The almost pathological need to place white people at the center of the national narrative about the future is a blind spot for many well-meaning white people. For too many of our white compatriots, the South African story is built around the fate of white people. This inability to see the future without insisting that the photo frame includes white images represents a strange sort of race-consciousness for a group that often professes not to care about race. The stories that count are their stories even though it is widely accepted at an intellectual level that for South Africa to thrive socially and economically, it is black people who will need to make significant progress.
Speech by the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, S’bu Zikode, at the University of Chicago
Presented at the University of Chicago by S’bu Zikode, President, Abahlali baseMjondolo Shack Dwellers’ Movement, South Africa with Dr. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History, South Asian Languages and Civilizations as discussant.
Co-sponsored by The Human Rights Workshop and the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), Co-hosted by the African Studies Workshop and the Human Rights Program of the University of Chicago. Presented on Monday, November 8, 2010 at 5:30pm, at the University of Chicago in association with Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY), South Austin Community Coalition
I have been invited by the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative to come to the United States of America to speak, to learn and to share our experiences of struggle in South Africa. I wish to thank the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative for their invitation and for their solidarity with our struggles. Over the last years a number of comrades from our movements have received invitations to travel to other countries to try and build a living solidarity between our different movements. As members of Abahlali baseMjondolo we only get these invitations because of the strength of the movement of which we are part and so we are very clear that we travel as elected and rotating representatives of a living movement of the poor and not as individuals.
The churches and friends of Abahlali all over the world, including here in the United States of America, have rallied to our support in most difficult times. After the shack fires that have taken many lives of our children and parents, after flooding, after beating by the police and politicians, after violent attacks etc. We thank you for all that. If it was not for your support we fear we would not still be surviving.
When the poor ask for what is basic to life we are taken as a threat to society by many rich people. The most basic and humble demands are shown to the world as if they are the work of criminals, third forces and people who can’t think and who are violent. For this reason it is very important for the survival of our struggles that we can build alliances with people who are willing to testify to the world that it is not the organised poor who are a threat to society but that it is the system that makes some people to be poor and others to be rich that is a threat to society.
I will speak on various issues while I am here in the USA but today I will speak on the question of loyalty.
Our living politic begins with the fact that all of us were created in the image of God and are therefore equal. Our living politic starts by recognising the full and equal humanity of every human being. We struggle as human beings with equal worth and intelligence to all other human beings against a system that produces inequality by denying, everyday, the humanity of some of us.
When our movement started in 2005 it was out of anger, hunger and frustration. We were becoming desperate and we needed to be heard. Our first collective act, the act that gave birth to our movement, was a road blockade in March 2005. When we blocked the road none of us had planned to form such a movement. In fact none of us had even planned the road blockade long in advance.
Many of us did not know that the road blockade was such a political act. Yet we realised how political it was when fourteen of us were arrested, unlawfully detained and beaten in prison. We had thought that we were being ignored because our voices were not being heard. But we discovered that when we forced our voices to be heard and asked to speak to the authorities they would send the police instead.
We discovered that in the eyes of the state our demand to be heard was taken as a criminal demand. Later we discovered that some parts of civil society took the same view. We discovered that we were supposed to suffer in silence while other people, politicians and experts, debated our lives, our struggles and our futures. But we also discovered our collective strength as the organised poor, the self organised poor.
Loyalty has been both our weakness and our strength.
Loyalty was destroying us when we gave it to the political parties. Our loyalty did not help any of us with our various party political affiliations. Our loyalty did not even help those of us who struggled and made a lot of sacrifices within the United Democratic Front (UDF) during the struggle against apartheid.
But loyalty has also been the source of our survival. Loyalty is fundamental to the strength that we build in our families and with our friends, our movements and our communities. As a poor person you cannot survive in this world on your own. Without loyalty there would be no one to care for your children when you are at work, to offer you a place in their home after a fire or an attack, to introduce you to a community when you need a place to live, to stand with you when the police and the land invasions unit comes. Maybe it is because we cannot survive without loyalty that we take loyalty to be such an important thing.
But while loyalty is the great strength of the poor it is also at the same time a great threat to the poor. Loyalty to political parties and to those who try to privatise the history of the struggle against apartheid for themselves becomes a very serious threat to the poor in a top-down system of governance.
It is even dangerous to our democracy, a democracy that continues to serve the interests of the few, while the majority are rotting in the shacks, without homes, without jobs and without dignity. Loyalty becomes too dangerous when political leadership exercise their loyalties to their political parties and to individuals within their parties to advance themselves while excluding the poor. This has promoted a culture of corruption, favours, nepotism, political intolerance, violence and the party politicisation of government service delivery.
Those of us who are opposed to this loyalty to the politicians will not only be excluded but we will also be severely punished. It is on this basis that the shack dwellers and the poor are taken for a ride and are made to serve their life sentence in the shacks, despite numerous calls for small steps forward such as the Millennium Development Goals.
In fact in our country the MDGs have just become a new licence for those in power to advance themselves through BEE. Our country is at the brink of catastrophe. The poor continue to get poorer while the rich get richer and more oppressive to the poor. We feel the world closing in on us. We have long been warning that the anger of the poor can go in many directions.
Loyalty should start with us. It should start from where we are, with what we have. We must first be loyal to ourselves without seeking to impress anyone else with this. We must then be loyal to our families, to our communities and to our society. Our loyalty should start from the bottom of society, where we are, and not from the politicians at the top of society.
I must also warn that loyalty does not come from being rich nor from being successful in one’s career. It does not mean that we should agree when there is no need to agree. It should not be seen in terms of peace and compromise. What may be moral and benefit the most vulnerable groups in our society and our future generations may take us into conflict with the politicians and the rich. Sometimes it may also take us into conflict with some parts of civil society.
Today let us review our loyalties just to check how much of damage or good they do to others. Let us continue with those loyalties that keep us safe, that affirm our dignity, that louden our voices, that build our power. Let us put away those loyalties that tie us to the people and systems that keep us oppressed.
Loyalty to the political parties, to the experts and to the whole top down system has resulted in these loyalists denying the shack dwellers and the poor their rights to citizenship, to cities, to well located land, decent housing, safety and education. We have been denied basic services, such as water and sanitation, electricity, road access, refuse collection.
We have been excluded from participating in the discussions on our future. And most importantly we have been denied our dignity, Ubuntu and Abahlalism. It is through this denial that the state – with the support of some few regressive leftists – think that they can buy or intimidate our struggle in order to bury our struggle so that they may continue to have the only legitimate right to speak for the poor. We will never accept this. The poor have the same rights as everyone else to be at the centre of the discussions concerning our future.
We are calling upon all the poor and all the marginalised along with all the progressive social movements of the poor and those NGOs, churches and individuals that are willing to speak to and not for the poor, to struggle with and not for the poor, to join us in our journey to a fair world which is a world of equality, a world in which everyone counts. This is not an easy journey. Sometimes it is very difficult. Sometimes it is accompanied by lies, beatings, arrests and death. But we will keep going forward although we know that victories are not certain and that when they are won they are sometimes won at a considerable price.
For example in 2009 we won a case in the Constitutional Court against the KwaZulu-Natal Elimination and Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Act 2007. We slaughtered two cows in celebration for this victory. But we were punished for this victory by means of a planned violent attack on our movement.
The violence that followed the attack left two people dead and several injured. The Abahlali headquarters were looted, the homes of its leadership and their families homes burnt down and several hundred people forced to hiding. Our attackers were fulfilling their loyalties to those politicians who instigated the attack. The Premier of the province and the President of the Republic were all silence. None of our attackers were arrested and the few charges that we succeeded to open against them were never investigated.
This was clearly an attack on our hard won democracy. Our constitution allows for all such formations as democratic organisations like our movement. But the state and its party are shutting down the spaces of democracy. Abahlali have worked hard to create its own space to share, learn and build living solidarity amongst the poor. We had worked very hard to protect such a space even when the party loyalists want to hijack it for themselves to secure their future career with it.
Although we have taken our space in our society humbly we also take it firmly and we refuse to give our power away. We will not allow the loyalists to the people and the system that oppresses us to destroy our movement and compromise our morals. Our loyalty remains with the oppressed and with all people who are willing to take a side with the oppressed in our struggle to build a just world.
Issued by Abahlali baseMjondolo, November 9 2010BACK TO TOP