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Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM, Zulu pronunciation: [a?a'?ali ?as?m?d'nd?:lo], in English: "the people of the shacks") is a shack dwellers' movement in South Africa which campaigns both against evictions and for public housing. The movement grew out of a road blockade organised from the Kennedy Road shack settlement in the city of Durban in early 2005 and expanded to the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Cape Town. It is the largest shack dwellers' organisation in South Africa, campaigning to improve the living conditions of poor people and to democratise society from below. As of 2010, it had 25,000 members.
According to president S'bu Zikode the group aspires to an "ethics of living communism," as it campaigns on land and housing issues. A key slogan of the group is 'Don't Talk About Us, Talk To Us'. AbM has received support from church leaders and participates in the Poor People's Alliance, a network of radical grassroots movements in South Africa. It has also made solidarity links with other groups worldwide. At the same time, the group has faced sustained, and at times violent, repression which has included assassinations. Two people were murdered in the 2009 attack on Kennedy Road, whilst Nkululeko Gwala, an organiser in Cato Crest, Durban, was killed in 2013. Nqobile Nzuza was shot dead at the Marikana land occupation in Durban in 2013. In 2020, despite a moratorium on evictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, evictions continued in Durban and several people were shot with live ammunition.
Abahlali Assembly, Foreman Road Settlement
In 2001, the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality, which governs the city of Durban and surrounding places including Pinetown, embarked on a 'slum clearance program.' This meant the steady demolition of shack settlements and a refusal to provide basic services (for example electricity and sanitation) to existing settlements on the grounds that all shack settlements were now temporary. Following these demolitions some shack dwellers were simply left homeless and others were subjected to unlawful forced evictions then moved to the rural periphery of the city.
Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) formed out of a series of housing protests in 2005. Firstly, 750 people from the Kennedy Road shack settlement in Durban blockaded the N2 freeway for four hours with a burning barricade. There were 14 arrests. The group's original work from 2005 onwards was primarily committed to opposing demolitions and forced removals and to struggling for good land and quality housing in the cities. In most instances, this involved a demand for shack settlements to be upgraded or for new houses to be built close to where the existing settlements were. However, the movement has also argued that basic services such as water, electricity and toilets should be immediately provided to shack settlements while land and housing are negotiated. The movement has also engaged in mass actions providing access to water and electricity. AbM quickly had a considerable degree of success in stopping evictions and forced removals, winning the right for new shacks to be built and gaining access to basic services. However, for three years it was not able to secure access to decent urban land for new housing.
The United Nations expressed serious concerns in early 2008 about the treatment of shack dwellers in Durban. In late 2008, the AbM President S'bu Zikode announced a deal with the eThekwini Municipality which would see services being provided to 14 settlements and tenure security and formal housing to three. The municipality confirmed this deal in February 2009. AbM has been involved in considerable conflict with the eThekwini Municipality and has undertaken numerous protests and legal actions. Its members have been beaten and its leaders arrested by the South African Police Service in Sydenham, Durban. AbM has often made claims of severe police harassment, including torture. On a number of occasions, these claims have been supported by church leaders and human rights organisations. AbM has successfully sued the police for unlawful assaults on its members. In October 2009, it won a court case on appeal which declared the KZN Slums Act unconstitutional.
Academic work on Abahlali baseMjondolo stresses that it is non-professionalised (i.e. its leaders are nonsalaried), independent of NGO control, autonomous from political organisations and party politics and democratic. Sarah Cooper-Knock describes the movement as "neurotically democratic, impressively diverse and steadfastly self-critical". Ercument Celik writes that "I experienced how democratically the movement ran its meetings." According to The Times, the movement "has shaken the political landscape of South Africa." Academic Peter Vale writes that Abahlali baseMjondolo is "along with the Treatment Action Campaign the most effective grouping in South African civil society." Khadija Patel has written that the movement "is at the forefront of a new wave of mass political mobilisation".
From its beginnings in Durban, Abahlali baseMjondolo has expanded to the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Cape Town. It is the largest shack dweller's organisation in South Africa and campaigns to improve the living conditions of poor people and to democratise society from below. AbM makes considerable use of cellphones to organise, generates its own media where possible and has made use of films too. The award-winning documentary feature film Dear Mandela tells the story of three young activists in Abahlali baseMjondolo.
Membership and structures
Abahlali baseMjondolo claimed in 2010 to have around 25,000 active supporters in 64 different shack settlements of which just over 10,000 were paid up card carrying members. It has a youth league and a women's league.
AbM also runs formal education courses and issues certificates. The University of Abahlali baseMjondolo teaches through song and discussions, and archives the knowledge production process. It also hosts regular seminars.
Since 2005, the movement has carried out a series of large scale marches, created numerous dual power institutions, engaged in direct action such as land occupations, self organised water and electricity connections and made tactical use of the courts. The movement has often made anti-capitalist statements, has called for "a living communism", and has demanded the expropriation of private land for public housing.
During the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa, AbM called a halt to all its planned events, including the annual UnFreedom Day rally. It also warned that most precautions against the virus assumed that people had access to sanitation and running water, a situation that was not the case for many of its members living in shacks.Ronald Lamola, Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, introduced a moratorium on evictions during lockdown (which began 27 March 2020) yet the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality carried out evictions in Durban affecting around 900 people. Three of the settlements were Azania, eKhenana and Ekuphumeleleni, all affiliated with AbM. Azania was squatted on 26 February 2019 and it was completely evicted, affecting around 300 people, two of whom were shot with live ammunition.
Land and housing
Abahlali baseMjondolo campaigns for well-situated urban land for public housing and has occupied unused government land. A primary demand of the movement has been for decent, public housing and much of its work takes the form of opposing evictions. The movement has often used the phrase 'The Right to the City' to insist that the location of housing is critically important and demands that shack settlements are upgraded where they are and that people are not relocated to out of town developments. The movement rejects technocratic approaches to the housing crisis and stresses the need for dignity to be central to the resolution of the housing crisis. It is opposed to shack dwellers being moved into 'transit camps'. The movement opposes all evictions and forced removals and has campaigned vigorously on this score via public protest and, also, legal action.
Land occupations organised by Abahlali baseMjondolo include Macassar Village (2009), Marikana (Cape Town) (2013) and Marikana (Durban) (2013). AbM activists set up the eKhanana Land Occupation in 2018, in Cato Crest, Durban. The Anti-Land-Invasion Unit demolished and burnt 50 shacks, but the occupation continued. In 2019 the occupiers won the right to remain on the land.
Abahlali baseMjondolo has also campaigned for the provision of basic services to shack settlements. In South Africa, there are an average of "ten shack fires a day with someone dying in a shack fire every other day". AbM has campaigned on this issue demanding, amongst other things, the electrification of shacks. It has also connected thousands of people to electricity. The movement campaigns for equal access to school education for poor children. AbM has organised a number of mutual aid projects: crèches, kitchens and vegetable gardens.
The KwaZulu-Natal Elimination and Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Act was introduced in 2007 by the Provincial Government of KwaZulu-Natal. It gave landowners and municipalities increased powers to evict tenants and squatters. AbM went to court in an attempt to have the act declared unconstitutional, but lost the case. On 14 May 2009, it took the case on appeal to the Constitutional Court. The judgment was handed down on 14 October 2009 and the movement won the case with costs.
Xenophobia and police brutality
AbM took a strong stand against the xenophobic attacks that swept the country in May 2008. There were attacks in townships against migrants from Mozambique and Zimbabwe, resulting in over fifty deaths. AbM Released a statement in Afrikaans, English, isiZulu, German and Portuguese which declared "a person cannot be illegal [...] don't turn your suffering neighbours into enemies." Sociologist Michael Neocosmos saw this as the "most important statement on the xenophobic violence" and praised the fact that it was shack-dweller group addressing the issue.
There were no attacks in any Abahlali settlements. The movement was also able to stop an in-progress attack in the (non-Abahlali affiliated) Kenville settlement and to offer shelter to some people displaced in the attacks.
The movement has organised numerous actions against police racism and brutality and has often demanded fair access to policing services for shack dwellers.
2010 FIFA World Cup
The 2010 FIFA World Cup was hosted by South Africa. In the leadup to the event, with 450,000 people expected to visit, there were concerns that the interests of the poor were being ignored as roads were rebuilt and new stadiums built.
Thousands of people were evicted and in October 2009, armed men attacked a shanty town in Durban, killing two people and demolishing thirty homes.
We are supposed to be happy and excited to be hosting this major event but evictions are already taking place on a large scale. The government is focusing on the international visitors rather than poor communities. The role of the poor is seemingly to work hard in hotels, soccer stadiums and other facilities for the world's benefit, but then be kicked out of the cities and not share in the profits.
A security plan costing 1.3 billion rand (£98 million) involved sites being protected by 41,000 police officers equipped with water cannons, drones and helicopters. Whilst the cup cost an estimated £4 billion in total to put on, 43% of South African adults remained unemployed. The Western Cape branch of AbM threatened to build shacks outside of the Cape Town stadium to draw attention to their situation. However, they were not able to make good on this threat.
Abahlali baseMjondolo describes itself as "a homemade politics that everyone can understand and find a home in" and stresses that it moves from the lived experience of the poor to create a politics that is both intellectual and actional. A slogan of the group is 'Don't Talk About Us, Talk To Us'. Its key demand is that the social value of urban land should take priority over its commercial value and it campaigns for the public expropriation of large privately owned landholdings. The key organising strategy is to try "to recreate Commons" from below by trying to create a series of linked communes.
Its philosophy has been sketched out in a number of articles and interviews. The key ideas are those of a politics of the poor, a living politics and a people's politics. A politics of the poor is understood to mean a politics that is conducted by the poor and for the poor in a manner that enables the poor to be active participants in the struggles conducted in their name. Practically, it means that such a politics must be conducted where poor people live or in places that they can easily access, at the times when they are free, in the languages that they speak. It does not mean that middle-class people and organisations are excluded but that they are expected to come to these spaces and to undertake their politics there in a dialogical and democratic manner. There are two key aspects to the idea of a living politics. The first is that it is understood as a politics that begins not from external theory but from the experience of the people that shape it. It is argued that political education usually operates to create new elites who mediate relationships of patronage upwards and who impose ideas on others and to exclude ordinary people from thinking politically. This politics is not anti-theory - it just asserts the need to begin from lived experience and to move on from there rather than to begin from theory (usually imported from the Global North) and to impose theory on the lived experience of suffering and resistance in the shacks. The second key aspect, of a living politics, is that political thinking is always undertaken democratically and in common. People's politics is opposed to party politics or politicians' politics (as well as to top down undemocratic forms of NGO politics) and it is argued that the former is a popular democratic project undertaken without financial reward and with an explicit refusal of representative roles and personal power while the latter is a top down, professionalised representative project driven by personal power.
While the movement is clear that its key immediate goals are 'land and housing' it is equally clear that it sees its politics as going beyond this. S'bu Zikode has commented that: "We have seen in certain cases in South Africa where governments have handed out houses simply to silence the poor. This is not acceptable to us. Abahalali's struggle is beyond housing. We fight for respect and dignity. If houses are given to silence the poor then those houses are not acceptable to us."
'Abahlalism' has on occasion been described as anarchist or autonomist in practice. This is primarily because its praxis correlates closely with central tenets of anarchism, including decentralisation, opposition to imposed hierarchy, direct democracy and recognition of the connection between means and ends. However, the movement has never described itself as either anarchist or autonomist. Zikode has said that the movement aspires to "an ethics of living communism".
Abahlali baseMjondolo, together with similar grassroots movements in Johannesburg and Cape Town, has traditionally taken a critical stance towards state elections in South Africa. It boycotted the local government elections in 2006, the national government elections in 2009 and the 2011 local government elections under the banner of No Land! No House! No Vote!. It has a history of conflict with both the African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance. Academic work contends that in this way the movement has protected its autonomy from political parties and NGOs. The Mail & Guardian reported that "Nearly 75% of South Africans aged 20-29 did not vote in the 2011 [local government] elections" and that "South Africans in that age group were more likely to have taken part in violent street protests against the local ANC than to have voted for the ruling party".
The government and academics speak about the poor all the time, but so few want to speak to the poor...It becomes clear that our job is just to vote and then watch the rich speak about us as we get poorer
Abahlali baseMjondolo's Deputy President, Lindela Figlan, has argued that "voting someone into government just gives them power to oppress and exploit us." Despite this sentiment, at the AbM "Unfreedom Day" rally held in Kwa-Mashu on 27 April 2014, the movement's President Sbu Zikode announced that they "would abandon their No Land, No House, No Vote campaign and cast a "strategic vote" in the May 7 elections". A few days later Zikode signed a pact with the centrist Democratic Alliance (DA), stating that "We encourage our comrades and our membership to vote for the Democratic Alliance so that we can get rid of corruption". Zikode clarified that "Abahlali are not joining DA or any political party. We will remain independent from all kinds of mainstream political parties. But this time around it's a tactical partnership where the aim is to really get rid of the party that has become a threat to the society". The DA welcomed Abahali's endorsement, stating that this had come after two years of engagement.
The group announced in 2019 that the only political party which had its support was the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP). A spokesperson said "We still maintain that we are a movement that fights for people's rights and dignity. SRWP is the only party which speaks the same language as us, and although our vote is for them, we remain an independent civic organisation".
AbM protest in Durban
In the early days of Abahlali baseMjondolo, individuals in the ruling party often accused it of being criminals manipulated by a malevolent white man, a third force, or a foreign intelligence agency. The movement, like others in South Africa, has suffered sustained illegal harassment from the state. This has resulted in more than 200 arrests of Abahlali members in the first last three years of its existence and repeated police brutality in people's homes, in the streets and in detention. On a number of occasions, the police used live ammunition,armoured vehicles and helicopters in their attacks on unarmed shack dwellers. In 2006 the local city manager, Mike Sutcliffe, unlawfully implemented a complete ban on Abahlali's right to march which was eventually overturned in court. Abahlali have been violently prevented from accepting invitations to appear on television and radio debates by the local police. The Freedom of Expression Institute has issued a number of statements in strong support of Abahlali's right to speak out and to organise protests. The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions and a group of prominent church leaders have also issued public statements against police violence, as has Bishop Rubin Philip in his individual capacity, and in support of the right of the movement to publicly express dissent. In March 2008, The Mercury newspaper reported that both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were investigating human rights abuses against shack dwellers by the city government.
A youth meeting was attacked in the Kennedy Road settlement on 26 September 2009. A mob of 40 people entered the settlement wielding guns and knives and attacked an Abahlali baseMjondolo youth meeting. Two people were killed in the resulting conflict. The Mail & Guardian newspaper described the attack on Kennedy Road as a "hatchet job." On 18 July 2011, the case against the 12 accused members of AbM collapsed. The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa issued a statement saying that the "charges were based on evidence which now appears almost certainly to have been manufactured" and that the Magistrate had described the state witnesses as ""belligerent", "unreliable" and "dishonest". Amnesty International noted that the court had found that "police had directed some witnesses to point out members of Abahlali-linked organisations at the identification parade".
IRIN, the newsletter of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reported in April 2010 that "The rise of an organised poor people's movement [Abahlali baseMjondolo] in South Africa's most populous province, KwaZulu-Natal, is being met with increasing hostility by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) government" and in April 2013 the movement successfully sued the Minister of Police for violence against three of its members.
On 26 June 2013, local AbM leader Nkululeko Gwala was assassinated in the Cato Crest shack settlement in Durban. He had led protests over the distribution of public housing and was shot 12 times.
 Hours before the murder, an ANC politician had said he was a trouble-maker. Another local activist had been previously shot dead in March.Nqobile Nzuza was shot dead by police at the Durban Marikana land occupation in September 2013, at the age of 17. After five years, Phumlani Ndlovu (a Cato Manor police officer) was jailed for 10 years. Another Abahlali baseMjondolo member was killed on 29 September 2014. Thuli Ndlovu, the movement chairperson for KwaNdengezi was assassinated in her home after disputes with a local councillor over housing allocation. AbM accused the councillor of having a hand in the assassination. On 27 February 2015, the local councillor, Mduduzi Ngcobo, was arrested on suspicion of being behind the murder. Ngcobo and Velile Lutsheko (another ANC councillor) were sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder. Mlungisi Ndlovu, the gunman they had hired, was handed a sentence of 12 years in jail.
After a call was made for eThekwini Mayor Zandile Gumede to step down to face charges of racketeering and fraud, the Durban offices of AbM were burgled in May 2019. No money was taken but two computer hard drives were stolen. When Zikode said he was concerned by the timing of the burglary, the mayor's representative replied: "This is an old, repeated, fabricated allegation by Abahlali ... they must approach relevant security agencies if they have evidence instead of the media".
Despite a moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, the eKhenana shanty town in Cato Crest, Durban, was attacked by the local anti-land invasion unit and private security companies. AbM went to court and the evictions were declared illegal, in response the commander of the anti-land invasion team went to the settlement and shot a squatter in the hip. He was charged with attempted murder but not suspended from his post.
Abahlali baseMjondolo has received strong support from some key church leaders such as Bishop of Natal, Rubin Phillip. In a speech at the AbM UnFreedom Day event on 27 April 2008 Phillip said:
The courage, dignity and gentle determination of Abahlali baseMjodolo has been a light that has shone ever more brightly over the last three years. You have faced fires, sickness, evictions, arrest, beatings, slander, and still you stand bravely for what is true. Your principle that everyone matters, that every life is precious, is very simple but it is also utterly profound. Many of us who hold dear the most noble traditions of our country take hope from your courage and your dignity.
The Italian theologian Brother Filippo Mondini has attempted to develop a theology based on the political thought and practices developed in Abahlali baseMjondolo.
According to eThekwini City Manager Dr. Michael Sutcliffe, the essence of the tensions between Abahlali baseMjondolo and the City lie in the fact that the movement "rejects the authority of the city." When the Durban High Court ruled that his attempts to ban marches by AbM were unlawful he stated that: "We will be asking serious questions of the court because we cannot allow anarchy having anyone marching at any time and any place." According to Lennox Mabaso, spokesperson for the Provincial Department of Housing, the movement is "under the sway of an agent provocateur" who is "engaged in clandestine operations" and who has been "assigned to provoke unrest". City Officials continue to argue that the movement is a Third Force seeking to undermine the ruling African National Congress for nefarious purposes.
In December 2006, Abahlali members and members of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, disrupted a meeting of the Social Movements Indaba at the University of KwaZulu Natal and staged a protest. Some academics and NGO activists, all of whom have clear links to a local NGO, the Centre for Civil Society, claimed that this was criminal behaviour and somehow illegitimate in that, according to these people, it was in response to the dismissal of four Abahlali linked academics from the Centre. However the WC-AEC issued a statement vigorously rejecting these claims while the Mail and Guardian newspaper reported a very different account of why Abahlali protested the meeting. A masters thesis by Matt Birkinshaw explained that the protest happened because "Abahlali felt that there was a lack of genuine democracy and participation due to NGO co-optation" in the SMI. Online video footage of the protest shot by Antonios Vradis indicates that the demonstration was peaceful and rational and that the movements had a clear critique of the NGO co-option of the SMI.
In October 2010, Abahlali baseMjondolo of the Western Cape called for a month of direct action.Mzonke Poni, the chairperson of the Cape Town structure at the time, publicly endorsed road blockades as a legitimate tactic during this strike. The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the South African Communist Party, the latter a major ally of the ruling ANC, issued strong statements condemning the campaign and labelling it 'violent' and, 'anarchist' and reactionary'. AbM responded by saying that their support for road blockades was not violent and that "We have never called for violence. Violence is harm to human beings. Blockading a road is not violence." They also said that the SACP's attack was really due to the movement's insistence on organising autonomously from the African National Congress. After the strike by AbM Western Cape, there were some protests in TR section of Khayelitsha in which vehicles were damaged. AbM WC ascribed these protests to the ANC Youth League as did Helen Zille and the Youth League itself. According to Leadership Magazine "The ANC Youth League in the province has hijacked the peaceful service-delivery protests organised by the social movement Abahlali baseMjondolo in Khayelitsha in a violent, destructive and desperate attempt to mobilise support for the ANC against the province's Democratic Alliance provincial and municipal governments."
List of notable Abahlali baseMjondolo activists
Housing activist, made speaking tour of United Kingdom
^Gibson, Nigel C. (2008). "Upright and free: Fanon in South Africa, from Biko to the shackdwellers' movement (Abahlali baseMjondolo)". Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture. 14 (6): 683-715. doi:10.1080/13504630802462802. S2CID55905865.
^Archived 3 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine This emerges clearly in the archive of the movement's memoranda and press statements
^There is reference to some of the legal actions against evictions in the 2008 report on housing rights in Durban Centre on Housing Rights & Evictions (Geneva) which is online at "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 19 December 2008. Retrieved 2008.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link). The papers from many of the court actions are also archived on the Abahlali site
^Love in the Time of AIDS, Mark Hunter, UKZN Press, 2010, p.224
^ abArchived 3 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine This also emerges very clearly in the archive of the movement's memoranda and press statements
^Archived 16 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine For a discussion of a key court victory against evictions see the article 'Chetty Champions the Poor' in 'South African Legal Brief', 24 September 2008
^"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 13 January 2009. Retrieved 2009.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)'The Africa that Pushes Back' by Mukoma Wa Ngugi, Foreign Policy in Focus, 24 December 2008
^See 'The Politics of Fear and the Fear of Politics: Reflections on Xenophobic Violence in South Africa', an article by Professor Michael Neocosmos from Monash University in Australia in the Journal of Asian & African Studies Vol. 43, No. 6, 586-594 (2008)
^The movement's philosophy is clearly articulated in a number of statements on its website - see, especially, the statements at http://abahlali.org/node/3208Archived 3 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine It is also usefully summarised in the academic work by Nigel Gibson
^Archived 28 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine Also see 'Taking poverty seriously: What the poor are saying and why it matters' by Xin Wei Ngiam in Critical Dialogue, Vol.2, No.1, 2006