On Thursday, civil society, activists and former leaders of the judiciary met at the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) to discuss how democracy can be strengthened, looking at specific issues and communities. There's no magic formula but advances are being made. By GREG NICOLSON.
“It was already clear that we were seen as people who do not count in our own society. It was very clear that the state and the NGOs (nongovernmental organisations) wanted to define us. We realised that the shack dwellers are presented as people who are helpless and useless, as people that need an NGO intervention or academic that will give us a good education in politics,” Mzwakhe Mdlalose from Abahlali baseMjondolo said on Thursday.
He was speaking at the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) alongside former Constitutional Court Justice Kate O’Regan and former National Prosecuting Authority head Vusi Pikoli on strengthening democracy and the links needed between citizens, civil society groups and the state. Each of the speakers have, on different levels, been involved in pushing for reforms for services for the poor, picking up harrowing stories along the way, but they have been able to make inroads.
“We have a very, very long way to go before we’re strong enough to stop this modern apartheid that continues to divides us into the rich and the poor, people that count and people that do not count, people that must burn and people that can be saved, people that are allowed to think and to speak and people that are supposed to be silenced in the darkness,” said Mdlalose.
Abahlali baseMjondolo has been successful in challenging eviction policies in Durban’s informal settlements through the courts and providing a voice and a force for the poor in the area. It has developed a living politics, he said: “It is a politics that speaks to the fact that we have no water, no electricity and no land.” Abahlali continues to confront local government, protesting, going to court when needed, demanding better services, and occupying land. But the only way forward is to engage the government, said Mdlalose, although the African National Congress in the region and eThekwini government remains hostile to the group.
The movement has its own political school and refuses to be defined by outsiders. “We believe that the problems that we confront are political and technical. We believe that we should build the power of the poor from below. We also believe that freedom and equality can only be achieved when the poor take charge and live on their own lands,” Mdlalose said at the event in Johannesburg.
Pikoli and O’Regan led the recent commission of inquiry into policing in Khayelitsha, as commissioner and chairperson, and each shared stories of the complexities behind the inquiry and how it might be used to improve safety in the Cape Town township.
“What I found personally depressing is the level of poverty in Khayelitsha. I grew up in an African township. I know what poverty is but my experience of Khayelitsha was completely different. What’s worse is the reason or the explanation given by the police for not patrolling the informal settlements,” said Pikoli. “The reality is that the question of state and security is the responsibility of the state. Poor people should not be condemned for being poor and not get the services that they need.”
He continued: “If there’s one thing that threatens our democracy it’s crime itself and in particular issues of corruption. I’ve always said that a combination of a corrupt civil servant, a corrupt politician and a corrupt businessman, that combination is the one that poses the threat to our democracy.”
O’Regan explained the many challenges facing the commission of inquiry, getting it off the ground with both the national government and provincial government having stakes in the issue, and dealing with complex dynamics within Khayelitsha. Among others, the commission’s report made findings relating to South African Police Service (SAPS) inefficiencies, the underfunding of policing and a lack of resources in poor black communities, and the lack of adequate policies to police informal settlements. It included 20 specific recommendations to address the problems.
“That pattern of vulnerability, I don’t think we realise how harmful it is and how difficult it is to live it. To hear people tell their stories, I think, was one of the most useful experiences of the commission. For people to stand up and talk about what it was like,” said O’Regan. “The extent of violence, it’s really at alarming proportions.”
She said more junior SAPS officers were open to their recommendations but management has not accepted the findings of the report. The commission’s findings, however, have given local groups and NGOs points to take forward as they push for safer communities.
“I think one can learn a lot about what’s happening on the ground through a process like this but it’s not much use unless there’s political will to do something about it,” said O’Regan. “And if there isn’t political will it’s terribly important that you have organisations like Abahlali, like the Treatment Action Campaign, like the Social Justice Coalition, who are willing as it were to insist on accountability once the process is complete.”
“The prime drivers of democracy can never be courts, can never be commissions, can never be lawyers … It’s people, people operating as citizens. In a sense these are all tools to make democracy possible. But if there are tools that are not picked up and used they’ll just lie in the garage.”
Abahlali baseMjondolo’s efforts are a good example of using those tools and collaboration to work towards building the sort of communities residents want. Working with the Socio-Economic Rights Institute, it scored victories that have saved neighbourhoods from eviction. And while it hasn’t gained ground in discussions with local government in Durban, on Thursday a representative from the South African Local Government Association heard Mdlalose speak and suggested the organisation intervene.
Like the Khayelitsha inquiry, it won’t resolve the communities’ problems, but it might take them another step forward. DM
Photo: Abahlali baseMjondolo gathering. (Photo by Abahlali baseMjondolo)