The Struggle to Affirm the Dignity of the Poor in a Society in which we don’t Count

by Aug 7, 2012All Articles


by S’bu Zikode, Presented in Mexico City on 6th August 2012

Before Abahlali baseMjondolo was formed the shack dwellers in South Africa were
considered by government and some other people in our society to be the
undeserving poor. This claim came as the result of the perception that the poor
are lazy, uneducated and people who do not think and therefore do not count the
same as other human beings. The general public, civil society and the media
could not defend the poor against this indignity. The media had little or
nothing to report on anything that surrounds shack dwellers, be it good or bad,
that considered us as human beings or citizens. We were mostly seen as a threat
to society – as a problem to be controlled. When shacks were on fire radios
and televisions would not air or broadcast this. On the other side the state
would refuse any provision of basic services to the shack settlements or to
engage us as citizens. We have always been considered as people who cannot
think for ourselves. Someone from somewhere else would always be hired and paid
to think for us, to represent us and to take decisions on our behalf. This has
been the state mentality towards the poor. It has also been the mentality of
most NGOs and of most of civil society. It has also been the mentality of what
we have called the regressive left – that part of the left that thinks that
its job is to think for the poor rather than with the poor. The rights that we
have on paper were always refused in reality. This included our rights as
citizens and our rights to the cities. Whenever we asked for our rights to be
respected, for our humanity to be recognized, we were presented as
troublemakers, as people that were being used by others, or as criminals. Our
request to participate in the discussions about our own lives was taken as a

Abahlali has been mobilizing to build the power of the poor from below. We try
to make sure that the poor remain permanently organized and strong. This has
helped to build a strong voice for the movement. As a result of the power that
we have built from the ground up we have been able to speak for ourselves in
many spaces that were previously barred to us. For us it is important that,
just as we occupy land in the cities, we must also occupy our own space in all

Today, as a result of our struggle and the struggles of other poor people, we
see a slow shift away from seeing shack settlements as something to be
bulldozed without any sense that there are human lives in these places. There
is now recognition that there are human lives in the shacks. Basic services
such as water and sanitation, refuse collection, road access, electricity etc
which were being denied are now being rolled out. In Durban the eThekwini
Municipality has long had a policy that forbids electrification of any shack
settlement in the city. Today this killer electricity policy is under review
and a pilot project to roll electricity in some four settlements has begun.
This progress has come through the years of struggle and the power of the
organized poor.

For many years shack settlements were seen as a problem to be solved by
eradication. This was the logic of apartheid but it came back to South Africa
after apartheid through the way that the UN Millennium Development Goals were
interpreted. In South Africa the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial government wanted to
be seen as smart and leading the way in carrying the mandate of the MDGs by
introducing the then ‘Slums Act’ which would have led to mass evictions. We
took that Act to the highest court in our land – the Constitutional Court –
where it was ruled unconstitutional. This judgment has a lot to say about
transforming the understanding of shack settlements so that we can all see them
as communities to be integrated in our urban centers. It has a lot of emphasis
on the need for the state to conduct meaningful engagement with communities.
This means that while shack dwellers wait for their permanent homes basic
services and support would have to be provided. The new developments would have
to be co-designed with the people that will live in them. Participatory and
democratic development via in-situ upgrades should be promoted and supported in
order to put a stop to all unlawful evictions and corruption. Well located land
is to be released for housing development.

As a movement we have succeed in building a real challenge to the eradication
agenda and to the eviction of shack dwellers from citizenship as well as good
land. The government’s approach to housing has lost its credibility through
the struggles of the poor around the country. But houses for the urban poor
have not yet been built at the pace and in the manner that respects shack
dwellers. Therefore our struggle has only gone half of the way that it needs to

But we are proud and happy that we have built communities and a strong
movement. We have stopped evictions in the areas we were ware strong and
changed the perception that development can happen in our own neighborhoods
without us. We have refused just to be told what will be done to us and to be
excluded from democracy and decision making. We have concluded that there will
be nothing for us without us. The state and anyone wanting to upgrade or
develop our communities is required to co-plan with us and have to have
meaningful engagement with us on all issues. Slowly, slowly it is being
understood in wider society that shack settlements are not eyesores to be
bulldozed but communities to be upgraded. It is slowly being understood that if
land is allocated by the market the poor will always be excluded from the
cities. We are slowly building more alliances in our struggle for a
conscientious society based on respect and dignity for all people.

These shifts have come after years of struggle to be counted as human beings.
These shifts have come after years of discussions where we have worked out our
vision for a society where real freedom, equality, justice and dignity are the
rule of the day. These shifts have come as a result of our own hard won living
politic. They have come as a result of our own courage to insist that
everyone’s life and intelligence counts the same. That everyone deserves the
same equal opportunities as everyone else. That the social value of land should
come before its commercial value. That all the production and gains of the
country should be fairly distributed to all its inhabitants. That in dealing
with all of the above we should start with the worst off. As Anglican Bishop
Ruben says “the last shall be first”.

However the government still shows no political will to engage meaningfully
with the shack dwellers and poor people’s movements. The state and its
politicians impose its party opportunists to monopolize and hijack the system
and politicize services so that only party members benefit. The state continues
to build transit camps and force people into these places where they are left
to rot. The state continues to harass, beat, arrest and even kill activists who
are calling for real freedom and democracy for all. Our struggle has a long and
hard road to travel before we can say that we have started to build democratic

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