Land and Housing
Thursday 28, 2008*
I have been asked to speak on the burning issues of land and housing. I only
get these invitations because of the strength of the movement of which I am
part and so, on behalf of Abahlali baseMjondolo, I thank Diakonia for this
The churches have rallied to our struggle in difficult times – after fires,
after arrests, after beatings. We know about the role that the churches have
played in Brazil and in Haiti and we believe that the churches can play the
same role here if they take a clear decision, as some church leaders bravely
have already, to be with the people, to clearly take the side of the people
instead of being just another 'stakeholder'. Bishop Rubin Philip has stood
strong in the politics of the poor and tonight I want to say that we wish
him a quick and full recovery from his illness.
The right to land and the right to housing remain huge problems in South
Africa. These problems are not technical, they are political. These problems
will not be solved by consultants' reports, academic conferences at the ICC
and meetings with the MEC at Suncoast. These problems will be solved when
the people who do not count in this system, the people that have no proper
place are able to stand up and to take their place and to be counted as
citizens of this country.
Our politics starts by recognizing the humanity of every human being. We
decided that we will no longer be good boys and girls that quietly wait for
our humanity to be finally recognized one day. Voting has not worked for us.
We have already taken our place on the land in the cities and we have held
that ground. We have also decided to take our place in all the discussions
and to take it right now. We take our place humbly because we know that we
don't have all the answers, that no one has all the answers. Our politics is
about carefully working things out together, moving forward together. But
although we take our place humbly we take it firmly. We do not allow the
state to keep us quiet in the name of a future revolution that does not
come. We do not allow the NGOs to keep us quiet in the name of a future
socialism that they can't build. We take our place as people who count the
same as everyone else. Sometimes we take that place in the streets with
teargas and the rubber bullets. Sometimes we take that place in the courts.
Sometimes we take it on the radio. Tonight we take it here. Our politics
starts from the places we have taken. We call it a living politics because
it comes from the people and stays with the people. It is ours and it is
part of our lives. We organize it in our own languages and in our own
communities. It is the politics of our lives. It is made at home with what
we have and it is made for us and by us. We are finished with being ladders
for politicians to climb up over the people.
Sometimes it gets hard but we keep going forward together. Sometimes we
don't know what to do anymore but we keep thinking together. Sometimes a
settlement stays strong. Sometimes a settlement fails to stay strong. But we
keep going forward together.
Tonight we need to talk about the politics of land. We need to talk about
the politics of housing.
We need to talk about the politics of fire. We need to talk about the
politics of toilets. We need to talk about the politics of xenophobia and
the politics of rape.
To think about all this we must start with where we come from.
It has become clear to us that when ever we talk about history we are seen
to be launching an offensive. It has become clear to us that this is because
the rich want to believe that we are poor because we are less than them –
less intelligent, less responsible, less clean, less honest. If we are poor
because we are just less than the rich then we must be happy for every
little thing that we are given, we must be happy with a hamper or some old
clothes when our children are dying in the rats and the fire and the mud.
But we are not poor because we are less than the rich. *We are poor because
we were made poor.* The rich are rich because they were made rich. If your
ancestors had the land you will go to university and get a nice job and look
after your family well. If your ancestors lost the land you will be lucky to
find a dangerous job that you hate so that your family can just survive.
The growing poverty in rural communities encourages mostly young people to
migrate to the cities. Therefore as long as the cities grow in the same way
as poverty, urbanization is not an exception. People will have to keep
moving to the cities in search of hope. This reality calls upon all city
authorities to learn to share the cities and to accept this growth. It is
the same poor people that build cities and then get kicked out to rot in
places like Parkgate once they are finished building for the attraction of
foreign investment. It is the same poor people that wash and iron for the
rich who have live in shacks where it is very difficult to wash and iron
their clothes. It is the same poor people that bravely guard the homes and
business of the rich who come home to find their homes illegally destroyed
by the criminals that are called the Land Invasions Unit.
This is wrong. We need democratic cities. We need fair cities. We need
welcoming cities. We need cities for all.
We need to think about how we can create a new kind of communism, a new kind
of togetherness. A living communism that recognizes the equal humanity of
every person wherever they were born, wherever their ancestors came from,
whether they are poor or rich, women or men. This new togetherness must also
understand that the world, what God has given to us all, must be shared by
The system we suffer under now keeps the land in the hands of the
descendents of those who had stolen it through the barrel of colonial guns.
The system turns the once most trusted leaders in our cities into enemies.
The enemies that do not only hate and neglect the poor but the enemies that
send police to beat the poor, arrest and shoot them when ever we voice out
our concerns. Tonight we remember Mthokozisi Nkwanyana, a student and a
shack dweller, who was killed by the police in a student protest on Thursday
last week. The system talks a lot about democracy, but does not practice
democracy. The system talks more about all the rights, gender equality and
justice but does not make any of this real. This is a system where almost
everything is done in the name of the poor but only for the poor to be
betrayed and undermined again and again. This is a system that allows
formations of many institutions such as NGOs, NPOs, businesses and states to
violate the human rights of the poor and the marginalized in our society.
We need to ask ourselves what is this system?
This system is a system where the people are separated into two – those that
count and those that do not count. Those that count are those with money.
Those that do not count are those without money. This system values business
profit before humane value. This system turns democracy into a way to become
rich. Money is made to dominate human thinking. Therefore we have to turn it
upside down and put the human being first. Always we must start with the
What went very wrong in our society is when business profit is put ahead of
human value. What went very wrong in our society is the thinking that sees
development as being only the job of the few clever technical people, who
are meant to think about development for the majority. Grass root
organizations such as Abahlali baseMjondolo are strongly opposed to this
top-down approach to development that sees people as nothing else than the
helpless individuals who can not think for themselves. In this view the work
of the poor is to vote when we are told and to be passive receivers of
services. This is why the so called experts on the poor and our struggles
always want to call our protests as 'service delivery protests' even when we
clearly state what we are struggling for.
We are the people that are not meant to think. We are the people that are
not meant to participate in planning and to debate on issues that affect us.
We are the people that should be happy to live on hampers. The poor are
strongly opposed to these dehumanizing human characteristics of the top down
system that has terrorized our communities and our lives.
Abahlali have said over and over that the majority of our people believe in
a true democracy, a democracy that caters for every gogo and mkhulu's at
home, a democracy that does not see people differently, a democracy that
does not make few people better than the majority, a democracy that is not
driven by the wealth that has torn our society apart. We believe in a
participatory development of the people, for the people and by the people
themselves. We are concerned that at least most of the houses that are being
built, they are built for the people, without the people. This is why some
people reluctantly accept these houses and then they either rent them out or
sell them to some desperate fellows and run back to jondolos. This is not a
matter for the police and the NIA. The reason for this is not that shack
dwellers can not think or are stupid. The reasons for this is the failure of
authorities to involve shack dwellers not only in the planning but right
from the project identification through to the implementation, monitoring
and evaluation - in fact all through the project cycle. If you take people
out of their communities, sometimes at gun point, and move them to rural
human dumping grounds where there is no work they will not stay there.
People have to survive. We want it to be clearly understood that the bottom
up development approach that recognizes that a properly human life is what
the majority of the poor prefers. Thus communication and consultation is
vital if authorities were to be serious and respecting of those that they
It is very sad that some business men, like Ricky Govender in Motala
Heights, have been terrorizing their communities in search for a land to
expand their business and wealth. In Motala Heights the settlement
leadership and very senior families have been forced up and down the lawyers
and courts to defend their right not to be evicted from their land. It is
the same with the eNkwalini community who have consistently been threatened
with eviction by the farmer, who had just bought the farm in Northen
KwaZulu-Natal. What is more upsetting with all the evictions that are taking
place in eThekwini is that they are not only illegal because they are
carried out without the court orders but that they are also criminal. We
have had to advise the police and municipal officials quite several times of
section 26 of the South African constitution and the Prevention of Illegal
Occupation of Land Act that protects the homeless, the poor and most
vulnerable members of our society, children and women. Abahlali baseMjondolo
has managed to stop most evictions in eThekwini in settlements like Motala
Heights, Shannon Drive, Pemary Ridge, and Arnett Drive just to mention a
few. But while we were winning an important victory in the High Court
against evictions in Arnett Drive on Tuesday the Municipality was outside
illegally demolishing shacks in Siyanda at the very same time! If already
the law is not respected by the authorities then it is difficult to imagine
how other new laws like the very notorious KwaZulu-Natal Elimination and
Prevention of Slums Act will be used.
It is very sad that some academics and NGOs continue to think that it is
their natural right to dominate instead of to support the struggles of the
poor. We have kept our silence for years but now we must say that it is
clear that at the Centre for Civil Society the work of the intellectual is
to determine our intelligence by trying to undermine our intelligence. They
try to buy individuals, intimidate our comrades and tell the worst lies to
try and show that we are too stupid to think our own struggles. They fail to
understand that we are poor, not stupid. This is their politics.
The shack dwellers believe that land and housing in the cities will bring
about the safer environment, an environment that is free from shack fires,
an environment that is free from rats, rapes and crime when our children and
women have to find water and toilets in the bushes. If we were to be serious
about caring cities, the first step will have to be to respect human life
and human dignity. Mnikelo Ndabankulu a spokesperson for Abahlali
baseMjondolo often says that "we do not need electricity, it is needed by
our lives''. Our settlements are not temporary. Some of us have lived our
whole lives in them. Our children have grown up in them. Electricity, water
and sanitation can no longer be denied to shack dwellers. The eThekwini
Municipality has often told us that money is not a problem, but that the
problem is land. But the problem has never been just that there is no land
in the cities as we have always been told. There is land. The political
problem is that that land is privately owned by companies like
Tongaat-Hulett. That problem can be solved but that would require
recognizing the humanity of everyone and there has never been human
recognition in the first place. For this City being poor, living in a shack
or selling in the street, is seen as a crime. Until this is fixed right the
poor will always be taken as trouble makers when in fact they are excluded
from positive thinking that could contribute in the building of a caring
city. A city where everyone has a say and an equal opportunity in shaping
and reshaping this city into a caring one.
One of the biggest mistakes when planning development in the city is when
the city does not provide basic services that are urgently needed by human
lives. I am talking about services like the inadequate provision of water
supply, not enough toilets and no proper collection of refuse as there is no
access road to inner shack settlements. The result of these denied services
is very serious. Without refuse removal there are rat bites and diseases.
Without electricity there are shack fires. Who is to be blamed for the fact
that we still live without these life saving services other than those who
are meant to save the public in governments? We have seen the authorities
shifting blame to the poor themselves with childish claims that the shack
dwellers are dirty or lazy or that we do not want to move from filthy
conditions. They say in the newspaper that "Zikode must educate his
people'', as if people living in shacks are stupid and as if they all belong
to one ordinary man like Zikode. I want to make it very clear that we have
built a democratic politics and that our settlements are far too well
organized to be controlled or thought by one man like Zikode. Zikode has his
own kids to educate like any other responsible parent who cares about the
future of their children. But Zikode does not educate the people who elected
him to speak when them and then for them. In fact every day Zikode is
educated by the suffering and the courage and the intelligence of the people
that elected him. Therefore it is very disrespectful to say that elderly
people must be educated to light paraffin stoves or light candles. The
solution to fires is not education. The solution to fires is that
electricity must be provided in all settlements. Electricity is not a
luxury. It is needed to save lives. We cannot compromise on this point. I
hope that tonight we can all agree on the need for the settlements to be
Abahlali's concerns over the shack fires that have terrorized our
communities have caused this Movement to call upon all shack settlements to
discuss this matter openly and to allow every shack settlement to have a say
on what they think could be a solution. We have called a city summit on
shack fires that will include all those who care about the lives of our
people, be it the municipal authorities, progressive NGOs, churches,
individuals etc.We believe that all of what is seen to be problems
associated with the shack dwellers can be resolved by and with shack
dwellers themselves. Thus Abahlali believes that the issue of land and
housing is not just the issue for the technical people and for the
government but of all who are meant to benefit from it.
The shack fire summit will be held on Monday 22 September. The day before
Sunday 21 September, we will hold a mass prayer for all the shack dwellers
who have died in the fires.
People are often confused about what our movement stands for when it comes
to land and housing. Tonight I want to suggest a list of ten demands on the
burning questions of land and housing that could be used to begin a
discussion about a platform for a united front on land and housing. These
demands cone out of years of discussion in our movement. We would be very
happy if you could discuss them in your own organizations so that we can,
together, start the work of shaping a new vision for our cities.
1. There must be no more evictions.
2. Life saving basic services, including electricity, water, refuse
removal and toilets, must be provided to all settlements.
3. The land on which the settlements have been founded must be
transferred to the collective ownership of the people living in each
4. Settlements must be upgraded where they are where ever this is
5. When people have to be relocated they must be given the option of
moving to well located land.
6. Land must be expropriated from Tongaat-Hullet to house the poor.
7. There must be no more forced removals. People must only be relocated
8. Government must negotiate with the organizations that represent each
settlement and not with the councilors.
9. Shack dwellers have a right to disagree with the government.
10. Shack dwellers have a right to organize themselves
outside of the political parties.
We have asked people to speak to us, not for us. We have asked people to
work with us, not for us. We have asked people to think with us, not for us.
We have asked people to understand that our movement will always belong to
its members and never to any NGO or political party. We have asked people to
understand that we need a living solidarity, a solidarity that is built in
partnership with our living politics, a solidarity that is built around the
real everyday suffering and struggles of our people. I thank Diakonia for
this invitation to speak. I thank the churches for their brave support
during difficult times in our struggle. I invite everyone here to work to
build a partnership for a democratic city together with us and with all
democratic organizations of the poor. I invite you all to our summit on
shack fires. Maybe we can start there. Let us see.