Political identity is a strange thing. In the run-up to an election, we are asked - over and over again - to identify ourselves with political parties. We are asked to remember our histories and follow our family’s old allegiances. We are instructed to forget those histories, and face the future. We are expected to identify with the faces on political posters and see ourselves reflected in them. On 2 May, the shack-dwellers’ movement of South Africa, Abahlali baseMjondolo, endorsed the Democratic Alliance in this week’s upcoming provincial elections. A storm of controversy has erupted. By JULIAN BROWN.
A large percentage of South Africans are unconvinced by this, of course. The major parties seem bankrupt, devoid of new ideas. Their claims on our identities are absurd and overblown. For many of us, the choice between parties is no choice at all: it is just a matter of preferring one tone of voice, one temperament, one set of berets, and one set of unconvincing promises over another.
The “Vote No” campaign is – in its own way – a response to this, with its conviction that we have no plausible alternatives within the electoral system. The solution, it suggests, is to spoil votes in such large numbers that this deep discontent will be registered, and the existing elite will reform itself.
The virulent response that it has provoked has been breathtaking. The leaders of the campaign have been accused of disloyalty and of near-treasonous behaviour. Their suggestion that tactical voting can include the conscious spoiling of ballots has been questioned by the IEC’s lawyers. Their attempt to adopt a principled stance has been roundly and broadly ridiculed as hypocritical, juvenile, irresponsible and – worst of all – ineffective. Spoiled ballots will not threaten the state.
All of which makes the equally-virulent reaction to the announcement that Abahlali baseMjondolo have chosen to endorse the Democratic Alliance in this week’s election even more remarkable.
Throughout its nine years of existence, Abahlali has steadily refused to participate in elections, and has refused to endorse any political parties. In the documentary Dear Mandela, members of Abahlali are shown spoiling their ballots in the 2009 elections – writing “No Land! No House! No Vote!” across the length of their ballot papers. For many years this refusal to contest elections – either as a political party, or through a proxy – was used by Abahlali to defend themselves against regular attacks by the state. They were a social movement, not a political party.
In the last five years, though, the attacks against Abahlali and its members have become ever more violent and more common. An attack on the Kennedy Road settlement in Durban in 2009 displaced many of the movement’s leaders – some of whom continue to live in hiding. Abahlali believes that it is the target of an assassination campaign – and its leaders live with the daily fear of death. In the past twelve months, three members of Abahlali have been killed, while a further fifteen have been injured, often in clashes with the police.
At Cato Crest, last year, a young woman, Nqobile Nzuza, was killed by the police. Later that day an Abahlali activist was arrested and held without bail for a week for causing ‘public violence’. As yet, no police officers have been held liable for Miss Nzuza’s death.
In this context, political neutrality provides no protection.
And so, earlier this week, Abahlali announced that they were abandoning their “No Land! No House! No Vote!” campaign and encouraging their members to vote strategically in the election.
They invited parties to engage with them on a series of core concerns, including investigating misallocations of housing, ensuring tenure security in informal settlements, implementing informal settlement upgrading processes, treating informal settlers and the poor with dignity, and ending the spate of illegal evictions across KZN. The only party excluded from this process was the ANC.
According to Abahlali, this engagement was followed by a lengthy debate amongst its members, and a continuing processes of consultation and discussion in its different branches. These discussions would be repeated, again, at a special general meeting – at which a final decision on which party to endorse would be taken, and made public.
This meeting took place on 2 May – and, at its close, Abahlali announced that it would endorse the DA for the KwaZulu-Natal provincial elections. As they said in a press release, this was ‘a tactical vote against the ANC because the ANC are killing the working class and the poor when we stand up for our humanity’ and not a wholehearted endorsement of any party at large: ‘we are well aware that no political party supports our full programme and that all the parties have serious limits.’
Understanding this, Abahlali also circulated a lengthy agreement between it and the provincial leadership of the DA – an agreement which, among other things, commits the DA to consult with residents over housing matters, promote the in-situ upgrading of informal settlements, promote free education for the poor, ‘advocate for the reduction in the gap between poor and rich’, to defend the rights of informal traders and to embark on investigations of the wrongful allocation of RDP houses in specific areas around Durban.
It is perhaps worth noting that these commitments go beyond the DA’s national election platform.
Despite this – and despite Abahlali’s repeated emphasis that they are not joining the DA, or any other political party, and not endorsing them beyond this particular election – the announcement has caused shock and consternation amongst Abahlali’s many sympathisers.
Over the past twenty-four hours, my social media feeds have been alight with attempt to explain Abahlali’s actions. A disturbing number of them have focused on conspiratorial and racist explanations: either Abahlali were fooled into offering their support by one or another white interlocutor, or somehow ‘money must have been involved’. Others have questioned the decision to endorse the DA, even locally, when its actions in government in the Western Cape have resulted in evictions and the displacement of the urban poor. And yet others have bemoaned the decision to enter into the electoral arena at all – shocked and disappointed that Abahlali seem to have abandoned their principled stance against the elite domination of our electoral politics.
Almost no one seems to be interested in Abahlali’s own explanation – that they are the targets of violent repression, and that they have taken a pragmatic decision to oppose the power behind it.
But even if they were, it is hard to escape the conclusion that – once again – Abahlali would be criticised for abandoning principle in favour of pragmatism, and that their decision to do so is – like that of the “Vote No” campaigners – hypocritical, juvenile, irresponsible and likely to be ineffective.
We should be slow to condemn any group for making the political choices it deems necessary: whether that is, as it is for the “Vote No” campaign, to challenge the logic of electoral politics or, as it is for Abahlali in this election, to suspend that challenge and participate in a compromised arena. Without offering any opinion on the rights and wrongs of Abahlali’s choice, it is important to remember that suspicions of poor people’s political agency have marked our politics for years. The apartheid state was known – absurdly – to suggest that black opposition to it was stirred up by white agitators. Our current government suggests that mass protests of the poor are caused by shady political agendas, rather than by genuine suffering or oppression. Given this history, we should be wary of passing too quick a judgment on Abahlali’s decision to decide for itself how to deal with the years of violent oppression and political exclusion to which it has been subjected. DM
Dr Julian Brown is a lecturer in the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Photo courtesy of Abahlali.
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