Newly elected General Secretary of Abahlali baseMjondolo vows: “We will resist”

The congress of Abahlali baseMjondolo, held at a time of severe repression but also of expanding influence, has laid out for South Africa’s shack-dwellers’ movement the road ahead for the next three years.

December 04, 2021 by Pavan Kulkarni
Abahlali Engaging during the Policy Conference today at the Denis Hurley Hall ahead of the Elective Congress. Photo: AbM

The congress of South Africa’s shack-dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), held on November 28, has laid down the road for the future of the movement, centered around collective action to occupy lands and build communal self-sustainable projects to achieve food-sovereignty. For the movement this is essential because “the state has failed us; we need to build a bottom-up alternative to sustain ourselves,” AbM’s newly elected General Secretary, Thalepo Mohapi, told Peoples Dispatch in a phone interview.

Noting the relentless attacks on its land-occupations – especially the eKhenana occupation whose successful communal poultry and farming projects has served as an example for other occupations – “the congress made it very clear that Abahlali is prepared to defend any occupation that represents a communal way for people to sustain themselves,” he said.

“When people are finding a way to sustain themselves in these difficult times through communal projects, the African National Congress (ANC) government wants to destroy these projects and force people to be dependent on the government for survival. But we will resist. We will mobilize the masses from below and use all necessary means to defend ourselves,” he asserted.

“In the midst of the attacks by the state, by its police and by the goons of the ruling ANC, we continue to show the strength of our democratic process,” Mohapi added, highlighting the importance of the congress which elected a new national council to lead the movement for the next three years. Collective action, the congress has resolved, must also involve intervention in elections to consolidate the electoral strength to defeat the ANC and to strengthen working class parties.

“This time around we have decided that we will collectively determine at the general assembly which working class party we have to support, and then ensure we all vote unanimously to consolidate our votes and use it to strengthen that party, so it can carry the mandate of the poor and the marginalized,” he said.

Its electoral consolidation against the ANC has already begun to show results, he says, pointing to the result of the municipal election in November 2021, in which the ANC for the first time secured less than 50% of the votes and lost major cities.

“Most importantly, the ANC had to enter into a coalition in the eKhenana municipality, which has been their stronghold. Our call to vote against the ANC, in this province where the Abahlali also has a stronghold, has cost the ANC a major loss in support,” he said.

Finally, grateful for the solidarity AbM has received from organizations across the globe, Mohapi reiterated the internationalist commitment of the movement, stating that “ours is not a struggle taking place only in South Africa. Land-grabbing by corporations of imperialist countries are dispossessing the Indigenous and poor people in many countries in South America. Many of the same corporations are also involved in capturing resources from Africans.. [W]e are not only fighting against capitalism in South Africa, but are playing our role in the struggle to completely dismantle imperialist capitalism as a global system.”

Read an edited excerpt from the interview below.

Peoples Dispatch: For the members of AbM, what significance does this congress hold?

Thalepo Mohapi: This congress shows democracy from below; the people who give us the mandate have elected the new national council. We do this every three years because there is no dictatorship (in our organization); there is democracy, there is socialism. The voices of the people are more important than of individual leaders. The masses have the power to elect the leadership every three years, and it’s the masses whose mandate the leadership will carry for the next three years.

PD: By renewing the democratic mandate at a time when the movement is facing a relentless crackdown, what message do you seek to send out to the state and to the other forces that position themselves against the movement?

TM: We are first and foremost showing our respect for and our faith in the power of democracy from below. In the midst of the attacks by the state, by its police, and by the goons of the ruling ANC, we continue to show the strength of our democratic process. This democratic process is very different from the process that has imposed this government on South Africa.” Only 40 or 50% of the people who are registered to vote in the election did vote, and most of the people who are eligible to vote did not even register.

We, on the other hand, are showing the way of democratic practice. Voices of the more than hundred thousand members of Abahlali counted in the congress. But because we could not all gather in one place together, there were 400 delegates who were chosen by the constituencies of the branches and sent to the congress with a mandate to vote (according to their will).

PD: The eKhenana land occupation has been at the center of recent attacks on AbM. What were some of the conclusions drawn by the Congress with regards to the struggle in eKhenana?

TM: The policy conference that was held before the congress made it very clear that Abahlali is prepared to defend any occupation that represents a communal way for people to sustain themselves. We are going to protect our movement from attacks, from those who want to destroy the hope eKhenana occupation has offered.

We will go to court if necessary, or do whatever it takes to protect any progressive occupation. When people are finding a way to sustain themselves in these difficult times through communal projects, the ANC government wants to destroy these projects and force people to depend on the government for survival. But we will resist. We will mobilize the masses from below and use all necessary means to defend ourselves.

PD: What were some of the other resolutions that came out of the policy conference?

TM: One of the resolutions is that we will strengthen our mandate to build a just and equal society where people are treated with dignity regardless of the color of their skin, their nationality or their socio-economic status. To accomplish this, we will grow our movement, increase our membership among the masses from the current hundred thousand to half a million, and expand our branches. We will work to promote and organize a communal way of life so people will become self-sufficient. We will continue to work on the practice of food sovereignty because the state has failed us; we need to build a bottom-up alternative to sustain ourselves.

We have also resolved that when there is an election, nationally or at local levels, we should not vote as individuals in different directions. We need to vote collectively in one direction to consolidate our power. We are going to work with progressive working class political parties and make sure that the more than hundred thousand votes we have currently – and this number of course will grow further – will all be cast for one political party.

PD: Had AbM not taken a position in support of any political party before this congress?

TM: In the previous general election, Abahlali supported the SRWP (Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party), but the members were told they could vote for their choice as individuals. And they voted differently. This weakens our power. This time around we have decided that we will collectively determine at the general assembly which working class party we have to support, and then ensure we all vote unanimously to consolidate our votes and use it to strengthen that party, so it can carry the mandate of the poor and the marginalized.

We have also given a call to ensure that our members do not vote for the ruling ANC. We are clear that our people should not vote for their graves, because the ANC has been killing the activists of Abahlali. Under ANC’s 27-year rule, people in the informal settlements have continued to live in abject poverty, under inhuman conditions. So why should we vote for the ANC and give it a mandate to continue to run the country?

PD: AbM’s statement about the policy conference also states “The power that we have been able to build over the years is beginning to bear fruits.” Can you elaborate?

TM: That is seen in the result of the recent election (for municipality in November 2021, when the ANC for the first time secured less than 50% of the vote and lost major cities.) The ANC has lost big money. Most importantly, the ANC had to enter into a coalition in the eKhenana municipality, which has been their stronghold. Our call to vote against the ANC, in this province where the Abahlali also has a strong hold, has cost the ANC a major loss in support. People are now voting with conscience, and saying we will not vote for our grave, we will not vote for those who have betrayed the struggle of Nelson Mandela.

PD: The delegates who attended this policy conference also “noted a significant change in terms of how the general public view our Movement.” In what manner has the public perception changed?

TM: During the unrest when many forces were perpetrating violence, Abahlali worked for calm and peace in the province. Even small business-owners, the middle class and the liberals have come to acknowledge and praise this work. So the perception about our movement is changing in the general public.

After the unrest, more and more sections of the society are realizing the importance of our struggle to ensure an equitable distribution of the country’s resources, to ensure that no child will have to go hungry, and that those who do not have food are right in occupying lands to live and to produce food for their survival. They have come to understand the value of Abahlali’s work in ensuring poor Black people are not forced into violence against each other, but are organized to collectively advance the cause of the poor and the marginalized sections.

PD: Congratulating AbM on its conference, many trade unions, grassroots organizations and left political parties in the Southern African region have expressed solidarity. Even organizations beyond the continent, in Latin America and elsewhere, have consistently shown solidarity. Where do you see Abahlali fit in the global class struggle?   

TM: The global solidarity we have earned is fundamental to us. Our comrades all over the country, in the region of Africa and the world show their solidarity through protests and demonstrations outside South African embassies, every time we face severe repression here. We really appreciate that and want to build these links. Because ours is not a struggle taking place only in South Africa.

Land-grabbing by corporations of imperialist countries are dispossessing the indigenous and poor people in many countries in South America. Many of the same corporations are also involved in capturing resources from Africans. We have to work together with comrades across the world, because we are not only fighting against capitalism in South Africa, but are playing our role in the struggle to completely dismantle imperialist capitalism as a global system.