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The Politics of Expropriation of Land without Compensation

S'bu. Zikode is the former President of Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement SA. Prior this he was the President of Abahlali and a chairperson of the Kennedy Road Development Committee before becoming its president. He was born and raised in Estcourt by a single mother, who worked as a domestic worker. In December 2009 Bishop Rubin Phillip conferred the Order of the Holy Nativity on him. He was the first non-Anglican to be honored in this way. In 2010 he was listed by the Mail and Guardian as one of 'two hundred young South Africans that you have to take to lunch. He has written a number of widely published articles on popular politics and the struggle for just cities. As a result of his political work he has lost two jobs, been arrested and assaulted. In September 2009 S'bu's home and other leaders were looted and attacked by the armed mob associated with the ruling African National Congress. S'bu and other leaders were forced to hiding, after the Kennedy 12 were arrested and charged with serious crimes, including murder. The 12 were acquitted on the 18 July 2011 by the Durban Regional Court after the state failed to produce evidence before the court. S'bu continued to receive death threats from local ANC leaders and supporters. At the end 2013 S'bu was forced again into safe house following death threat to his family.

The statistics tell us that there is a housing backlog of 2.1 million. The crisis in the cities is urgent. This crisis cannot be resolved without making well located land available for housing. Land reform cannot, therefore, only be understood as a question of land for farming.

The starting point of the discussion about expropriation of land without compensation must be that access to land has been denied to the majority of black people. Discussing land without discussing justice would be unjust.

To take justice seriously we must take seriously that women have the same right to land as men, and that impoverished people must not be marginalised in this process. Discussing land without discussing impoverishment would also be unjust. Land is a rural and an urban question. It is also a question of food sovereignty and housing. It is a question of dignity. It will, ultimately, become a question of democracy.

Expropriation without compensation is already happening. It is progressive when democratic popular organisations occupy unused land. It is regressive when municipalities send out armed men, such as the Anti-Land Invasion Unit in Durban, the Red Ants in Johannesburg and the Law Enforcement in Cape Town, to destroy people’s homes and possessions and drive them off the land that they have occupied.

The statistics tell us that there is a housing backlog of 2.1 million. The crisis in the cities is urgent. This crisis cannot be resolved without making well located land available for housing. Land reform cannot, therefore, only be understood as a question of land for farming.

Our belief is that land is a precious gift from God. So, land is to be shared equally among all creatures including human beings. Land should produce food, we should live on it in peace. It is to be loved and taken care off. There should be no institution or individual that can claim superpower over land. Not the Anti-Land Invasion Unit, not the Red Ants. Not capitalism or the ruling party. Only the people from below, democratically organised, have the right to decide on the future of land use and ownership. Abahlali baseMjondolo have always warned that the social value of land must come before its commercial value and not vice versa.

Expropriation of land without compensation is the government’s new agenda. It is important that we remember that the black majority government has been in power since 1994. In more than 20 years they have systemically failed to take land reform, in rural and urban areas, seriously. But impoverished people have been struggling for land for many years. The current government has consistently repressed popular struggles for land, even going so far as to torture, jail and murder people struggling for land. Many lives have been lost in this struggle. In Cape Town the DA have also repressed these struggles (sic). People’s humanity has been vandalised. But the politicians have now returned the question of land to the top of the public agenda.

The ANC’s new talk about expropriation of land without compensation is a new voting campaign for the ruling party that aims at attracting black majority voters. The ruling party has lost its credibility with millions of people. It is hoping that this campaign will restore its credibility. But when they talk of expropriation as taking land from white farmers, we know that land will go to black elites. We know that at the same time impoverished black people will be violently driven off urban land occupations in unlawful and brutal evictions.

Our movement was founded in 2005 and we raised the question of expropriation during our first legal march organised from the Kennedy Road settlement in Durban. Land that was promised to build RDP houses for the community was sold to a local businessman. Money was put before people. Lies were put before the truth. The Kennedy Road settlement was supposed to be “eliminated”. It is still there. Many new land occupations have been organised around the city. The struggle for land is long and hard.

We have listened very carefully when politicians and government speak about land. They only talk about farmland and agricultural lands. They talk about mining lands, lands for big development projects like industries and, yes, land as a commodity. They talk about taking land from the white farmers and giving it to black elites. They do not talk about urban land. They do not talk about land for housing. They do not talk about land for women and for the empowerment of women. They do not talk about land for the impoverished.

Let me be clear. If you are impoverished and black in South Africa your human rights are taken as a joke. Freedom is fake. You can be slandered, beaten, tortured and killed with impunity. The same black-led government that is talking about expropriating land without compensation has squeezed us into tiny plots of land. We are placed in tiny, broken houses far out of the cities. Some of us remain locked in transit camps as if we are not human beings. In shacks we must live with fire, mud and rats. A big family shares one shack. We sleep with our grown-up kids without privacy. When we occupy land to build our own future and to help our government restore dignity to the dispossessed and marginalised, we face brutal evictions.

What is so sad is that government has no clear plan for our housing challenges but they have a clear and detailed plan for how the Anti-Land Invasion Unit should destroy our only hopes of homes.

In eThekwini we are serving life sentences in the shacks after a former senior official made it clear to us that as long as his party is in charge of government Abahlali will not benefit anything. He accuses Abahlali of “nisidlisa kabi” because they go to government to eat for us and on our behalf.

We are still oppressed. We know that the government will continue to oppress us as they seek our votes by talking about land. We know that if there is land reform it will not be for us. There is no clear plan for impoverished people in rural areas or in cities. Our migration to cities in search of the better future promised by our constitutional democracy has been brutally criminalised. The landless have no choice but to continue to occupy unused land. This is how those who have vast amounts of land will learn to share with the landless. DM

Sbu Zikode is the leader of the shack dweller movement Abahlali baseMjondolo. This is an edited version of his speech at the Indaba on land occupation – Urbanisation: Impact of land availability, organised by the KZN MEC for Human Settlements and Public Works.


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