it stop? When will the workers organise themselves? This is what we are seeing in Marikana. The security guards need to do the same. We must organise ourselves in every workplace without any unions.”
Lindela offers the following summary of his politics:
“The only thing that I believe is that all people are equal. No matter where you come from, no matter how you look, no matter how poor you are or what your gender is we are all equal. Abahlali baseMjondolo has trust in the people. The movement insists that everyone must be respected no matter who they are. That is why I joined Abahlali baseMjondolo. It is not wise to think that somebody else must think for your future. In Abahali baseMjondolo everybody is equal. Everybody joined the movement to emancipate themselves from oppression and the difficulties of the world. You do not join Abahali baseMjondolo for someone else to emancipate you.”
He offers the following analysis of the contemporary moment in South Africa:
“After Marikana it is clear to everybody that this democracy is in crisis. So many people aare saying that the freedom that Mandela bought is not real freedom. But we shouldn't blame Mandela. We should take responsibility for going forward. He bought us to a certain point. We need to move things further. We need to keep struggling. We need to bring democracy to the people and create an economy where we can all enjoy the fruits of our toil. Our aim in the struggle was never just to fight the whites. It was to fight a system of rule. We changed the colour of our rulers but we remain with a system that does not treat the people equally. Therefore the struggle must continue. We have to build the power of the poor and reduce the power of the rich.
The government always wants us to be in the right organisations and to follow the right channels. But these organisations and these channels don't work for us. In fact they are designed to oppress us. We need to work outside of these organisations and these channels. If you organise a march your memorandum goes straight to the bin. There's a need for more sugar in our struggles. Voting is giving people the opportunity to oppress you in your name! We have to build our own power.”
Lindela has published a number of articles in the mainstream press in Durban. His articles include:
Our Aims Will Never be the Same, April 2012 http://www.abahlali.org/node/8728
My Life as a Security Guard, November 2011 http://www.abahlali.org/node/7436
Socialism Needs Those That Really Need It – The Poor, September 2011 http://www.abahlali.org/node/8297
Where is the Freedom Charter?, June 2011 http://www.abahlali.org/node/8095
Onogada Badinga Ukudibana Ukusuka Ezantsi Ukunyuka, November 2010 http://www.abahlali.org/node/7522
A Poor Man's View on Freedom Day, May 2010 http://www.abahlali.org/node/6729
Really, it is a Shame, April 2010 http://www.abahlali.org/node/6608
Let the People Tell You About Themselves, November 2007 http://www.abahlali.org/node/2856