The University of Abahlali baseMjondolo
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Sunday December 02, 2007 03:51 by Richard Pithouse - Abahlali baseMjondolo
A useful overview of the South African shack dwellers' movement
This article, published in the Anarchist journal Voices of Resistance from Occupied London, provides a useful overview of the history and politics of Abahlali baseMjondolo.
Since 2004 South African cities have been convulsed by a series of municipal revolts organised from shack settlements. They have most often taken the form of blockading roads with burning barricades and have generally targeted municipal party councillors. Across the country many settlements have refused electoral politics and declared 'No Land, No House, No Vote'. Despite rapidly increasing repression these protests continue to gather intensity.
Shack settlements began to be built in South African cities after colonial conquest and the rapid enclosure of land and forcing of people into waged work via taxation. Material conditions in the settlements were often dire but the settlements did go some way towards creating a new urban commons in which all kinds of cultural and political innovation flourished. In the 1950s the apartheid state, at the height of its power, began to forcibly remove shack dwellers to formal modern townships on the peripheries of the cities. There was often militant resistance to this process, much of it led by women, but in the end the armed power of the state prevailed.
But by the middle of the 1970s the apartheid state was beginning to loose its grip on society and people were again able to occupy land and found new settlements. This process gathered momentum through the 1980s as the popular revolt against apartheid turned into the biggest mass mobilisation of its time. Some of the settlements founded during this mass insurrection were built on an explicit commitment to popular democracy. Sometimes this was sustained through severe repression but there were also instances where settlement politics hardened into an authoritarianism and brutality to match that of apartheid.
One of the promises made by the ANC when they came to power in 1994 was for mass housing for the poor and thirteen years later South Africa has one of the largest state housing programmes in the world. More than a million houses have been built in the last decade. The housing model was developed from local capital's engagement with World Bank models and is individualizing, commmodifies land use and often results in people being removed from cities to peripheral townships to houses much small than those built under apartheid. The ANC has declared this a stellar success. But they have a major and sustained urban revolt on their hands.
Official discourse, from the state and NGOs, including some left NGOs, uniformly describes these protests as 'service delivery protests' and often argues that the targeting of local councillors indicates an inability to 'understand democracy' because the councillors 'do not drive the housing roll-out'.
In some parts of the country the description of these revolts as 'service delivery protests' has been taken on by some of the spokespeople people from within the organisations that have organised the protests. But, from what one can understand watching it all from within just one city in ferment, it seems that this is merely the language of professionalized politics – a sound bite that is used because the media know how to consume it. Even in these instances the language driving the actual planning and implementation of these protests, present in meetings, slogans and songs, seems quite different and most often speaks to notions of dignity and the idea that the disrespect shown towards people by the state has now become intolerable. Certainly this disrespect has a lot to do with evictions, an absence of toilets, intolerable water queues, candles burning dangerously close to flammable walls in cramped cardboard and plastic shacks and so on. But it also has a lot to do with the pervasive sense that the state disrespects people by lying to people during elections and by failing to listen to them at other times. Again and again people assert that the poor are excluded from citizenship. And its clear that citizenship is understood to refer to the material benefits of full social inclusion as well as the right to be taken seriously when thinking and speaking for oneself.
It seems that the state prefers to tell itself that it is being confronted by militant 'service delivery protests' because this implies that people are only demanding a more effective technocracy. In other words that people are only demanding the perfection of the current system. The response of the state, when not entirely and ludicrously paranoid, is to recommend 'stakeholder management' (co-option, teaching obedience) or to promise more efficiency from the state machinery. Some times this takes the form of recommending that consultation, environmental assessments and so on be cut back as they 'slow down delivery'. It seems likely that much of the middle class left is comfortable with the reduction of this national upsurge in popular political action to a demand for the 'delivery of services' for a similar reason – they often see themselves as a more enlightened rival technocratic elite and this understanding allows them to read and present the protests as a vote of popular support for their power point presentations over those of the state's consultants.
However across the country the people who have organized these protests are demanding something quite different to 'more effective delivery'. For instance a key demand has been the right to be able to live in the city. In many instances protesters have demanded to be able to stay in their centrally located shacks rather than to be moved to housing projects on the periphery of the cities showing that the question of housing is not reducible to being formally housed by the state. Where one lives can be more important than the nature of the structure in which one lives. The right to the city is not only undone by forced removals to the periphery. It is also undone by the fact that in every relocation people not on the state's housing list (immigrants, single men, new arrivals etc) simply have their homes demolished and are left homeless. And it is undone by the fact that there is a ban on developing existing new shacks and on building new shacks. This is closely monitored by a mix of local informers and aerial surveillance and is enforced by militarised land invasions units.
A second key demand has been the right to co-determine 'development' by subordinating the state, especially in its more local manifestations, to society. In other words there is, against the elite assumption that an electoral mandate is a mandate for 5 years of top down technocratic planning by the state/academic/NGO complex, a clear demand for what the Brazilian urbanist Marcelo Lopes de Souza calls 'grassroots urban planning' . One reason why the local councillors have been targeted is because they are supposed to speak upwards to the state on behalf of their constituents. However they are unable to do so because they are accountable upwards to their parties which determine the electoral lists and, therefore, the councillor's future prospects. And the parties are, without exception, unable to comprehend the demand for popular urban planning as anything other than criminal illegality, social breakdown or political conspiracy (even when it is entirely legal).
Another reason for the hostility to local councillors is that they tend to work with authoritarian elites in the settlements to dispense patronage downwards in exchange for party political control of the settlements. In other words they demand that the settlements function as vote banks.
Although the planning and political elite is deracializing it continues to respond with intense anxiety to the autonomous occupation of urban space by the poor. All the old racialised stereotypes are now projected onto the poor. Elites continue to see the urban poor as a drain on cities rather than as active participants in the life of cities. They remain unwilling to confront the fact that the wealth of the cities is historically based on the enclosure of rural land and the exploitation of cheap labour. And they prefer to ignore the fact that shack dwellers undertake most of the labour that enables middle class families to achieve a bourgeois lifestyle. Shack dwellers wash and iron their clothes, protect their property and grill their food in restaurants on wages on which survival is only possible when one lives outside the fully commodified sphere. One economy sustained by the exploitation of the poor by the rich is justified by the production of the illusion of two separate worlds inhabited by, as Fanon said 30 years ago, two separate species of humanity. And the idea that the black poor are incapable of thinking and acting for themselves is held to, and fanatically so, against all evidence to the contrary. It has been striking how the paranoia of the state (with its vanguardist conception of development) about white agitators has so often been mirrored, more or less, exactly by left NGOs (with vanguardist delusions about their role in building and leading a new mass struggle).
Municipal authorities routinely and systematically behave illegally towards shack dwellers on the implicit assumption that they are not full citizens. There is a considerable extend to which this is just about evicting the poor from valuable urban land in order to 'unlock' its value for elites. But it is not just about the market. Psychoanalysis is required as much as economics if the aetiology of the plague of evictions is to be fully diagnosed. Elites (black & white) have stigmatized shack dwellers in accordance with racist stereotype to the point where their mere presence is seen as a direct threat to national aspirations for urban modernity. This is so even when a settlement poses no direct threat to profit.
It is clear that in many instances the housing projects, while presented as 'delivery' to the poor, are in fact aimed at delivering the poor both out of the city (as one expells a tumour from a body) and out of autonomous spaces into regulated and commodified contemporary versions of the apartheid township – a space separate in every way from the fantasy of world class cities. An autonomous urban proletariat which turned urban land into a commons is being recomposed into a surplus population warehoused on the urban periphery.
The official discourse also claims that shack dwellers are subject to slumlords who own vast swathes of shacks and rule the settlements with an iron fist in order to extract rent and that they bully people into resistance. The apartheid state used to make exactly the same claim. But these days this discourse comes from UN Habitat which is headquartered in Nairobi where slumlordism is rampant in the Kiberia settlement. This fact is used to claim that shack dwellers everywhere therefore require the liberatory intervention of the state via new legislation criminalising all rental arrangements in shack settlements, access to local democracy (i.e. the councillor system) and removal to state housing.
But in South Africa it is quite clear that although many people do rent a shack, or a space in a shack, very few settlements are run by single landlords renting to hundreds or thousands of people (and when this does happen there is often vigorous internal opposition). Rental arrangements are usually made between one individual and another or a few others with all parties being poor and are often more like cost sharing arrangements that actual tenancy agreements. Very often the transaction is governed by social factors rather than the rule of profit. In fact most settlements have origins in the popular democratic struggles of the 1980s and have never been governed by slumlords. The criminalisation of all rental arrangements is in effect a general criminalisation of shack dwellers.
In the vast majority of the settlements that are ruled in an authoritarian manner the relations of political oppression are structured around party political representation and in particular local elites in settlements seeking to deliver shack dwellers as vote banks to party elites, or to simply secure their obedience, in exchange for insertion into networks of patronage.
It is impossible to vote against this mode of oppression in the state elections. The parties depend on it. While the party elites speak about constitutionalism the cadres at the bottom of their structures extract votes with guns. In fact it is not even currently possible to vote against the expulsion of shack dwellers from the cities. In the province of KwaZulu-Natal all parties voted for a clearly unconstitutional Act, the Slums Act, that echoes similarly named apartheid laws and would speed up forced relocations and evictions. And in Durban the councillors all have to sign a commitment to reporting new land invasions or settlement expansion in their wards. If they fail to do so they can be disciplined by the Municipality. One consequence of this is that they often function as local spy masters using party members in the settlements as their informers. If you are a shack dweller in Durban you can only vote for your own repression.
But in Durban, a city with more than 500 shack settlements, there has been a unique development. A road was blockaded in early 2005, as roads have been blockaded around the country since 2004. But this road blockade gave rise to a shack dwellers' movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, that now has members in almost 40 settlements almost all of which are within the central suburbs of the city formally reserved for whites, Indians and people of mixed race and which now face forced removal to rural periphery of the city. In other words they are settlements that in the mere fact of their being have radically undone apartheid spatial segregation.
The movement has been able to present a sustained challenge to the municipal and, more recently, provincial authorities. The movement has suffered severe, often brutal and systematically illegal state repression but has, nevertheless, continued to grow and to become an articulate and compelling voice for shack dwellers outside of party and electoral politics.
Abahlali are rigorously committed to a radically democratic mode of organising and have rejected party politics, the councillor system and NGOisation in favour of what they have called a (non-party and non-electoral) 'politics of the poor'. Perhaps the most important idea in the understanding of the politics of the poor that has been developed in the movement is that shack dwellers should organise themselves and think and speak for themselves. They have, to use Emilio Quadrelli's phrase, asserted themselves as autonomous 'grassroots politics militants'.  This has created a crisis for both party politics and those modes of NGOs politics that depend on a politics of representation and Abahlali have experienced severe authoritarianism from both quarters.
But despite this they have succeeded in building the biggest political movement outside of the ANC since the end of apartheid (although it remains very much regional). They have largely stopped evictions in all the settlements where they are strong, have built and defended new shacks, have expanded and defending their expansion of existing shacks, have set up creches and various mutual support projects, connected thousands of people to electricity, resisted police oppression and fought a high profile battle for land and housing in the city. But the declaration of Abahlali baseMjondolo as a university is a signally unique intervention into the South African political landscape where 'left' political education is usually something undertaken by NGOs in conferences venues in English and with an overwhelmingly economistic orientation that tends to ignore the politics of politics. The power relations in these situations are often highly racialised and gendered and are always deeply classed. But here a mass movement of the poor has decided to educate itself where its militants live and struggle in the languages that they speak via ongoing careful collective reflection on its experiences of oppression and resistance. Like other movements in the country its conclusions are anti-capitalist but they are also profoundly democratic. This declaration of intellectual autonomy from the state/academic/NGO complex has the potential to mark a new moment in popular struggle. It has already created an intellectual commons to go with its defence of bits and pieces of land held in common, electricity appropriated into a commons and various community projects developed and sustained in common. And the analysis that is developing in this University poses the exclusion of the poor from decision making as a fundamental problem.
For the first time in post-apartheid South Africa the political form as well as the economic content of neo-liberalism is facing an uncompromising popular challenge.
 Marcelo Lopes de Souza Together with the state, despite the state, against the state, 2006 http://abahlali.org/node/240
 Emilio Quadrelli Grassroots Political Militants: Banlieusards and Politics http://abahlali.org/node/1437
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