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When Choices Can No Longer Be Choices

category southern africa | community struggles | opinion / analysis author Sunday March 11, 2007 04:13author by S'bu Zikode - Abahlali baseMjondoloauthor email sbuzikode at gmail dot comauthor phone 27 0835470474 Report this post to the editors

Choosing Unemployment

S'bu Zikode, a key theorist in the South African shack dwellers' movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, reflects on difficult choices that have to be made in a repressive climate.

In South Africa everyone will say that life is not fair for the poor. Even the rich will say that what they are doing is for the poor. They will even say this when they are just finding more and more excuses to give more of the country's money to themselves to build all these very expensive things that they have seen in those few rich countries on TV. They want to have those things here so that they can feel themselves to be 'world class'. Meanwhile our children, who, like the children in Haiti and Kenya and Zimbabwe are never on TV, are burning in shack fires and dying from diarrhoea around the corner.

One of the truths that people want to hide from is that in this country where everything is done in the name of the suffering of the poor life is good for the masters of the poor but it is very unfair for the servants of the poor. I have suffered in my own society and in my working place for standing strong for the poor. I am not the only one. We have lost count of how many members of Abahlali baseMjondolo have been arrested and beaten even though not one of us has ever been convicted of a crime. I have also had my turn to be taken from my family and beaten in the Sydenham police station. People in and outside the government who want to be the masters of a long journey to a better future for the poor have gone into the same rage and told the same wild lies about us when we have only asked to think and speak for ourselves. I have also suffered this. Every uMhlali with a job who has stood strong for the poor in the media has almost lost, is losing or has already lost that job. Now my turn has come.

I worked at a petrol station. I have invested so much of my energy and my time at this petrol station trying to the best of my ability to prove that that I can be a productive and profitable member of this society. I used all my knowledge, my historic background to work honestly and humbly and to communicate well with co-workers and customers.

In 2005 shackdwellers and other marginalised people in Durban formed Abahlali baseMjondolo to protect the interests of the poor. I decided to stand strong with Abahlali. The movement became massive. It carried us like a powerful river. The days of my life became strenuous. Every time that Abahlali organised a protest, or I attended a conference or a workshop, or we were in the newspapers or on radio and TV, or even if I happened to have an article in a newspaper, my employer, the owner of the Petroport River Horse Valley, called me for a disciplinary hearing. At these hearings the charges were always made up and they always went away in the end. But what did not go away was that he would threaten me for speaking the truth about the life that the poor are living in this world. He told me clearly that he could not have me embarrassing the mayor.

As the movement got stronger and stronger I suffered more and more harassment from my employer. He is the head of the Durban Chamber of Commerce, a close friend of the mayor and a well respected business man. I felt more oppressed at work in that smart building than I did at home in my shack. But my colleagues gave me strong support. They had a firm belief that I would laugh at this poison and stand firm for myself and for the liberation of all us at work like I was doing in my community. This kept me strong and I therefore owe them a lot. I was not alone. As the poor we are often on our own but as people we are closely together.

Things went very sour early this year. I attended a customer complaint like I did every day as it was part of my duties. He shouted at me and accused me of holding political meetings with strangers during working hours. I explained that the strangers were his customers who had come to have their car filled with petrol and washed. He then accused me of over using the telephone for my political activities with shack dwellers across the country. I told him that I have always used my own cell phone and the money that should be for my family for these calls. He then accused me not returning a call from him. This was true. He had phoned me at night in my time with family and I had not returned this call because he does not own my time at night. Then he told me that I am no longer responsible.

On Monday 5th February he shouted at me to come to his office as normal. He finally told me that he was getting too stressed about having me there and that he could no longer trust me or work with a person like me. I told him that I could not stop the work that I was doing with Abahlali in my own time. At 16:00 p.m. he gave me a resignation letter and forced me to sign. The choice to resign was not my choice. That choice was taken from me. I had to choose from no choice. I did as he commanded without thinking for my children, my family and the implications for how I can continue to work for the people that I serve without even money for airtime. In 2005 I had committed to stand strong with Abahlali. I stayed with that decision. My choice in 2005 was also for my family because my family are also poor. But in 2007 my choice to sign that form put my community ahead of my family. This is a very, very hard thing.

I know that there are many patriots like myself who want to work to make the poor strong but who cannot commit themselves to their communities. This is not because they don't have time. It is because they fear loosing their jobs and they fear other kinds of threats – threats from the police, threats from councillors. Today I brave losing my job like it is any other day. It takes a strong leader to choose from no choice. But for a long time I will continue to pray for the tears that I saw on the day that I signed the letter to resign. The comforting SMS's, the powerful messages and support I received will always be in my heart till the dawn of justice for all.

But for that dawn to come we must accept the truth that in our country, a country where everyone says that what they are doing is for the poor, a country where the law gives everyone the right to gather and to speak, in reality the poor have to make their choices from no choice. Business and politics, the left and the right are all united in their demand for our silence. We know the truth of what has been decided about our place. We will continue to be assaulted by the police on the way to an interview on a radio station, we will continue to be assaulted by the police at the door of the television talk show to which we have been invited, we will continue to have our marches stopped, organisations and people that have never supported us will continue to misuse our struggle to make themselves look good, the NGOs that want us to be silent while they speak for us will continue to call security if we try to bring our university to their university like they did on 3 December, the police will continue to shoot at us and even kill us like they did at the Siyanda road blockade on 4 December. Struggle is hard. Having your life destroyed by forced removal to a formal jondolo far outside the city is harder.

Every day we are maturing in our struggle. We were always many but every day we are more. The red river that carried me will carry us all on and on through the shooting and the lies and the unfairness and all the choices that we will have to make without choice.

* S'bu Zikode remains unemployed.

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