Taking Poverty Seriously: What the poor are saying and why it matters

Taking Poverty Seriously: What the poor are saying and why it matters

Article based on interviews with South African shack dwellers about their views of what constitutes 'democracy', stressing the need for those in struggle to set their own agenda rather than have it set by professional activists.

A commitment to justice and democratic governance requires that we listen carefully as much as we speak loudly and act decisively.

It has become somewhat of a trope in both NGO and governmental circles to speak of “participatory democracy” and the “voices of (insert name of oppressed social group)”. Much of the work of development, we say, has to do with making these voices— and the grievances they express— public. Yet the glossy development reports and posh conference halls necessarily regulate the content and expression of such voices even as they promote them. And when the oppressed decide, independently, to force open public spaces to express their anger and frustration, they are often met with the police, bullets, and teargas.

The shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, that arose out of the events of 19th March 2005 in Kennedy Road illustrates this perfectly. (The story has almost become legend, but is still worth recounting.) That morning, residents of Kennedy Road noticed bulldozers working a plot of land on nearby Elf Road. This same land had been promised just a few weeks previously to the Kennedy Road Development Committee for housing development. The residents began to congratulate their committee on such a speedy victory in procuring housing development. But, in Nonhlanhla Mzobe’s words, “If it was for us, why didn’t the councilor come and tell us?” It was soon revealed that the bulldozers were under private commission to build a brickyard on the property. Mnikelo Ndabankulu remembers,

"The people decided here, at night, to go pick up all the poles around the area… The people were promised that land so they said, this is our land! They just toyi-toyi and blocked the road. Then the police came and 14 were arrested."

Of course, the story of struggle in the informal settlements did not begin on that day in March. It was a culmination of more than a decade of promises, negotiations, and thwarted hopes. Many of the shack dwellers say it was “tiredness” that led to the formation of the movement. Nonhlanhla Mzobe, who has lived in the Kennedy Road informal settlement for thirty years now, says:

Before, everybody was like, we don’t know what we can do. Because we went to the meetings, went to city hall, they promised us, ok, we’re going to give you (houses). Wait, wait, do this, duck and dive, till … I can say, God just came and opened our eyes. For the councilor to let the men build the brickyard. Because the struggle started like that. Because it just happened. And then it came like, enough is enough. We are tired.

The events that led to the founding of the shack dwellers’ movement, as well as the history of informal settlements in South Africa, have been written about excellently in several places. This study builds on those analyses by focusing on the meaning of those events, and of the Abahlali movement itself, to the shack dwellers involved in the movement.

Claiming Moral Agency
Soon after the events of 19 March 2005, Durban Mayor Obed Mlaba issued these remarks:

"Why did the people not protest in 1993 or 2001 if they have had these grievances for a long time? It is suspected that they have chosen this time to protest because certain forces are driving them to do so, particularly now that it is close to the election period." (Weekly Gazette 2005, from Patel 2005)

Here the grievances of the Kennedy Road residents are seen as mere political tools wielded by “certain forces”, which manipulate the “poor Africans” to serve some insidious political agenda. The deeper unstated assumption is that the poor are simply unable to organize themselves or articulate coherent moral and political claims. And while other commentators might not completely subscribe to the “agitator” thesis of old, they choose to see the shack dwellers’ movement as a spontaneous, emotional outburst that expresses profound material suffering and little else.

It is true that if you speak to any member of Abahlali baseMjondolo about their lives, you will come away with a sense of great passion and indignation. Perhaps this is not surprising. Perhaps we think that poor people are allowed to be angry and frustrated. But, if you listen to what people are saying, you will find that something else is afoot in Abahlali baseMjondolo—something else is driving the movement, but it is not the “Third Force” of Mayor Obed Mlaba’s and City Manager Michael Sutcliffe’s speculations. Instead, you will find that the movement is being driven by rich and eloquent personal theorizations of injustice, democratic betrayal, and political ethics. This is what S’bu Zikode, elected president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, means when he writes in his seminal piece “The Third Force”, that:

"The Third Force is all the pain and the suffering that the poor are subjected to every second in our lives. The shack dwellers have many things to say about the Third Force. It is time for us to speak out and to say this is who we are, this is where we are and this how we live."

This is by no means a simple assertion. Zikode is claiming a level of moral and political sophistication for the shack dwellers’ movement, one that has previously been appropriated by conspiracy theories, by the everyday prejudices of fellow citizens who say things like “don’t take out your phone, those people will steal it”; and by the discourse of the World Bank and other developmental NGOs who roll out checklists of quick fixes for “poverty” and publish glossy pictures of unidentified wide-eyed children playing in trash heaps. All these theorizations have one thing in common: If agency is the capacity for intentional, self-directed action, then for them, poverty is a noun without agency.

But, as Zikode points out, and as the following conversations with various members of Abahlali will show, poverty is not without agency. If we are serious about alleviating poverty, our responsibility is not simply to give voice to cries of pain, but to listen closely and engage seriously with these voices to produce change. If, as Zikode says, the time has come for the poor to speak out for themselves, then the time has also come for the rest of us to pay attention to what they are saying. Their thoughts and sentiments offer critical guidance on understanding poverty as a social and moral phenomenon, and reveal the broken promise of democratic governance and participation in the new South Africa.

Moral responsibilities toward injustice
The first reason for us to listen to how the poor speak of their own condition is simply that we must try to understand on their terms. If you speak to the members of Abahlali baseMjondolo, you will find one thing in common. While they may lament their wretched living conditions and the troubles of unemployment, they will also paint their situation in moral terms. What they see is not simply the suffering, but the injustice and the undeservedness of their predicament. Mzobe expresses an impassioned indictment of the democratic ideal of equality as it is experienced in the jondolos:

If I phone the ambulance now, the ambulance can take… ten hours, even twenty-four hours to come. If the people staying in Umhlanga phone an ambulance, it won’t even take five minutes. If I phone the police now, if there are people fighting here, they won’t come. In Umhlanga, you can hear the vans rushing there. We were phoning the ambulance from 8 o’clock till 12 o’ clock. The people died, waiting. So the government is for rich people. Abahlali is for poor people.

Lindela Figlan, in similar fashion to Mzobe, points out the contradiction between the public ideals of democracy and the lived realities of the shack dwellers.

"(We) tell the government that we need this, we need what you told us, because they said in the constitution that the people shall share, the people shall have equal rights. But the only thing we notice now, (is that) we are not having equal rights. Some of the people are too poor, some of the people are too rich. We don’t really need that division."

Zikode puts the situation in even plainer terms. The task of Abahlali baseMjondolo, in his formulation, is to interrogate the moral nature of lived realities.

"Our struggle is for the moral questions, as compared to the political questions as such. It is more about justice, it is more about moral questions… is it good for the shack dwellers’ to live in the mud like pigs, as they are living? Why do I have to live in a cardboard house if there are people who are able to live in a decent house? So it’s a moral question."

What is notable about these articulations of the experience of poverty is simply this. None of the above subjects deplore material suffering in and of itself. Certainly, Figlan, Mzobe and Zikode express in no uncertain terms the hazards and difficulties of day-to-day living in the jondolos; and perhaps their cries for change are valid on those grounds alone. But their point, as you can see, goes deeper than that. It presses on the question of whether suffering is deserved, and if not, why suffering continues, and whose responsibility it is to end it.

Why is it not enough for us to simply accept that poverty is bad and we should try to eliminate it? The short answer is that these are fundamentally moral claims about political and social realities, and we have at least a democratic responsibility to take them into account. These are not the grumbles and gripes of people who have fallen onto hard times, but clear and reasoned articulations of political injustice. If we fail to recognize and accept these moral claims, and refuse to see them as any more than economic, political or administrative “problems”, we will have fallen short of our moral responsibilities as democratic citizens.

Democratic Betrayal
There is another reason to listen closely to what the poor are saying. They are pointing to some of the most persistent and pernicious social injustices of the new democratic dispensation, hitherto well concealed by political rhetoric. The poor have inadvertently performed a litmus test for the quality of democratic governance in South Africa—we all know that hackneyed saying about how a democracy’s worth is measured by how it treats its lowliest members— and they have many interesting things to say.

One thing the shack dwellers say is that they have been betrayed. Betrayal is a complex moral sentiment, quite different from sheer disappointment, frustration, or even indignation. It comes from a broken promise and a broken faith. For the shack dwellers it points to a profound dissonance between political practice and democratic ideals, a dissonance that directly translates into lived realities: more suffering, more death, and more anger. Figlan explains how democracy is used to the disadvantage of the people, gesturing at a broken bed in the corner of the shack where we are having our interview.

"You see, I don’t think it’s clever, if today you promise me that you’re going to give me this bed, and then you keep this bed up until the next election, and then you promise me this bed again… The only thing I must say is, the best thing is you do (is to) give me this bed before I vote (again). Give me this bed because I voted and you didn’t give me this bed, but you promised it to me…. No, I mustn’t vote for you."

Mzobe expresses similar sentiments. She should know: She has been living at Kennedy Road since she was 4 years old, and has had her hopes raised many times.

"The government said good things before, but they never did even one. Yeah, the government promised us lots of things, but they never did even one. Not one thing good. Like now, I’m 30 years living here. And I’m still living here, no different. Still no toilet, still no electricity, still no house."

So it comes as no surprise that, for the residents of the informal settlements, the word “politics” has become taboo. It has become a euphemism for the hollow, ineffectual gestures of local government official that are demeaning more than sincere or helpful. It has come to represent the “democratic” process that brings only disappointment and false promises. M’du Hlongwa elaborates:

"In those days, Yakoob Baig (the eThekwini Ward 25 councillor) used to come with some pots of breyani, to the side of the road. We said no, we are not dogs, we are not animals, that you have to dish food to and then forget about them, until you remember, oh, we have to go and give food to the shack dwellers again… No, we are not pets, we are human beings. We have to be treated like human beings… He comes with the pot in the morning, and then he disappears for 3 or 4 weeks, then he comes with the pot again. What does that mean?"

Figlan echoes, powerfully, Hlongwa’s criticism of politics as mere “show”, and the deep sense of neglect that results.

"We think our government is ignoring us, or they have forgotten us. They only remember us when they need us to vote for elections. And they promise whatever. I think our democracy is just to vote for them. And then we go back and sit in the mud."

In contrast to the politics of shallow performance, Abahlali baseMjondolo has developed what it calls “homemade politics”. If you ask virtually any leader from any one of the informal settlements, they will tell you that their politics is indeed the “politics of the people”. Zikode explains this distinction in no uncertain terms. The task of Abahlali baseMjondolo is to reclaim the meaning of democratic politics.

There is Abahlali politics, the politics of the people, and then there is party politics. The political parties have their own culture, where you find more lies, where you find more talking, and no action. Where you find more promises, no actions. Those are party politics, that Abahlali is opposed to. And also you will find this personal politics where it promotes the individual … In Abahlali, we have described and we have seen politics as nothing else other than the defensive tactics for the politicians not to lose their power. There is nothing much other than big talking and no actions. As much as we would understand politics in a normal way, in our time, it has (become) something that we hate so much. We have seen the people that we trust the most, they can talk so much, but they cannot achieve a single thing. They can lie. When one talks about politics, one must be very careful. This politics does not put the bread on the table. That is the dangerous part of this politics.

Far more ink could be spilled in describing the feelings of betrayal and disillusionment experienced by the shack dwellers. What appears here is but a fraction of the eloquent explanations and analogies that people use to describe the neglect of the shack dwellers by the South African government. Earlier I mentioned that betrayal is no simple sentiment, but a complex moral sentiment. For the shack dwellers, it represents the realization that the rules no longer hold, not for them, in the new democratic state. Their patient negotiations and deliberations prior to 19th March 2005 were thwarted and used against them. Now the contract has been broken—and this more than anything elevates the movement above mere “spontaneous outbursts” of passion, and places it on the solid grounds of moral and political contention in the democratic state. If the experience of betrayal lies at the bottom of the Kennedy Road residents’ revolt that the morning of 19th March 2005, then the subsequent understanding of democratic betrayal as legitimate grounds for political contention gave birth to the movement of Abahlali baseMjondolo.

The shack dwellers’ experience of betrayal points to a crisis in democratic governance in the new South Africa. This crisis is not observable from the mansions in Durban North and Umhlanga, nor is it readily apparent on the bustling and multicultural Howard College campus. The shack dwellers themselves acknowledge that the national government has done many good things for the country since 1994. Mnikelo Ndabankulu (not without irony) credits the freedoms of speech and association as essential to legitimate democratic protest. But apart from that, little has changed. Figlan laments,

The time of defying the government has passed away. Now we are just reminding, reminding. Don’t forget us, we are still here. But unfortunately our government I think is deaf. (So deaf that) they don’t even hear even if there’s a hundred and fifty thousand on the road. They can’t hear.

The crisis in democratic governance is only observable from the informal settlements on Kennedy Road and Foreman Road, from the slopes of Jadhu Place and Pemary Ridge, and in all the other “problematic” parts of the city where citizens are treated not as the subjects of economic development, but simply unwelcome obstacles to it. Taking heed of the shack dwellers’ objections can help us track the chronic inequalities and the “pathologies of power”1 that lie beneath the gloss of economic growth, development, and the stunningly broadminded constitution of democratic South Africa.

“What if people don’t need a tuckshop?”
Listening to the poor is not only a moral (and democratic) responsibility. Seeing it simply as our “duty” toward the “less privileged” amongst us risks turning this responsibility into the same patronizing paternalism we seek to leave behind. We have seen that the poor can point out important things about our society that we did not previously see. But most of all, it is the only way to “do development”. “Empowerment” is the new buzz word: But empowering people to do what we think is best for them, in the end, is no empowerment at all.

The idea is really quite simple. People who have not lived in the jondolos should not purport to know more about what the shack dwellers need and want to make a better life, than the shack dwellers themselves. Hlongwa laughs when he says this, but he is only half jesting:

"I’m not that educated, but I always say …that you may take Mlaba, you may take him, and let him sit with me. And then you sit next to us and listen, and you may find that I know more of politics than him. But he is in politics! He is practicing it day and night. But you might find that I know more than him."

Figlan likewise argues that the shack dwellers’ are able to decide what is best for themselves:

"God gave us a mind, in order for us to think about ourselves… You see, if you are (assembling) a certain type of car… Once you put an engine inside, it means you want that car to move. God gave us a mind for us to think… So if you say, do it like this, and if you do it this other way, we cannot help you; then stay aside with your help. We know how to do it."

Zikode goes further to paint this in the language of respect and democratic ethics.

"With my understanding, consultation is one of the principles of democracy. And (again) to me it is a culture of respect. Even at home, as a child, you don’t just do things without informing your parents. As a parent… You have a responsibility to report to your children, my kiddies, I will be out for a week. You can’t just go. In its simplest form it is a symbol of respect for another. It’s something that you need not go to school for… You must consult (us) so when you go (and do something for us), you are able to bring the report back to us."

Since communities, however poor, are perfectly capable of thinking for themselves, then treating them as unthinking and incompetent only undermines national policy, no matter how well-intentioned. And it provides a platform for those in power to claim credit for “working for the poor”. Hlongwa describes the disjunct between rhetoric and reality, and why working “for” the poor without consulting them leads only to personal publicity and shallow policies.

"They may say, at the top, they may call a press conference and say we are working for Kennedy Road, we are building maybe 1000 houses on Kennedy Road. Only to find they haven’t come to the people to ask, how many houses are needed in that area of Kennedy Road? How many families are here? They may say, we built 1000 houses for Kennedy, only to find that maybe 4000 houses are needed for Kennedy. So where is that 3000 going to? Only if they come and ask the people and talk to the people, then they have the exact number of houses needed. That’s what we want from the government. Come and ask the people. Don’t say we built a tuckshop in Kennedy. What if people don’t need a tuckshop?"

The message is clear. There is more to development than numbers and laundry lists of accomplishments: things built, people housed, children put in school. Those are important to do, but only if the poor need them done, and only if they are done in consultation with the poor. Otherwise no-one profits from them except the public figures who claim credit for the pleasant-sounding numbers and figures.

Hlongwa sums it all up:

"Abahlali is working with the people. We’re saying to the government, you have to work with the people. Don’t say I am working for Kennedy Road. Say I am working with Kennedy Road."

Listening to the poor is a dangerous undertaking. It requires the most well-meaning among us to put aside their own ideas of what is right and good for others, and reconfigure their perceptions of the moral world. And it holds the least well-meaning to a task that they are ill-placed to perform. But I hope I have shown at least that, despite these hazards, listening to the poor constitutes not only a democratic responsibility, but also a moral one. And, perhaps most importantly, taking the poor seriously is the only way we can finally take poverty seriously, and accord it the attention it deserves.

Thanks are due to the umhlali of Kennedy Road and elsewhere for their warmth and hospitality. I owe a special debt of thanks to those who consented to interviews and long conversations. In particular, the stories and thoughts of Mashumi Figlan, M’du Hlongwa, Nonhlanhla “Princess” Mzobe, Mnikelo Ndabankulu, Zodwa Nsibande, and S’bu Zikode crucially shaped this piece, and I regret my inability to give voice to all that they said. In the academy I am grateful to Jacob Bryant, Fazel Khan, and Richard Pithouse for their generosity and good ideas.

by Xin Wei Ngiam

Xin Wei Ngiam, a student and migrant hotel worker organiser in Boston, spent a month in Durban in 2006. While there she wrote an article based on interviews with Bahlali. The key theme that emerges in her beautifully written essay in which she weaves together insights gleaned from interviews is a problematisation of orthodox ideas of what constitutes 'democracy'. This very political question, rather than the economic questions that have often dominated left thought, is at the heart of the continually developing thinking that has driven this movement.

For more information on Abahlali baseMjondolo we highly recommend you visit http://www.abahlali.org

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bomvu
Apr 17 2008 07:18

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