‘We are treated like the mud you walk on in the informal settlement,’ says land rights activist
Socialism or Death: The 17-year struggle of Abahlali baseMjondolo was recently recognised at the launch of a photo exhibition by KwaZulu-Natal photojournalists.
The air was heavy with emotion as members of land rights movement Abahlali baseMjondolo (ABM), academics and activists sang, “This is home, even if the houses are made of mud.” This traditional Zulu song exemplifies Abahlali’s fight for dignity and safety in shack settlements across the country.
On 17 November, the Forge Gallery in Braamfontein hosted a photographic exhibition titled, “Socialism or Death”. The images, taken by Nomfundo Xolo and Siyabonga Mbhele, contain some of the last photos of the movement’s assassinated activists.
The Community Practice Notes research project by the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of SA (Seri) — Abahlali baseMjondolo: Living Politics — was launched alongside the exhibition. It looks at the socioeconomic struggles of social movements and community-based organisations and is the second in the social movement’s series.
The ABM movement has, among other objectives, come up with plans to alleviate congestion in informal settlements, which contributes to shack fires and other health hazards. The movement has fought for sanitation, electricity and basic services — and has paid with blood.
Since 2009, 24 of its members have been killed.
Seri executive director, Nomzamo Zondo, says the Community Practice Notes project is an ode to those who have died and an encouragement to keep going.
Seri’s project manifested in a booklet published in English and in vernacular. Abahlali baseMjondolo: Living Politics encompasses a chronological timeline of ABM’s growth and highlights struggle methods such as engaging the state, direct action aimed at being self-sufficient, protest action and litigation. The project was researched and written by Seri researcher, Thato Masiangoako.
Zondo referred to the significance of telling each of the murdered ABM members’ stories and what their deaths meant for South Africa as a democratic state.
“So if you read this… you come across the story of eKhenana in KwaZulu-Natal, a young settlement founded in 2018, but as you stand here in 2022, eight people are dead… assassinated. They (ABM) said we want to remember the people that we lost,” said Zondo.
Zondo says it is not enough to know only the names of the victims, but also the stories behind the cruelty of their deaths.
“Looking at the 24 names won’t tell you that 14 of them were assassinated… that six of them were killed by security forces… that there is a two-week-old baby, Jayden, who died from being choked by teargas… inside her home, the child died from the security forces of South Africa… that Nqobile Nzuza was 17 years old when she was killed by South African police… Nkosinathi Mngomezulu, shot by anti-invasion unit officers in 2013 and died in 2021… eight years where he carried death with him.”
Zondo said that although she isn’t a member of ABM, she feels the pain of the loss of lives and hopes this will serve to fortify the members and other human rights activists.
“So when the moment comes when doubt creeps in, saying to yourself these houses are made of mud, you remember the lives lost and you get up, dust yourself off and go forward.”
Investigative journalist Nomfundo Xolo has worked extensively with ABM, especially the eKhenana commune, and her images portray innovation as the communal garden, chicken business and other projects blossomed over the years.
“We need to see that people are not just sitting around… they want better for themselves. These are our brothers and sisters who come from similar homes as us, but the rural areas don’t allow for them to take care of themselves so they moved to the city,” said Xolo.
“What I wanted to highlight with these pictures is the struggle that young, black, poor people — women, children, the working class — face when trying to identify themselves… To get space to get land in this day and age, it’s still a deadly pursuit.”
Xolo was exhibiting alongside photojournalist Siyabonga Mbhele, who echoed Xolo’s sentiments, saying he wanted to change the negative narrative around shack dwellers. He said one photo he felt portrayed that was of Lindokuhle’s blood spattered on a book about democracy and development, with a South African flag on the cover.
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“This picture portrays that Lindo was a scholar, he wasn’t a criminal — this image is my favourite because it captures the struggle. Democracy and development is what he fought for and eventually died for,” said Mbhele, whose collection focused on the life and death of Lindokuhle Mnguni.
While the night was filled with hope and determination, ABM Thembisa chairperson, Melitta Ngcobo, spoke as if she had become resigned to the possibility of her death. She has dodged rubber bullets more times than she can count and has been threatened and targeted in raids.
“I don’t do anything alone… I always ask them, what if I die? They have to know which offices to go to, who to engage, where to send the emails, how to get things done in the community in Zikode village.
“Now everyone has a yard, and that section has been electrified. We teach each other how to have gardens in our backyards… we have daycare and youth programmes,” said Ngcobo.
With every positive step toward their goals, the Zikode branch has faced repression and police brutality, and have been ignored or given empty promises by local leaders.
“It’s very hard… you have to push hard. We are treated like animals… we are treated like the mud you walk on in the informal settlement,” said Ngcobo. MC/DM