First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
The prize is awarded annually by the Swedish government, and Zikode’s nomination was backed by a list of highly credible organisations including, from South Africa, the church organisation Diakonia.
Since its inception in 2005, the movement, which now has more than 80,000 paid-up members across five provinces, has been strongly backed by the Anglican Bishop Rubin Phillip. Phillip, who served as Steve Biko’s deputy in the South African Students’ Organisation in 1972, is a man of unimpeachable moral standing and his recommendation may well have played a role in Zikode’s nomination for this award.
Abahlali baseMjondolo is globally recognised as a radical, democratic and non-violent movement and enjoys close relationships with intellectuals, activists and other social movements around the world.
When the movement was formed in 2005 it was treated as illegitimate by the ANC, and it suffered serious repression. Its marches were summarily banned, its leaders arrested and beaten. The political temperature went through the roof when the multi-ethnic movement, which included migrants as members, refused to support the “Zunami”.
Local ANC leaders publicly stated that it needed to be crushed and in 2009 many of its leading figures were attacked and their homes destroyed by a mob that identified itself as ANC and pro-Zuma.
In 2013, one of its leaders, Nkullueko Gwala, was assassinated. After that there were many more assassinations. Zikode had to go underground for extended periods on two occasions after receiving open and credible death threats. The assassinations appear to have stopped, but the movement continues to face illegal and violent evictions from the Durban municipality.
Abahlali baseMjondolo has used the courts to great effect and usually has multiple ongoing cases against the state. With excellent pro bono lawyers, the movement seldom loses a case. It also engages in mass mobilisations and has often led thousands of people in marches on the city hall.
It holds regular assemblies 5,000-strong, and runs crèches, small urban farms and even a political school. It is, by a country mile, the largest civil society organisation to have emerged in South Africa since the 1980s.
Yet it has had an ambiguous relationship with mainstream NGOs. Its legal work and struggles to stop evictions are widely supported. Its work to oppose xenophobia and support migrants is also enthusiastically supported. The fact that the majority of its leaders are women also impresses mainstream NGOs. But the movement also organises land occupations, something that makes NGOs locked into a narrow human rights framework uncomfortable. This has meant that it has often not been offered solid support when facing repression.
It is no small thing for the Swedish government to offer its most prestigious prize to someone like Zikode. The Swedish government, and the Swedish people, were key backers of the ANC during its exile days. For the Swedish government to honour Zikode, who leads a movement that has been in bitter conflict with the ANC for years, indicates a decisive break in the international standing of the ANC.
Zikode is widely and deeply respected for his personal integrity. A few years back, Pope Francis invited him to the Vatican. One hopes that this prize doesn’t generate a focus on a single person, rather than the many thousands of people – most of them women – who have built and sustained such an impressive grassroots movement. DM168
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