In a feat that is rare in South Africa – and in most parts of the African continent – Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) has insisted for the past decade and a half that poor, black shack dwellers must take up their rightful place in the city, firmly and with dignity. The movement was formally launched following months of debates in the aftermath of a road blockade organized from the Kennedy Road settlement in Durban in February 2005. Built over the past fifteen years, initially by young people. South Africa’s largest and most vibrant social movement has emerged through poverty, hardship, death and also tremendous courage.
AbM has emerged against the backdrop of the collapsing moral authority of the ruling African National Congress (ANC)-led government, and its anti-poor, anti-working class politics of neoliberalism, kleptocracy and brutal repression. The brutality with which the ANC and the South African state have insisted that private property must remain sacrosanct is evidenced by the assassination and murder of 18 AbM activists since the formation of the movement.
Routine and violent evictions by the notorious Anti-land Invasion Unit and Calvin & Family Security, assassinations of key leaders such as Thuli Ndlovu and the tragic killing of 2-year-old baby Jayden by police – who threw teargas into his home – have all been the dystopian normal the movement has endured. Leaders such as AbM President, S’bu Zikode, have gone into hiding on multiple occasions in response to the very real threat of assassination.
The rampant corruption of government officials, who routinely embezzle funds intended for the benefit of the poor, has come up against the principled wall of the 80,000 member movement which, in the words of one speaker at Saturday’s seminar: “has reached 15 because we all have the same agenda: to emancipate the marginalized”
The weekend’s celebrations emerged out of 15 years of pain and difficulty in the struggle for a dignified life. Rank and file members of AbM participated in a collective reflection on the long road they had walked together. Members reflected on losing houses, children and even an eye to the violent repression inflicted by the South African state. Nevertheless, the tone was hopeful. Members grounded their reflections not only in the suffering of their daily lives, but rather in the socialist praxis, or Ubuhlalism, that permeates every aspect of AbM.
Throughout the past 15 years AbM has consistently been confronted by the view that poor, working class, shack dwellers are not fully human. From the state and NGOs to the media and academics, there has been a persistent characterization of AbM as a ‘rabble of criminals’. Nevertheless, despite this hostility from a range of elites AbM has organized 80,000 of the most poor and downtrodden people in South African society and represents a clear voice for those on the peripheries of South African cities and society.
Attempts, even on the NGO left and ANC affiliated trade unions, to see AbM as nothing more than cannon fodder have led the movement to place significant emphasis on its own organic intellectuals. By popularizing the slogan “Nothing About Us, Without Us” within their ranks and insisting that struggle is fundamentally about answering a series of difficult questions collectively, the movement has survived numerous attempts to co-opt or destroy it. Projects like the eKhenana occupation – where community members have collectively grown food, sold their excess produce through a democratically run co-op, built the Frantz Fanon Political School and prepared and shared meals together – exemplify the revolutionary praxis of AbM. Similarly, the University of AbM where the movement’s membership is taken seriously as the ‘professors of their own struggle’ illustrates a profound commitment to the dialectical relationship that exists between theory and practice. AbM’s 15 year long defiance against the relegation of the poor to the edges of society, or the forgotten who are forced to live in squalor outside of cities which they maintain, signifies 15 years of exposing the contradictions of capitalism, refusing its lies, and struggling to be heard and seen in a system which dehumanizes workers daily.
AbM has shown a resilience that radiates throughout the African continent and the world. This resilience is the product of the movement’s internal unity, its independence from NGO base ‘civil society’ and its autonomy from capitalist interests. Of course, the fact that AbM has consistently remained at the forefront of struggles for the full emancipation of all people should not be glossed over. As true Pan Africanists, the membership of AbM has always been the first to insist that “every person is a person, no matter where they are born.” The movement has consistently and courageously opposed xenophobia against migrants and has always been able to prevent xenophobic violence in areas where it is strong, and to offer concrete support to migrants under attack.
The movement has been at the forefront of struggles against the privatization of space in South African cities and is highly effective at stopping evictions and organizing new land occupations. It has through what it terms its ‘living politics’ – a political open to all – put women and young people at the center of every process. In all events and structures women and young people will be seen at the forefront of the movement’s work.
AbM president, S’bu Zikode, explained during the weekend’s celebrations that “We continue to reiterate that land, wealth and power must be shared. We will continue to fight for the greatest gift for the world which is to humanize it.” This refusal to accept the humiliation inflicted by the capitalist and imperialist system is what anchors the struggles of AbM. The refusal to accept the violent exploitation, oppression and indignity of the current world order, alongside the organizational discipline of struggling for concrete gains through an internationalist perspective characterizes the significance of the 15 year milestone reached by the movement.
Fifteen years is of course a significant milestone for AbM. However, this is also a milestone for all people’s organizations and movements across the world. As progressive movements and organizations come together for a week of action under the banner of the International Week of Anti-Imperialist Struggle, we recognize how much we have learnt from AbM and stand with our comrades in the process of setting afoot a new humanity in South Africa, Africa and the world.