Last month, Abahlali baseMjondolo (a social movement of shack-dwellers founded in 2005 in Durban, South Africa) presented to the Human Rights Commission in Johannesburg. This is the statement that was sent to the Commission in advance of the hearings, and their responses to questions from the NGO.
Statement for the Human Rights Commission Hearings Relating to Access to Housing, Local Government and Service Delivery
We first met on the 5th of January 2015 to begin the process of developing a response to the questions asked by the Human Rights Commission and we concluded the process on the 12th of February 2015.
We note that we have been invited to the hearings as a civil society organisation. We would like to begin by stating that we do not identify ourselves as a civil society organisation. Mostly when people talk about civil society what they mean is NGOs. Most NGOs have no members and no mandate to represent anyone. When NGOs are taken to represent the people in the name of civil society this is one more way of excluding oppressed people from important spaces and discussions. Some NGOs are as hostile to democratic membership based peoples’ organisations as the worst elements in the state. We are also not a political party. We are a democratic membership-based movement of shack dwellers and other poor people. We currently have twenty two branches in good standing in KwaZulu-Natal, and one in Cape Town, and just over 11,000 individual members. The government, and some NGOs, have always been saying that our movement will not exist in a year’s time. They are always excitedly announcing the death of our movement. But this year we will be celebrating ten years of our existence.
We also wish to note that the government always avoids going to ordinary people. Highly educated people comment on TV about matters of which they have no knowledge. The government chooses not to recognise popular organisations that exist outside of the ruling party. Attempts to engage are rebuffed again and again. Protest is the last resort. Protests become violent when the police arrive. They are made into violence by the police. Mostly communities continue to be ignored after a protest. If they do win some engagement they will be lied to and taken for a ride. There will be countless pointless meetings. When the government does talk to us they refuse to talk about dignity or land. They always try to channel the discussion in other directions. If they were serious about the fundamental causes of protests they would refer to dignity and land. By dignity we mean respect. When we say that we are struggling for dignity we mean that we are struggling for a society in which each person is recognised as a human being. This means that they must be treated with respect but also that they must have access to all that a person needs for a dignified life – land, housing, education, a livelihood and so on. When we say that we are struggling for land we mean that we are struggling for land in the cities where we can access livelihoods, education and many other things.
Instead of engaging with us on the questions of land and dignity the government tries to show us to the world as criminals. In this they are supported by some NGOs and sometimes the media will support them in this too. We are under constant surveillance by intelligence. If we were doing anything illicit the government would know about it. However, in this society, if you are poor and black lies can be freely told about you. You can also be freely subjected to violence.
The government is violating us. The government is abusive. We cannot trust any government institution. We have always said that we wanted to bring the people to the government and the government to the people. We have always said that we wanted meaningful engagement with the government. We have always said that we want to contribute to the building of the country. However our reward for organising ourselves for this purpose has been lies, evictions by the Land Invasions Unit, the destruction of our homes by ANC members, assault by the police and the land invasions unit, imprisonment, torture and murder.
Please note that all our answers relate to our experience in Durban.
Describe the challenges that communities face when engaging with government, particularly at a local level
Most communities find that if they can access provincial and national government it is possible to have open discussions. Sometimes we have been threatened by provincial government but we have also had some useful discussions. However, the main problem is at the local level. Local government operates like a criminal organisation. It is violent and corrupt and nothing happens without going through the party bosses. In some cases there is also serious discrimination against people from the Eastern Cape.
Mostly residents do not know who to speak to. It is the councillors who are supposed to be in contact with communities on a daily basis. But the problem starts with the fact that the councillors are elected through political parties. Once a person is elected through a political party they are straight away forced (whether willingly or by coercion) to serve political parties instead of the communities. Party loyalty replaces morality. The politics of lies and blood replaces the politics of truth and the politics of dignity. Councillors should be accountable to people and not to parties.
When councillors organise a meeting there is no follow up meeting. People are just left in the dark.
The ward committees are completely controlled by the Branch Executive Committees (BECs) of the parties. They are hijacked by the political parties and used as a tool to dominate the people. The ward committees should be inclusive of all organisations in the ward such as churches, taxi associations, school governing bodies and residents’ associations. Ward committees should not be party political organisations.
When the councillors and the ward committees are there to serve the parties, community members are not recognised as human beings. Their dignity is denied. They have no right to participate. They are defined as members of parties and not as citizens.
Service delivery is not a democratic process. Services are delivered from above. There is no discussion. There is no allowance for grassroots planning. Services are delivered through party lines. The BECs of the ruling party always hijack delivery. This is the root cause of a lot of anger and conflict. Development must be democratised and it must be controlled by communities and not by political parties.
Take the example of KwaNdengezi. Here the councillor, Nqola (Mduduzi Christian Ngcobo), personally allocates houses, heads up the contractors, represents the municipality and acts as an official. He refuses to recognise the local traditional leader who holds the respect of many of the residents. Everything is under the control of Nqola. Anyone that opposes him is threatened. On the 29th of September 2014 the chairperson of our movement in KwaNdengezi, Thuli Ndlovu, was assassinated.
When people try to be heard they are threatened. There is a criminalisation of the attempt to be heard. When anger gets to the point that there is a march or a road blockade, the politicians send in the police in the name of law and order. The people that are able to discuss matters – politicians and officials – are nowhere to be found. A demand to be recognised and heard results in violence from the state and not in recognition and negotiation. The people that have demanded to be recognised and heard are shown to the world as criminals. They find that they can be beaten and even killed with impunity. On 30 September 2013 Nqobile Nzuza, a 17 year old girl, was shot dead by the police under the command of the Station Commander of the Cato Manor Police Station. She was shot from behind in the back of the head. There were several witnesses to this murder. She was unarmed and running away from the police when she was shot. Today (12 February 2015) we heard for the first time that there had been an arrest and that a suspect will appear in the Durban Magistrate’s Court on the 13th of February 2015.
Development planning and implementation should be open, inclusive and democratic.
Why do communities embark on “service delivery” protests? Has this form of protest action yielded effective results and is it sustainable?
The demand for land and dignity is the underlying reason for protest. If people were respected and recognised as human beings there would be no need for protest.
Protests have often yielded results for us. Protest has been effective at opposing evictions. Councillors that we have protested against have been removed. Plans to eradicate settlements on well-located land have been dropped. However, when protest does win access to housing and services it is always delivered through the local ANC structures and our members are excluded. Not a single settlement that remains affiliated to our movement has received housing.
When we started our movement in 2005 there was a strong focus on the need for toilets. This demand came from the women. Now toilets are going up everywhere. But it took almost ten years of struggle to force the municipality to start to take the question of toilets more seriously.
Protests have sustained our movement over almost ten years. It is a way of showing our strength, it is a way of bringing people together and it is a way of freely expressing ourselves. It is not the only way. We also express our views in the media, via our press statements, our website and in court. But some people really enjoy protests and don’t have the patience for day-to-day organising. Protests keep our movement close to its members and supporters. We organise legal protests but, when legal protests are ignored (like the way in which the Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa ignored our memorandum submitted at a march on the 8th of November 2014), or when court decisions are ignored (like in Cato Crest where several court interdicts have been ignored by the eThekwini municipality), or when we are facing serious repression, we also organise road blockades. For shack dwellers around the world the road blockade is what the strike is to workers. It is a way to go beyond the demand to be recognised and to start disrupting the system that oppresses us.
Sometimes, such as when an eviction is about to happen, a road blockade can be quickly decided on and implemented. But usually there is a long process leading up to it. It is not just about toyi-toying and burning tyres. There is a process of meetings, discussions, and working out a set of demands. It is the same with legal protests. There is a long process of meetings, discussing and working out a memorandum that leads up to the protest. It is not just about one day on the street. There is a process that promotes collectivity, discussion and building our own democratic practices and power from below. The paper that is submitted to the politicians at the end of the march contains the cries of the people.
Our movement began with a protest. Our existence today is due to protest. It is protest more than anything else that has sustained our movement for almost ten years. When protest is criminalised by the police, the politicians and the media, and when it is just dismissed as ‘spontaneous’ by the NGOs and academics, a powerful tool for the poor to organise ourselves, build our collective power and express ourselves, is dismissed.
We have always rejected the term ‘service delivery protests’. It narrows the meaning of our struggles. There is no room in this term for our most important concerns which are land and dignity. Also the most common reason why people decide to protest is because they are not being engaged with seriously about their concerns. There is also no room in the term ‘service delivery protests’ for people’s insistence that the government must engage with them, seriously and respectfully, on their concerns.
Of course we do need water and other services but the main reason why we protest is because we are not counted as human beings. Like the term ‘civil society’ this term ‘service delivery protest’ does not come from us. We are human beings before we need services and the main reason for protesting is that we are not respected as human beings. Protests are, above all else, a call for our humanity to be recognised and fulfilled.
Noting that research has demonstrated that many “service delivery protests” are peaceful, why are these protests portrayed as violent?
In this society people who are poor and black are immediately seen as violent, as well as dishonest and are treated as though we must have bad intentions as soon as we enter any space outside of the spaces to which the system of oppression has tried to confine us. It is considered criminal for us to organise ourselves, to speak for ourselves, to question the authority of the politicians and civil society or to make alliances with lawyers, activists and others outside of the spaces in which we are supposed to remain. We really want to stress that it is not just the politicians and the state that portrays our protests as violent when they are not. It is also civil society, academics and business. In fact it is the whole of the middle class.
We do disrupt traffic with road blockades but we have taken a clear decision that no one in our movement will attack passing motorists. Our protests are not violent. When there is violence that violence always comes from the police. They have often attacked non-violent protests with dogs, rubber bullets, stun grenades, tear gas, water cannons, baton charges and, in some cases, live ammunition. Our members, always unarmed, have often been seriously injured by the police on protests and in one case someone was killed by the police.
Everyone can see that the main perpetrator of political violence is the state and the politicians. They perpetrate serious and regular violence against us through the police, the Land Invasions Unit, armed ANC mobs and the izinkabi (assassins). We are governed by violence and exclusion not by negotiation and inclusion and yet we are the ones that are shown to the world as violent. The violence of the system that oppresses us every day remains invisible to most of the media, the NGOs and so on.
Why do communities destroy permanent/temporary structures provided by the State in attempting to comply with their obligations in terms of service delivery generally? What is the cause of the frustration expressed by communities?
The most important point to make here is that it is rare for a library or some other building to be destroyed during a protest. However it is very common for the state to send in armed men to destroy our homes and to disconnect us from water and electricity. Yet this organised and ongoing destruction of homes and other buildings like churches, crèches and shops, and even graves, as well the destruction of our water and electricity connections, is taken as normal. The structural violence that oppresses us every day is taken as normal. It remains invisible to many people’s eyes.
For us it is unfortunate if a library is destroyed in a protest. We have never done something like this. However, when people do choose to attack accessible targets that represent the state, their actions must be understood in the context of their lives.
Impoverished people live with constant stress, fear and anxiety about their future. Trying to find work is stress. Most jobs are stress. Trying to educate your children is stress. Dealing with health problems is stress. Dealing with the councillor is stress. There is stress in the family and in the home too. The important question is: who is creating all this stress and why? When a person or a community lives with too much stress there is always the possibility that it will show itself in anger. Sometimes that anger will be misdirected. One of the tasks of a political movement is to channel anger in the right direction – against our oppressors and the system that oppresses us.
How are municipalities failing in their responsibilities towards communities?
They are not transparent. Corruption flourishes. Politicians and BECs interfere with the administrative duties of officials. They insist on being both the referee and the player. They are accountable only to themselves. Again and again officials tell us that they want to work for the people. Often we can see that this is true. But it is the politicians that are preventing them from working with the people. The politicians make sure that all development goes through their hands to build their power and that of their parties. Anyone who opposes them will face serious intimidation and repression. They will be excluded from development, threatened and sometimes subject to violence from the local party structures or the police. People who are critical are removed from the housing list. Sometimes they are put on the death list. Assassinations are becoming more common. For the politicians, communities are, like for some NGOs, a resource to be exploited for their own interests and not people to be treated as human beings and with whom a more just society can be developed.
Before Nkululeko Gwala, a leader in our movement from Cato Crest, was assassinated on the 26th of June 2013, the Mayor and the Chairperson of the ANC in Durban gave a talk in which his murder was implicitly authorised. How can we trust a municipality that is under the control of people that have given a public instruction for murder?
How do municipalities and government representatives engage with communities? Is this form of engagement effective?
We have never seen municipalities and government representatives engaging positively with communities. They are just there to give instruction and to get buy-in for projects and decisions that have already been decided on. South Africa is a country where the people are expected to obey and not to govern. Asking to participate in decision-making puts a person at immediate risk of intimidation and violence.
When we have made important progress, such as in Siyanda where electricity is now being provided to shack dwellers, this is because we were successful in bypassing the politicians and negotiation directly with the officials. But it is very difficult to achieve this and it is very difficult to sustain this.
Are communities able to access information required for them to make informed decisions regarding policies that directly affect them?
We can get access to information about policies and laws. But when it comes to the actual plans and projects of the government we cannot get information. The former City Manager of Durban, Michael Sutcliffe, once told us that “information is dangerous”. He was not the only person to think that information must be denied to the people at all costs.
We can’t get hold of something like an IDP[Integrated Development Planning]. If you really want to get an IDP you must prepare yourself for a war. If you want to get a housing allocation list you must understand that you could be killed if you are successful. In Cato Crest people like Thembinkosi Qumbelo and Nkululeko Gwala have been killed for having access to this kind of information. Others, members of our movement and other organisations like the SACP[South African Communist Party], have had to flee the area in fear of their lives for having this sort of information.
How do you suggest that government addresses these challenges and other frustrations that communities may have in relation to them?
The government must learn to treat people like human beings. There must be nothing for the people, without the people. The state must be separated from party politics. The social value of land must be put before its commercial value. Land occupations need to be understood as grassroots urban planning and the building of communities as self-organised development to be supported, not destroyed and repressed by the state. Land is more important than housing. If we have our own land we can build our own houses. But without land we have nothing and we remain constantly vulnerable.
The government is always thinking for us instead of thinking with us. For example, consider forced removals from well-located shack settlements to transit camps or RDP[Reconstruction & Development Programme] houses 50 kilometres outside the city. They call this ‘housing delivery’. We call it ‘forced removal’ and ‘re-ruralisation’. Where will our children go to school in these places? How will we find a livelihood in these places? They just build a house and say ‘Go!’. They treat us like dogs. They are just destroying what we have without thinking, without a chance for discussion. They don’t even provide transport from the relocation sites. There is no discussion of what the people want.
The parties are only talking about positions, not about people’s lives. This is why we decided to withdraw from party politics in 2006 and to focus on building our own power. The ANC and SACP wanted S’bu Zikode to accept a position as chairperson of the Ward Committee but we said no because that is not a space to deal with people’s lives. We did decide to make a tactical vote last year to try and punish the ANC for repression because they had our blood on their hands but we remain committed to building our own power from the ground up.
We are focussing on bringing up new leaders. We know that more of us will be killed and we need the struggle to continue.
Dignity cannot be delivered to us like services. Dignity is something that we have to struggle for. It is won back in struggle. It is in us and we should have no fear.
We do not believe that there can be ownership in land. Land was created for all human beings to enjoy. It was not created for the government. We remain committed to supporting occupations of unused land and buildings.
Our courage is what will carry us, and not the law or voting or protocol. Some are born with inkani (forceful determination) and others discover it in themselves in struggle or even in the home. Together we will keep discussing how to use our inkani with intelligence. Together we will keep discussing how to stay united and strong. We are committed to a world in which land, wealth and power are shared fairly.