Everywhere in the world the poor are criminalised, and in countries like Brazil, the United States and South Africa, governed with violence. In South Africa where there is, for some good reason, deep anxiety about the levels of violence in society, the general and worsening criminalisation of the poor poses real risks to our safety.
Emfuleni in Cape Town had the highest recorded number of murders in the last quarter of the crime statistics that were released by Police Minister Bheki Cele. As always the blame has been shifted to what some people call the “mushrooming of shacks” and even that old colonial idea of “overpopulation”.
These are the narratives that are used in the media and by the rich. It is a narrative that says that if you are poor you do not belong in the cities, and if we find our own way into the cities, and the opportunities to be found there, you are a threat to society.
In fact it is clear that we are regarded as human waste and not as human beings. We simply do not count to society. There are so many examples to show this.
When Zamekile Shangase from Umzimkhulu who had come to Durban to seek better opportunities was shot dead by the police in Asiyindawo in a “show your receipt” raid in the Lamontville shack settlement in Durban on 29 July 2021, the initial media reports did not even mention her name. Not a single resident from the settlement was quoted in these reports.
It was stated as a fact that the police had come under fire from dangerous gangsters and that a nameless woman had been killed in the crossfire. It was later shown that no resident had fired on the police. It was clear that the life of Shangase counted for nothing. It was also clear that the whole community had been criminalised in order to justify a police killing.
This was a particularly crude incident of poor people being treated as human waste and criminalised. It happens all the time though. If we believe in equality, and the need to respect and affirm the dignity of all people, then we should not speak of the places where people are trying to find a foothold in the cities as “mushrooming”.
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Shacks are homes to millions of people in this country. More than a billion people live in shacks around the world. This is where people fall in love, raise children, find ways to make a living and just live their lives.
The people who live in shacks should be recognised as humans, as people who should be supported to develop their communities and not as a threat to society.
We are part of society, often doing the work on which elite society depends, such as domestic work, security work and labour on construction sites. We build the cities and keep them clean and safe. We must be given the same respect as all other people.
When we organise to insist on the recognition of our dignity, criminalisation gets much, much worse. The police shoot at us with rubber bullets and beat us in protests.
We are regularly arrested and charged with “public violence” for the crime of actually appearing in public as a politically organised force.
Sometimes we are tortured in the police stations, or even murdered by the police. The police seldom investigate when our leaders are assassinated, and they never act when municipalities illegally and violently destroy our homes.
Of course, South Africa does have a very serious problem of violence, and of violent crime. As with all the other problems that make up the crisis faced by our country, the poor are worst affected. We do not have brick houses, high walls, alarms or private security. We are always vulnerable.
But the police stations in our communities are not there to support us. These are the same places where we are taken, and sometimes seriously hurt, when we stand up to insist on our human dignity.
Even the decent people working in the police can do very little to support us as the whole system exists to oppress us. We have called for democratic forms of community control of the police, but of course this government would never allow that.
We will not be able to reduce the violence in society, and the often-vicious predation on the vulnerable, unless we make some major changes to how society is organised.
There needs to be a massive investment in the poor, a clear commitment to building a society in which everyone is respected, opportunities provided for the millions of young people who are stuck in permanent unemployment and a massive campaign against corruption.
When people know that they are respected and can believe in society and in the future, far fewer people will be sucked into the lifestyles in which some turn on others, leaving personal and social destruction in their wake.
It was the ordinary people of this country who defeated apartheid, not the ANC in exile. Yet in 1994 our parents who had risked their lives in the Struggle were told to go home because the ANC would now lead. The NGOs also took their own place as leaders.
When poor people started to protest and organise, it was always said that they were criminals, or that they were the “third force”, a plot to undermine democracy.
Abahlali baseMjondolo, the organisation that I have served for 10 years, was formed to change this narrative. From the beginning the movement, which now has more than 115,000 members in good standing across four provinces, has insisted that people who are poor and live in shacks can think for themselves and that we should be able to participate in all decision-making that affects us.
Being poor does not mean that your state of mind has collapsed. It just means that you do not have money. And we do not have money because we were made poor by colonialism and apartheid and kept poor by the ANC.
There therefore needs to be a political solution to change the social structures that keep us poor, as well as to overcome the corruption and repression of the ANC.
As people get more desperate, more hungry and more hopeless about the country, and as people become even more cynical about the police, the government and the political parties, society is likely to become more violent. Using dehumanising language and sending out the police to commit more violence against the poor will only make things worse.
The most important way to make this society safer for us all is to restore trust in the present and hope for the future. We need a new political vision for a society based on respect for human dignity, a society in which everyone is valued and welcomed to contribute, a society in which it is clear that poverty is the problem, and not poor people.
In other words, let’s fight poverty and not the poor. This is the way to build a society in which we are all safe.
We will continue to fight for our dignity even though we are not recognised as human beings by our government, and even though our leaders are being regularly jailed and assassinated.
We invite all other people of goodwill to join us, in their own way, as we seek a way out of the current crisis and into a future in which every person is valued, and no one is treated as waste. DM