First published by Daily Maverick 168
When it was formed 15 years ago, in the shanty towns in Clare Estate in Durban, it seemed like a courageous but isolated and highly vulnerable attempt to defend the interests of the poor. Bishop Rubin Phillip was an early supporter of the movement, but the idea that poor people should think for themselves, organise themselves and mobilise themselves was not generally well received. In fact, the movement faced sustained repression from the start.
Few people thought that this bid to create a movement of the poor would survive. But, incredibly, it has, even though repression got worse over the years, and the movement suffered regular assassinations under the Zuma regime. But, although it is growing in other provinces, the majority of its members remain in Durban. In this city the movement is a powerful force resonant of the days of the United Democratic Front.
Bringing down a mayor
It holds its mass rallies on football grounds. It can easily arrange a march of 5,000 people at short notice on a weekday and is frequently on the front pages of local newspapers, especially Isolezwe.
Abahlali baseMjondolo played a significant role in the downfall of the city’s former mayor, the allegedly corrupt and certainly pro-Zuma Zandile Gumede.
Following Zuma’s own playbook, she tried to present herself as a victim of shadowy elites opposed to her because she was “pro-poor’.
But when she called her supporters to march in support of her the media reported that there had only been 140 people on the march. At short notice Abahlali baseMjondolo mobilised more than 5,000 people to march on Gumede to demand her resignation. In that moment her claim to represent “the people” rather than a corrupt elite fell apart. She was exposed for what she was: a cynical representative of a predatory elite.
In 15 years, the movement’s international standing has also changed, and hugely. Its best-known leader, S’bu Zikode, has addressed the United Nations.
The movement is now regularly invited to give workshops to oppressed groups elsewhere in the world, from Kenya to the United States, on how to organise. It now enjoys a close and mutually respectful relationship with the MST, the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, which is the largest social movement in the world. This movement of the poor has been the proverbial canary in the mine of our democracy. A few lessons stand out.
Subjected to severe repression
One is that our state and society have not yet ensured democracy for everyone. The Marikana massacre brought this point home to many in 2012, but though the scale of that massacre is unique, the hostility towards the self-organisation of the poor and the working class is a more general phenomenon.
Abahlali baseMjondolo has frequently been denied basic democratic rights and often subjected to severe repression when trying to exercise basic rights. This has included police violence, torture and, during the Zuma period, regular assassinations.
Another lesson for our democracy is that oppressed groups should be given space and support to organise themselves. This was taken for granted in the 1980s but after apartheid it was often assumed that activism would become more professionalised and NGOs should represent the poor and other oppressed groups rather than ceding space for the oppressed to represent themselves.
But in 2020 we can all see that no NGO has been able to organise on anything like the scale of Abahlali baseMjondolo, or to sustain organisation for this long.
This movement’s success should put to bed the arguments that more professional forms of activism should replace mass organisation. DM168