Interview with Zama Timbela and Mabhelandile Twani, leading activists in Intlungu Yasematyotyombeni.
Amandla!: Tell us about the housing situation in Khayelitsha.
Mabhelandile Twani: Here in Khayelitsha we have backyarders and people who have been in family houses for more than 20 years now. You will find three generations in one house. Waiting in the database has been the order of the day since the late 1980s. And unemployment – that’s one of the biggest crises that we are having here in Khayelitsha.
Zama Timbela: It was around COVID-19 that led us to this issue of occupation. People were fired or retrenched from work. Some of them couldn’t afford to pay for the rent because there were no jobs anymore. So, they decided to come and occupy this vacant land all over Khayelitsha.
There’s also overcrowding in houses and among backyarders. No more houses have been built since 2017 / 2018. Hence people decided to take over the land and build shacks. If they’re going to wait for government, they will wait for another 20, 30 or 50 years. That includes corruption that is happening inside the government. People are stealing money, the money that’s supposed to be for building houses for the people.
Amandla!: So when was Intlungu established?
ZT: When the occupations started during Covid, we said let’s form a movement that will focus on occupation and defence of the occupation because the City will come and want to demolish our shacks. We have to respond and defend those shacks.
Amandla!: You have organised the occupations. They started off spontaneously, but then you organised. How did that occur?
ZT: The 24 different areas where there are occupations are all part and parcel of the movement. We started in the area called Covid-19. Most of these occupations were named after the pandemic because that was when the occupation took place, because of the worse economic hardships. So we have occupations called Lockdown, Mask, Social Distance, Pandemic, Level 2, COVID-19, and New Dawn. Covid-19 is the biggest area. We liaised with all the occupations to meet at Covid-19. We wanted to set up an organisation that would defend and strengthen our occupations. And also our politics as comrades.
MT: We have different committees because these occupations are different sizes. We are about 18,000 households here in Level Two. We have six sections and every section has its own committee, which deals with the problems of the section. For example, when people are having cases or disputes in the community, they must go and report to section committees. And then there are times when all the sections will meet and discuss the way forward of the area and also the challenges in their sections. In COVID-19, they have about 13 areas with committees. An important aspect of the occupations is that the majority are women. Many are single parents, people who are coming out of marriages and so on.
Amandla!: And do you have rules on how people must behave in the occupation?
ZT: We do have rules. For instance, we have a rule that at 11 o’clock shebeens must be closed. There must be creches. And we’ve started a patrol system. People patrol the areas to make sure there is no crime, no gender violence, people are safe where they are staying. If there’s an issue, the committee of the area will call a meeting, and the issue will be addressed. Sometimes we call the police for something that needs police or social workers, But there are rules, comrade, there are rules.
Amandla!: These different committees from the different occupations, they constitute the leadership of Intlungu?
ZT: Yes. This week we have a meeting in Level Two. And next week, we’ll have a meeting in Social Distance. Our meetings rotate, and everyone is aware about Intlungu. Two or three people from the committees in different occupations represent them in the bigger community of Intlungu.
Amandla!: Do you have any kind of statement of your beliefs as Intlungu?
MT: We believe in democracy. Each and everything, whether it comes from the City or from the state, we discuss it openly. No one discusses with the City without allowing Intlungu to discuss further. We have noticed that the City and the government departments when they want to do something, they don’t want to consult the entire collective. At times we have to push hard for them to listen.
And also we have values. We are sympathetic to the women’s struggle. We understand that the vast majority of people in the occupation are women, and at times every man must be able to assist if there is a necessity. For example, on the question of GBV, if another man is beating a woman, men must call the man into a meeting and discuss with that particular man up to a point of disciplining the person.
ZT: Another thing that we are fighting is the issue of political parties. People are trying all sorts of things to place their political parties in the occupations. But we are suppressing those. Yes, people have the right to join their political parties. But the people in the occupations have had enough of these political parties, all of them.
They say, “No. Enough of your promises. We are fine with Intlungu. We occupied the land because of Intlungu. We have shacks now because of Intlungu, instead of waiting for your empty promises”. They have tried to establish Sanco in these areas but they couldn’t succeed because people have heard enough about Sanco and ANC. The EFF are trying to penetrate, but they are unlikely to succeed.
Amandla!: What are the demands you’re making to local government and national government? And how do you put forward those demands?
ZT: When we first started to make demands, it was around the issue of water, proper sanitation, electricity and flush toilets. We engaged the City. And then we saw that the City is not interested to hear us. So we ended up marching to Cape Town where we beat the shutdown there in the Civic Centre. And then they listened to us, during that shutdown, when we closed off all the entries to the city. Even the mayor couldn’t go inside for six hours on that day. Then they called us for engagement, together with the Department of Human Settlement.
MT: Another demand that we were putting forward, it was recognition as people who have occupied the land, as people who are demanding basic services, and also as people who are demanding dignity where we stay.
ZT: And the other demand is housing. We don’t want to end up in shacks. And we have already tabled that demand. But we said let’s start with this one of basic services such as water, electricity, and full flush toilets and jobs. And then when we get those, then we’ll start demanding houses.
Amandla!: What have you been able to achieve in relation to those demands?
MT: We have won the question of recognition. The state has recognised us as people who have occupied the land, as people who are supposed to get basic services. The minister committed herself to creating a budget that would accommodate the occupations. And she did that. She gazetted a budget of R111 million.
Before the recognition, we said we are going to send all the databases of how many people are in the occupations from each area. We did that. And then she recognised us after that. That was the first victory. And then the second victory was the question us the services.
ZT: Yes, there are services. But it’s a challenge. Some of the areas had to fight and we are assisting in other occupations. I think there are three or four occupations that don’t have services at this moment. The rest have services. So we are still engaging the City to put those services in those areas.
MT: And also the City of Cape Town, and some counsellors in the City are still having a pushback kind of mentality. For example, we have an area that is next to Khayelitsha Mall. The counsellors want to remove that area so that they can build a private hospital. They say you need to squeeze yourself or try to join other people in their yards. They were told last week, if they don’t do that, they will never receive basic services. So we have such situations as well.
ZT: People are being employed in different projects here. And that was our demand as well. Although it’s the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), but at least they’re getting something. Now the issue is for us to fight to be employed permanently on cleaning the street, cleaning everything that they’re cleaning, because EPWP is a six-month, one-year, three-month project.
Amandla!: And in the occupation, I presume there are people from other parts of Africa, refugees and migrants. Are they well accepted in the occupation or do you have problems of xenophobia as well?
ZT: As we are socialists, we are accepting everyone. We have people from Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique in these occupations, and they participate in the meetings, doing well with other people from here in South Africa. We’ve got people from as far as Stellenbosch and Paarl in this occupation. We accept everyone.
Amandla!: In terms of the actual struggle for houses, what are your next steps?
MT: At the moment we’re still consolidating the victory. Our plan for now is to fight for better services. We are not happy with the toilets, for example, because we fought for full flush toilets, and they gave us the bucket system. And also the question of jobs. We want to challenge the City and the national government to take into account that this tender system must end. People must get employed directly by the state.
ZT: In terms of campaigning for houses, our initial plan was that the government must look for land. There is a lot of land in Cape Town. So when we have done these services, our next stage will be fighting for houses. And there must be infrastructure in those areas. There must be access to transport, access to shops and facilities. Because we don’t say people must relocate and then put them in a place where there is no transport, no facilities, no jobs, nothing.
Amandla!: Some people say that it’s unlikely that government can give people houses. Therefore we should be demanding site and service schemes, where government puts down certain infrastructure and allows people to build their own houses. How does Intlungu see it?
MT: We have a problem. It’s not the first time that the state goes to site and service. If you remember during the period of ANC in Western Cape, they have tried site and service around 2004/2006. Here in Khayelitsha, in the section called Site B, next to Makhaza. That thing fell and many people had problems with that site and service. For example, there is the question of people’s dignity. The state doesn’t want to take responsibility for building houses. So they are shifting the responsibility to the working class. So our position is clear. We don’t support site and service. The state must take the responsibility, because they have a budget for houses, and they can’t take that budget for houses, and they can’t take that budget for houses for something else. It has to do with houses.
Amandla!: I suppose that in this housing struggle for people and services and jobs, you need to make alliances with other sectors of society in Khayelitsha. Are you able to make alliances with the backyarders to talk about the division in Mandela Park, where surely the interests of the backyarders are actually the same as those in the occupation? Can you build such an alliance?
ZT: Yes, we have alliances with the Housing Assembly. There’s a meeting that was set up by Loyiso, one of the chairpersons of backyarders. He wants to meet with us and to have a joint program on demanding houses. And also we have comrades in Du Noon that occupy the land and they want to work with us as well and in Kraaifontein as well. There’s a movement in Pietermaritzburg that is doing good work, challenging services as well. They want to work with us. And Abahlali as well.
MT: And we’ve managed to link up with Ndifuna Ukwazi. If we have a problem with the occupation, we call them with their own legal services. But sometimes we have limitations with them. For example, when people are reconnecting electricity and they get arrested, they will say they are not taking such cases. They regard those cases as criminal cases. Others will just want a soft struggle, not the real radical struggle. And we have to treat alliances differently.
Amandla!: And your perspectives for a national housing movement? Do you see that it is possible to bring some of these other forces like Abahlali together?
MT: We are interested to maybe start a big movement. But we ar starting with a network of these movements that are fighting for housing. And then we start to have a talk with different movements so that we get a sense of what kind of a movement we want and what would be guiding the movement. We are interested to see a national movement that will be based on resisting not only for housing but capitalism itself.